She won two Best Actress Academy Awards for playing "southern belles": Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), a role she had also played on stage in London's West End.
She was a prolific stage performer, frequently in collaboration with her then-husband, Laurence Olivier, who directed her in several of her roles. During her 30-year stage career, she played roles ranging from the heroines of Noël Coward and George Bernard Shaw comedies to classic Shakespearean characters such as Ophelia, Cleopatra, Juliet and Lady Macbeth.
Lauded for her beauty, Leigh felt that it sometimes prevented her from being taken seriously as an actress. However, ill health proved to be her greatest obstacle. For much of her adult life Leigh had what is now known as bipolar disorder. She earned a reputation for being difficult to work with, and her career suffered periods of inactivity. She also suffered recurrent bouts of chronic tuberculosis, first diagnosed in the mid-1940s. Leigh and Olivier divorced in 1960, and she worked sporadically in film and theatre until her death from tuberculosis in 1967.
Early life and acting careerLeigh was born 'Vivian Mary Hartley'iii in Darjeeling, Bengal Presidency, British India, to Ernest Hartley, a British Officer in the Indian Cavalry, and Gertrude Robinson Yackje. Leigh's parents were married in Kensington, London, in 1912. In 1917, Ernest Hartley was transferred to Bangalore, while Gertrude and Vivian stayed in Ootacamund. Vivian Hartley made her first stage appearance at the age of three, reciting "Little Bo Peep" for her mother's amateur theatre group. Gertrude Hartley tried to instill in her daughter an appreciation of literature and introduced her to the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, and Rudyard Kipling, as well as stories of Greek mythology and Indian folklore. An only child, Vivian Hartley was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, England, (now Woldingham School) in 1920 at the age of six-and-a-half. One of her friends at the convent school was the future actress Maureen O'Sullivan, to whom she expressed her desire to become "a great actress".
Vivian Hartley was removed from the school by her father, who took her travelling in Europe; with schooling provided by schools in the areas they travelled, returning to England in 1931. She attended one of Maureen O'Sullivan's films playing in London's West End and told her parents of her ambitions to become an actress. Her father enrolled her at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London..
Vivian Hartley met (Herbert) Leigh Holman in 1931. Leigh Holman was a barrister 13 years her senior. Despite his disapproval of "theatrical people", they were married on 20 December 1932, and she terminated her studies at RADA. On 12 October 1933, she gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne, but did not seem to settle to the normal domestic life role. Her friends suggested to her a small role in the film Things Are Looking Up, which marked her film debut. She engaged an agent, John Gliddon, who believed that the name "Vivian Holman" was not suitable for an actress. After rejecting his suggestion, "April Morn", she took "Vivian Leigh" as her professional name. Gliddon recommended her to Alexander Korda as a possible film actress, but Korda rejected her as lacking potential.
Cast in the play The Mask of Virtue in 1935, Leigh received excellent reviews followed by interviews and newspaper articles. One such article was from the Daily Express, in which the interviewer noted "a lightning change came over her face", which was the first public mention of the rapid changes in mood that became characteristic of her.John Betjeman, the future Poet Laureate, also wrote about her, describing her as "the essence of English girlhood". Korda attended her opening-night performance, admitted his error, and signed her to a film contract, with the spelling of her name revised to "Vivien Leigh". She continued with the play; but, when Korda moved it to a larger theatre, Leigh was found to be unable to project her voice adequately or to hold the attention of so large an audience, and the play closed soon after. In 1960, Leigh recalled her ambivalence towards her first experience of critical acclaim and sudden fame, commenting, "some critics saw fit to be as foolish as to say that I was a great actress. And I thought, that was a foolish, wicked thing to say, because it put such an onus and such a responsibility onto me, which I simply wasn't able to carry. And it took me years to learn enough to live up to what they said for those first notices. I find it so stupid. I remember the critic very well and have never forgiven him."
Meeting Laurence OlivierLaurence Olivier saw Leigh in The Mask of Virtue, and friendship developed after he congratulated her on her performance. Olivier and Leigh began an affair after acting as lovers in Fire Over England (1937), when Olivier was married to actress Jill Esmond. During this time, Leigh read the Margaret Mitchell novel Gone with the Wind and instructed her American agent to suggest her to David O. Selznick, who was planning a film version. She remarked to a journalist, "I've cast myself as Scarlett O'Hara"; and The Observer film critic C. A. Lejeune recalled a conversation of the same period in which Leigh "stunned us all" with the assertion that Olivier "won't play Rhett Butler, but I shall play Scarlett O'Hara. Wait and see."
Despite her relative inexperience, Leigh was chosen to play Ophelia to Olivier's Hamlet in an Old Vic Theatre production staged at Elsinore, Denmark. Olivier later recalled an incident when her mood rapidly changed as she was preparing to go onstage. Without apparent provocation, she began screaming at him, before suddenly becoming silent and staring into space. She was able to perform without mishap; and, by the following day, she had returned to normal with no recollection of the event. It was the first time Olivier witnessed such behaviour from her. They began living together, as their respective spouses had each refused to grant either of them a divorce. Under the moral standards then enforced by the motion picture industry, their relationship had to be kept from public view.
Leigh appeared with Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Maureen O'Sullivan in A Yank at Oxford (1938), the first of her films to receive attention in the United States. During production, she developed a reputation for being difficult and unreasonable; and Korda instructed her agent to warn her that her option would not be renewed if her behaviour did not improve. Her next role was in St. Martin's Lane (1938) with Charles Laughton.
Achieving international successOlivier had been attempting to broaden his film career. He was not well known in the United States despite his success in England, and earlier attempts to introduce him to the American market had failed. Offered the role of Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn's production of Wuthering Heights (1939), he travelled to Hollywood, leaving Leigh in London. Goldwyn and the film's director, William Wyler, offered Leigh the secondary role of Isabella; but she refused, preferring the role of Cathy, which had been assigned to Merle Oberon.
Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's production of Gone with the Wind (1939). Leigh's American theatrical agent was the London representative of the Myron Selznick Agency (Myron was David's brother). In February 1938, Leigh asked that she be allowed to play Scarlett O'Hara. Selznick, who watched her performance that month in Fire Over England and A Yank at Oxford, thought her to be excellent but in no way a possible Scarlett, as she was "too British". Leigh travelled to Los Angeles to be with Olivier and to try to convince Selznick that she was Scarlett. When Myron Selznick, who also represented Olivier, met Leigh, he felt that she possessed the qualities his brother was searching for. Myron Selznick took Leigh and Olivier to the set where the burning of the Atlanta Depot scene was being filmed and introduced Leigh, telling his brother, "Hey, genius. Meet your Scarlett O'Hara." The following day, Leigh read a scene for Selznick, who organised a screen test and wrote to his wife, "She's the Scarlett dark horse and looks damn good. Not for anyone's ear but your own: it's narrowed down to Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, and Vivien Leigh". The director, George Cukor, concurred and praised Leigh's "incredible wildness"; she secured her role as Scarlett soon after.
Filming proved difficult for Leigh. Cukor was dismissed and replaced by Victor Fleming, with whom Leigh frequently quarrelled. She and Olivia de Havilland secretly met with Cukor at night and on weekends for his advice about how they should play their parts. She befriended Clark Gable, his wife Carole Lombard, and Olivia de Havilland; but she clashed with Leslie Howard, with whom she was required to play several emotional scenes. Leigh was sometimes required to work seven days a week, often late into the night, which added to her distress; and she missed Olivier, who was working in New York. She said to Laurence Olivier on a long-distance call, " Puss, my puss, how I hate film acting! Hate, hate, and never want to do another film again!"
In 2006, Olivia de Havilland responded to claims of Leigh's manic behaviour during filming Gone with the Wind, published in a biography of Olivier. She defended Leigh, saying, "Vivien was impeccably professional, impeccably disciplined on Gone with the Wind. She had two great concerns: doing her best work in an extremely difficult role and being separated from Larry [Olivier], who was in New York."
Gone with the Wind brought Leigh immediate attention and fame; but she was quoted as saying, "I'm not a film star – I'm an actress. Being a film star – just a film star – is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity. Actresses go on for a long time and there are always marvellous parts to play." Among the 10 Academy Awards won by Gone with the Wind was a Best Actress award for Leigh, who also won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.
Marriage and joint projectsSanta Barbara, California, in a ceremony attended only by their witnesses, Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin.
Leigh hoped to co-star with Olivier and made a screen test for Rebecca, which was to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock with Olivier in the leading role. After viewing Leigh's screen test, Selznick noted that "she doesn't seem right as to sincerity or age or innocence", a view shared by Hitchcock and Leigh's mentor, George Cukor. Selznick observed that she had shown no enthusiasm for the part until Olivier had been confirmed as the lead actor so he cast Joan Fontaine. He refused to allow her to join Olivier in Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Greer Garson played the role Leigh had wanted for herself. Waterloo Bridge (1940) was to have starred Olivier and Leigh; however, Selznick replaced Olivier with Robert Taylor, then at the peak of his success as one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's most popular male stars. Leigh's top billing reflected her status in Hollywood, and the film was popular with audiences and critics.
She and Olivier mounted a stage production of Romeo and Juliet for Broadway. The New York press publicized the adulterous nature that had marked the beginning of Olivier and Leigh's relationship and questioned their ethics in not returning to England to help with the war effort. Critics were hostile in their assessment of the production. Brooks Atkinson for the New York Times wrote, "Although Miss Leigh and Mr. Olivier are handsome young people they hardly act their parts at all." While most of the blame was attributed to Olivier's acting and direction, Leigh was also criticised, with Bernard Grebanier commenting on the "thin, shopgirl quality of Miss Leigh's voice." The couple had invested almost their entire savings into the project, and the failure was a financial disaster for them.
They filmed That Hamilton Woman (1941) with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton. With the United States not yet having entered the war, it was one of several Hollywood films made with the aim of arousing a pro-British sentiment among American audiences. The film was popular in the United States and an outstanding success in the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill arranged a screening for a party that included Franklin D. Roosevelt and, on its conclusion, addressed the group, saying, "Gentlemen, I thought this film would interest you, showing great events similar to those in which you have just been taking part." The Oliviers remained favourites of Churchill, attending dinners and occasions at his request for the rest of his life; and, of Leigh, he was quoted as saying, "By Jove, she's a clinker."
The Oliviers returned to England, and Leigh toured through North Africa in 1943. Leigh performed for troops before falling ill with a persistent cough and fevers. In 1944, she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in her left lung and spent several weeks in hospital before appearing to have recovered. Leigh was filming Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) when she discovered she was pregnant, but she suffered a miscarriage. She fell into a deep depression that hit the low point when she turned on Olivier, verbally and physically attacking him until she fell to the floor, sobbing. This was the first of many major breakdowns she suffered related to bipolar disorder. Olivier came to recognise the symptoms of an impending episode – several days of hyperactivity followed by a period of depression and an explosive breakdown, after which Leigh would have no memory of the event, but would be acutely embarrassed and remorseful.
Leigh was well enough to resume acting in 1946, in a successful London production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth; but her films of this period, Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Anna Karenina (1948), were not great successes.
In 1947, Olivier was knighted; and Leigh accompanied him to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. She became Lady Olivier; and, after their divorce, per the style granted the divorced wife of a knight, she became socially known as Vivien, Lady Olivier.
Old Vic Theatre; and he and Leigh embarked on a six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand to raise funds for it. Olivier performed Richard III and also performed with Leigh in The School for Scandal and The Skin of Our Teeth. The tour was an outstanding success; and, although Leigh was plagued with insomnia and allowed her understudy to replace her for a week while she was ill, she generally withstood the demands placed upon her, with Olivier noting her ability to "charm the press." Members of the company later recalled several quarrels between the couple, the most dramatic occurring in Christchurch when Leigh refused to go onstage. Olivier slapped her face, and Leigh slapped him in return and swore at him before she made her way to the stage. By the end of the tour, both were exhausted and ill; and Olivier told a journalist, "You may not know it, but you are talking to a couple of walking corpses." Later, he would comment that he "lost Vivien" in Australia.
The success of the tour encouraged the Oliviers to make their first West End appearance together, performing the same works with one addition, Antigone, included at Leigh's insistence because she wished to play a role in a tragedy.
Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire and was cast after Williams and the play's producer Irene Mayer Selznick saw her in The School for Scandal and Antigone; Olivier was contracted to direct. Containing a rape scene and references to promiscuity and homosexuality, the play was destined to be controversial, and the media discussion about its suitability added to Leigh's anxiety, but she believed strongly in the importance of the work.
When the West End production of Streetcar opened in October 1949, J. B. Priestley denounced the play and Leigh's performance; and the critic Kenneth Tynan commented that Leigh was badly miscast because British actors were "too well-bred to emote effectively on stage". Olivier and Leigh were chagrined that part of the commercial success of the play lay in audience members attending to see what they believed would be a salacious and sensationalist story, rather than the Greek tragedy that they envisioned; but the play also had strong supporters, among them Noël Coward who described Leigh as "magnificent."
After 326 performances, Leigh finished her run. However, she was soon engaged for the film version. Her irreverent and often bawdy sense of humour allowed her to establish a rapport with her co-star Marlon Brando; but she had difficulty with director Elia Kazan, who did not hold her in high regard as an actress. He later commented that "she had a small talent"; but, as work progressed, he became "full of admiration" for "the greatest determination to excel of any actress I've known. She'd have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance." Leigh found the role gruelling and commented to the Los Angeles Times, "I had nine months in the theatre of Blanche DuBois. Now she's in command of me." Olivier accompanied her to Hollywood where he was to co-star in William Wyler's Carrie.
The film won glowing reviews for her; and she won a second Academy Award for Best Actress, a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award, and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Tennessee Williams commented that Leigh brought to the role "everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of"; but, in later years, Leigh would say playing Blanche DuBois "tipped me over into madness."
Struggle with illnessIn 1951, Leigh and Olivier performed two plays about Cleopatra, William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, alternating the play each night and winning good reviews. They took the productions to New York, where they performed a season at the Ziegfeld Theatre into 1952. The reviews there were also mostly positive, but the critic Kenneth Tynan angered them when he suggested that Leigh's was a mediocre talent that forced Olivier to compromise his own. Tynan's diatribe almost precipitated another collapse; Leigh, terrified of failure and intent on achieving greatness, dwelt on his comments while ignoring the positive reviews of other critics.
In January 1953, Leigh travelled to Ceylon to film Elephant Walk with Peter Finch. Shortly after filming commenced, she suffered a breakdown; and Paramount Pictures replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor. Olivier returned her to their home in England, where, between periods of incoherence, Leigh told him that she was in love with Finch and had been having an affair with him. She gradually recovered over a period of several months. As a result of this episode, many of the Oliviers' friends learned of her problems. David Niven said she had been "quite, quite mad"; and in his diary Noël Coward expressed surprise that "things had been bad and getting worse since 1948 or thereabouts."
The Sleeping Prince with Olivier; and, in 1955, they performed a season at Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus. They played to capacity houses and attracted generally good reviews, Leigh's health seemingly stable. John Gielgud directed Twelfth Night and wrote, "...perhaps I will still make a good thing of that divine play, especially if he will let me pull her little ladyship (who is brainier than he but not a born actress) out of her timidity and safeness. He dares too confidently ... but she hardly dares at all and is terrified of overreaching her technique and doing anything that she has not killed the spontaneity of by overpractice."
Leigh took the lead role in the Noël Coward play South Sea Bubble, but she became pregnant and withdrew from the production. Several weeks later, she miscarried and entered a period of depression that lasted for months. She joined Olivier for a European tour with Titus Andronicus, but the tour was marred by Leigh's frequent outbursts against Olivier and other members of the company. After their return to London, her former husband, Leigh Holman, who continued to exert a strong influence over her, stayed with the Oliviers and helped calm her.
In 1958, considering her marriage to be over, Leigh began a relationship with the actor Jack Merivale, who knew of Leigh's medical condition and assured Olivier he would care for her. In 1959, she achieved a success with the Noël Coward comedy Look After Lulu, with The Times critic describing her as "beautiful, delectably cool and matter of fact, she is mistress of every situation."
In 1960, she and Olivier divorced; and Olivier married actress Joan Plowright. In his autobiography, he discussed the years of problems they had experienced because of Leigh's illness: "Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness – an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble."
Final years and deathRadie Harris as confiding that she "would rather have lived a short life with Larry [Olivier] than face a long one without him". Her first husband, Leigh Holman, also spent considerable time with her. Merivale joined her for a tour of Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America that lasted from July 1961 until May 1962; and Leigh enjoyed positive reviews without sharing the spotlight with Olivier. Though she was still beset by bouts of depression, she continued to work in the theatre and, in 1963, won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Tovarich. She also appeared in the films The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and Ship of Fools (1965).
In May 1967, she was rehearsing to appear with Michael Redgrave in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance when she suffered a recurrence of tuberculosis. Following several weeks of rest, she seemed to recover. On the night of 7 July 1967, Merivale left her as usual, to perform in a play, and returned home around midnight to find her asleep. About thirty minutes later, he returned to the bedroom and discovered her body on the floor. She had been attempting to walk to the bathroom and, as her lungs filled with liquid, collapsed. Merivale contacted Olivier, who was receiving treatment for prostate cancer in a nearby hospital. In his autobiography, Olivier described his "grievous anguish" as he immediately travelled to Leigh's residence, to find that Merivale had moved her body onto the bed. Olivier paid his respects, and "stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us", before helping Merivale make funeral arrangements.
She was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium; and her ashes were scattered on the lake at her home, Tickerage Mill, near Blackboys, East Sussex, England. A memorial service was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with a final tribute read by John Gielgud. In the United States, she became the first actress honoured by "The Friends of the Libraries at the University of Southern California". The ceremony was conducted as a memorial service, with selections from her films shown and tributes provided by such associates as George Cukor.
Critical commentsVivien Leigh was considered one of the most beautiful actresses of her day, and her directors emphasised this in most of her films. When asked if she believed her beauty had been a setback to her acting, she said, "People think that if you look fairly reasonable, you can't possibly act, and as I only care about acting, I think beauty can be a great handicap, if you really want to look like the part you're playing, which isn't necessarily like you."
George Cukor commented that Leigh was a "consummate actress, hampered by beauty", and Laurence Olivier said that critics should "give her credit for being an actress and not go on forever letting their judgments be distorted by her great beauty." Garson Kanin shared their viewpoint and described Leigh as "a stunner whose ravishing beauty often tended to obscure her staggering achievements as an actress. Great beauties are infrequently great actresses — simply because they don't need to be. Vivien was different; ambitious, persevering, serious, often inspired.
Leigh explained that she played "as many different parts as possible" in an attempt to learn her craft and to dispel prejudice about her abilities. She believed that comedy was more difficult to play than drama because it required more precise timing and said that more emphasis should be placed upon comedy as part of an actor's training. Nearing the end of her career, which ranged from Noël Coward comedies to Shakespeareantragedies, she observed, "It's much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh."
Her early performances brought her immediate success in Britain, but she remained largely unknown in other parts of the world until the release of Gone with the Wind. In December 1939, the New York Times wrote, "Miss Leigh's Scarlett has vindicated the absurd talent quest that indirectly turned her up. She is so perfectly designed for the part by art and nature that any other actress in the role would be inconceivable", and as her fame escalated, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine as Scarlett. In 1969, critic Andrew Sarris commented that the success of the film had been largely due to "the inspired casting" of Leigh, and in 1998 wrote that "she lives in our minds and memories as a dynamic force rather than as a static presence." Leonard Maltin described the film as one of the all-time greats, writing in 1998 that Leigh "brilliantly played" her role.
Her performance in the West End production of A Streetcar Named Desire, described by the theatre writer Phyllis Hartnoll as "proof of greater powers as an actress than she had hitherto shown", led to a lengthy period during which she was considered one of the finest actresses in British theatre. Discussing the subsequent film version, Pauline Kael wrote that Leigh and Marlon Brando gave "two of the greatest performances ever put on film" and that Leigh's was "one of those rare performances that can truly be said to evoke both fear and pity."
Kenneth Tynan ridiculed Leigh's performance opposite Olivier in the 1955 production of Titus Andronicus, commenting that she "receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband's corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber." He was one of several critics to react negatively to her reinterpretation of Lady Macbeth in 1955, saying that her performance was insubstantial and lacked the necessary fury demanded of the role; however, after her death he revised his opinion, describing his earlier criticism as "one of the worst errors of judgment" he had ever made. He came to believe that Leigh's interpretation, in which Lady Macbeth uses her sexual allure to keep Macbeth enthralled, "made more sense [...] than the usual battle-axe" portrayal of the character. In a survey of theatre critics conducted shortly after Leigh's death, several named it as one of her greatest achievements in theatre
In 1969, a plaque to Leigh was placed in the actors' church, St Paul's, Covent Garden; and, in 1985, a portrait of her was included in a series of postage stamps, along with Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Chaplin, Peter Sellers, and David Niven to commemorate "British Film Year".
The British Library in London purchased the papers of Laurence Olivier from his estate in 1999. Known as The Laurence Olivier Archive, the collection includes many of Vivien Leigh's personal papers, including numerous letters she wrote to Olivier. The papers of Vivien Leigh, including letters, photographs, contracts, and diaries, are owned by her daughter, Mrs Suzanne Farrington. In 1994, the National Library of Australia purchased a photograph album, monogrammed "L & V O" and believed to have belonged to the Oliviers, containing 573 photographs of the couple during their 1948 tour of Australia. It is now held as part of the record of the history of the performing arts in Australia.