x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Instant Expert: Vivien Leigh

The life and times of the great actress best known for her role as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

THE BASICS Vivien Leigh was one of Britain's finest actresses and screen goddesses, proving that beauty and talent can come in the same package. Although forever enshrined as Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind, she ticked all the boxes: a great film and stage actress, and a great star.

THE BEGINNING, AND THE END An Anglo-Indian, the Convent school-educated Leigh was born Vivian Hartley to parents Ernest and Gertrude in Darjeeling, British India. When she died in 1967, front-page headlines screamed: "Scarlett O'Hara is dead".

THE SCREEN LEGEND Leigh's career was defined by two roles, the tough but vulnerable Scarlett and the fragile, damaged Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). She won Best Actress Oscars for both. The Streetcar role "tipped me over into madness", she said. Both characters were Southern belles forced to adapt to a changing world, but unlike Scarlett, Blanche can't cope and eventually has a breakdown. Leigh, who suffered from bipolar disorder, first played Blanche on stage in London's West End for 326 performances.

TRUE LOVE Leigh had an affair with Laurence Oliver in 1937, when she was still married to Leigh Holman, a barrister. The affair was kept secret, as Olivier was also married, to the actress Jill Esmond. When Olivier was offered the role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Leigh joined him in Tinseltown.

LADY OLIVIER They wed in 1940, but it cost Leigh custody of her daughter, Suzanne. After Olivier was knighted in 1947, the good-looking, über-talented pair's charm cheered a Britain wracked with post-war rationing and austerity.

GWTW, PART ONE She was a rank outsider to portray Margaret Mitchell's feisty Civil War heroine, and her casting was a surprise to everyone but herself ("I wanted the part, and I knew I'd get it.") The film's producer, David O Selznick, had enacted a unique pre-release PR campaign for the film: "Who will play Scarlett?", and the public and the press were riveted.

GWTW, PART TWO Practically every actress in Hollywood was vying for the part, including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Paulette Goddard. Selznick felt Leigh was "too British", but after an endorsement from his brother Myron, and then a screen test, the plum was hers. She was fêted at the film's première in Atlanta, and one doughty Southern matron was heard to sniff: "Better an English girl than a Yankee!"

THE STAGE TITAN Leigh preferred to further her art on stage. She played Shakespearean characters such as Ophelia, Juliet and Lady Macbeth and other roles in plays by George Bernard Shaw and Noël Coward. "Being a film star is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity," she said.

THE MODEL Leigh's petite, elfin-like figure and flawless complexion made designers beat a path to her door. From 1935 until the late Fifties she modelled for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and top photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson captured her sultry looks in luminous black-and-white photographs. Her favourite couturiers included Pierre Balmain and Christian Dior, and she favoured wearing dresses and coats to suits, and liked tweeds for the country.

THE FINAL CURTAIN Leigh died of the tuberculosis that had plagued her for much of her life, at her elegant flat at Eaton Square in London's Belgravia. She was 53. Her ashes were scattered in the mill pond of her Queen Anne country estate, Tickerage Mill, near Uckfield, East Sussex.

 

Five faces of Vivien

FIRE OVER ENGLAND (1936) The agent Myron Selznick first noticed Leigh at a screening of this film in Hollywood. She portrays Cynthia, a lady-in-waiting to the imperious Elizabeth I (Flora Robson). Leigh and Laurence Olivier play lovers in this film, and life soon imitated art.

WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940) Leigh plays Myra, an out-of-work ballerina who meets an army officer (Robert Taylor) in a chance encounter on Waterloo Bridge during a First World War air raid. However, Myra is soon forced to resort to desperate measures to survive, and tragedy ensues.

CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1946) With Caesar (Claude Rains) as her confidant, adviser and lover, the young queen of Egypt learns how to rule. Leigh sets the cinematic standard for future Cleopatra portrayals.

ANNA KARENINA (1948) This was the 11th of 18 big-screen versions of Tolstoy's classic. Leigh turns in an impressive performance as the doomed wife and mother, but the film was a box-office flop.

SHIP OF FOOLS (1965) Leigh's last film, in which she plays Mary Treadwell, a woman at a crossroads in life. It also starred Lee Marvin and Simone Signoret.