After her sensational turn as Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With The Wind, she was perhaps the world’s most famous movie actress. After her 1940 marriage to Laurence Olivier, she reigned for nearly two decades as one half of the most glittering stage team of its time.
She was refined, she was beautiful. She had exquisite taste, was generous with friends and coworkers, socialized with British royalty and very much relished her title — after Olivier was knighted in the late Forties — of “Lady.”
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to take a look at one of Hollywood’s most heralded and tormented actresses. Vivien Leigh, it turns out, was a complex woman with a dark side we don’t hear about very often.
By the Fifties, Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier felt the stage — and especially Shakespearean roles — were their destiny. Vivien no longer considered herself as a film star, nor did she believe she needed Hollywood to advance her career, wrote author Anne Edwards in her 1977 tome, Vivien Leigh: A Biography. But for financial reasons, neither were through with making big studio movies.
Born in British-ruled India in 1913 as Vivian Mary Hartley, Leigh starred in nine movies in England before she was introduced to producer David Selznick — by his brother, agent Myron — with the words, ‘Here, genius. Meet your Scarlett O’Hara.’
The role won Vivian her first Oscar, but was followed up by only eight sometimes forgettable movies over the duration of her entire film career.
Notably, in 1940, she costarred with Robert Taylor in Mervyn LeRoy’s Waterloo Bridge for MGM; and back in England a year later for producer-director Alexander Korda, she costarred with Olivier and Alan Mowbray in Lady Hamilton (released as That Hamilton Woman in the States). Winston Churchill confided to Vivien that the movie was his personal favorite.
It was the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which brought her back to Hollywood and to the Warner Brothers studio in the summer of 1950, that had the most personal significance to Vivien. Blanche seemed constantly on her mind, wrote Edwards. There were moments when those close to her were startled by the thought that she had times when she fully believed she was Blanche.
Leigh’s fragile physical and mental state was by then fully in view. Olivier was alarmed by her frequent weight losses and lack of sleep especially since she had bouts of tuberculosis in the past. Her mood swings were becoming more pronounced, frightening and alienating the actor. (Vivien’s manic-depressive mental condition would directly lead to her divorce from Olivier in 1961.)
Author Edwards reports that during her periods of depression, Leigh often entertained sexual fantasies about picking up and seducing strangers. Even taxi drivers were fair game. With Olivier busy working opposite Jennifer Jones on Paramount’s Carrie, director William Wyler’s movie based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel, Sister Carrie, Vivien may well have had the chance to act on her fantasies.
In the recently published memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, coauthor Scotty Bowers, at the time a bartender-caterer of celebrity parties, claims to have had an assignation with Vivien in a guest house on the estate of her close friend, director George Cukor, just as Streetcar was going into production.
She was a hot, hot lady, reports Bowers. She was very sexual and very excitable…That night we screwed as though the survival of the world depended on it…She had orgasm after orgasm and each one noisier than the last. (We’ll have lots more to say about Bowers and his book in future blogs.)
Leigh won her second Oscar for her role as Blanche in Streetcar. After her marriage to Olivier crumbled, she took up with British actor John Merivale.
It was Merivale who discovered her dead body on the evening of July 7, 1967, lying face down on the bedroom floor of her London flat. She had been spitting up blood, and the tuberculosis had spread to both lungs. The picture of a young Olivier, which she had treasured, was on her bedside. She was just four months shy of her 54th birthday.