Vivien Leigh
(1913-1967)

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She was one of the beauties of the age, and though she was British, she's seen as one of the great Hollywood stars. Yet almost three quarters of her 19 films were made in Britain and she was half of the most glamorous couple Britain ever produced - I'm afraid the Beckhams have nothing on Olivier and Leigh.

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India on November 5, 1913. Her father was an officer in the Indian Cavalry but not long after her birth she and her parents moved to England, where young Vivien grew up. She attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, England. One of her (older) school friends was Maureen O'Sullivan whose success in Hollywood helped inspire Leigh. Her parents were highly supportive of her decision to act and her father helped her enroll at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.

In 1932 she married Herbert Leigh Holman when she was only 19, and they had a daughter, Suzanne, one year later. John Betjeman, the future Poet Laureate, wrote about her at this period describing her as,

'the essence of English girlhood'


Alexander Korda, came to see her in the performance of the play 'The Mask of Virtue' (1935) and signed her to a film contract.

Laurence Olivier saw Leigh in 'The Mask of Virtue', and a friendship developed after he congratulated her on her performance. While playing lovers in the film 'Fire Over England' (1937), Olivier and Leigh developed a strong attraction, and after filming was completed, they began an affair. At the time, both were married (Olivier to actress Jill Esmond). But young Vivien (now 22) was a very determined woman, and said from the moment she set eyes on Laurence Olivier she was determined to have him.

By now she was building a reputation for herself as a competent actress. She went to Hollywood with Olivier in 1938 and they visited the set of 'Gone with the wind’ which had started filming without a lead actress. Quite how meticulously arranged this visit was is a matter of dispute but her appearance on set while Atlanta burned secured her the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara. This role made her a world star, got her an Oscar and dominated her subsequent career. She made another couple of films in Hollywood before returning to Britain with Olivier, who insisted on joining in the war effort. She began to succumb to ill-health and developed TB. 

In 1940, Leigh arranged for a divorce from Holman and married Olivier. In 1940, she made two films, Waterloo Bridge (1940) and 21 Days (1940), though neither approached the magnetism of GWTW. That same year saw Vivien marry Olivier and the next year they appeared together in That Hamilton Woman (1941).By the time of the filming of Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), her life had begun to unravel. She had suffered two miscarriages, contracted tuberculosis, and was diagnosed as a manic depressive. Though she continued her career with such plays as Thornton Wilder's 'Skin of Our Teeth' , her illness gradually got worse.

In 1951, however, Leigh won a second Academy Award for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. She purposely made her self look older and unflattering for the film. People were stunned to see such a different person, barely recognising the pretty actress that had played the southern belle. The film was superb and many would say her best, winning her a second best actress Oscar, as well as the best actress award from BAFTA. She continued to act on stage with Olivier at the Old Vic, but that was all about to change.

 













 

 

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