November 5, 1913 – Vivien Leigh:
“I swing between happiness and misery. I am part prude and part nonconformist. I say what I think and I don’t pretend and I am prepared to accept the consequences of my actions.”
Why doesn’t Vivien Leigh have a spot in the pantheon of Gay Icons? She certainly brought the talent and the melodrama. She was more beautiful, had more gay friends, was just as much a bitch, and was as high strung and promiscuous as Joan Crawford or Bette Davis.
Crawford and Davis had the personalities, tastes and attitudes of many gay men of their era. They were scrappy, ambitious, free from self-pity, had high standards in living and dress. They struggled to be respected despite their talent and drive. They had family problems. None of them had a traditional love life or home life. They were not afraid or apologetic about using their wit and their smarts to get by. They did not suffer fools gladly. Each had a grandiosity and a vulnerability. They are the perfect Gay Icons. Leigh was just a tiny, lovely, fragile woman with severe mental illness.
If I think of her, I think about two roles, one in a film I loathe, and the other in a movie I love. She won Academy Awards for both. Most people think of her film work, yet during her 30-year career, she mostly worked on stage playing roles in all sort of projects from the comedies of Noël Coward and George Bernard Shaw to classic Shakespearean characters, including Ophelia, Cleopatra, Juliet, and Lady Macbeth. She could do it all; she even won a Tony Award for the Broadway musical Tovarich (1963).
The public strongly identified Leigh with her second husband, Laurence Olivier. She met Olivier when they performed in Hamlet in 1935, and they were married from 1940 to 1960. Leigh and Olivier starred together in many stage productions, with Olivier often directing.
Producer David O. Selznick caught her performances in the British films Fire Over England (1937) and A Yank At Oxford (1937) and he admired her talent, but in no way saw her as a possible Scarlett O’Hara because she was “too British”. Leigh went Los Angeles to be with Olivier who was filming Wuthering Heights (1940) for William Wyler, and to try to convince Selznick that she was the right person for the part. Myron Selznick also represented Olivier and when he met Leigh, he felt that she possessed the qualities that his brother was searching for. According to legend, Myron Selznick took Leigh and Olivier to the set where the burning of the Atlanta Depot scene was being filmed and directed an encounter, where he introduced Leigh to his younger brother, saying “Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O’Hara”.
Leigh read a scene for Selznick the next day, and arranged for a screen test with director George Cukor. Selznick wrote:
“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’.
Cukor concurred and was excited by Leigh, telling the press:
“The girl I select must be possessed of the devil and charged with electricity.”
She was offered the role. Leigh later recalled the moment of her selection in an interview:
“Mr. Selznick, watching me in the flickering light, decided I was Scarlett’s physical type.”
Her selection brought boycotts of the film in the South. The charming Daughters of the Confederacy protested that only a native Southerner should have the role.
Leigh found Scarlett to be an unsympathetic character:
“A silly girl, in the sense that all self-centered people are silly and blind…”
Leigh, a versatile actor equally at ease with light roles, played other unsympathetic Southern women in other important American films.
Filming was tough for Leigh. Cukor was dismissed and replaced by Victor Fleming, with whom Leigh had little rapport. She and Olivia de Havilland met with Cukor in secret for his advice about how they should play their parts. Leigh was friendly with Clark Gable, his wife Carole Lombard and de Havilland; but she clashed with Leslie Howard, with whom she was required to play several emotional scenes. Leigh was required to work seven days a week, often late into the night, which added to her stress; and she missed Olivier, who was working in New York City.
In 2006, de Havilland defended Leigh against claims about her mental health during the filming of Gone With The Wind:
“Vivien was impeccably professional, impeccably disciplined. She had two great concerns: doing her best work in an extremely difficult role and being separated from Larry, who was in New York.”
Gone With The Wind brought Leigh attention and fame; but she told the press:
“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 years and years.”
Leigh won the first Oscar for Gone With The Wind.
Leigh was stricken a month before her death in 1967 with a recurrence of tuberculosis, an illness that had plagued her for 25 years. Her final credits rolled just as MGM was launching the sixth national release of Gone With the Wind, by then, the most popular and biggest money-making film of all time. Leigh had received $20,000 for playing the role of Scarlett. She later said ruefully:
“I wouldn’t have objected to just a little bit of the percentage of the film’s income.”
Leigh was noted for being a spirited woman. In 1953, she draped a cobra around her neck for photographers while on a visit to India. She was once thrown out of the British Parliament after interrupting a debate to protest the planned demolition of the St. James Theater.
She was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, at the foot of Mt. Everest. Her father was an Indian stockbroker of French descent. Her mother was Irish. She was educated in a convent and at finishing schools in England. At 19-years-old, she married London barrister Herbert Leigh Holman. The couple had one child, a daughter. They divorced in 1940.
Studying or working at her profession since she was 14 years old, Leigh made her London stage debut in 1935. She changed the “A” to an “E” in her first name thinking it sounded more feminine and she used her first husband’s middle name for her surname.
Leigh wanted to play Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and was cast after Williams and the play’s producer Irene Mayer Selznick saw her on stage in The School For Scandal and Antigone in repertory. Olivier was to direct. The play contained a rape scene and references to promiscuity and homosexuality and was destined to be controversial; the media discussion about its suitability added to Leigh’s anxiety.
When the West End production of Streetcar opened in October 1949, critics denounced the play and Leigh’s performance. The play also had strong supporters, including Noël Coward and John Guilgud.
After 326 performances, Leigh finished her run, and was chosen to reprise her role as Blanche DuBois in the film version of the play. Her irreverent, bawdy sense of humor enchanted Brando, but she had an initial difficulty in working with director Elia Kazan, who was displeased with the direction that Olivier had given her. Kazan had wanted Jessica Tandy, who originated the role or de Havilland. He later commented that “she had a small talent”. Leigh found the role grueling:
“I had nine months in the theatre of Blanche DuBois. Now she’s in command of me.”
Leigh’s performance in A Streetcar Named Desire won glowing reviews, and a second Academy Award, plus a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award, and a New York Film Critics Circle Award. Tennessee Williams commented:
“Leigh brought everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed.”
Leigh had mixed feelings about her association with the character; in her later years, she said that playing Blanche DuBois: “…tipped me over into madness”.
Scarlett O’Hara was hardly a cultural representation of feminine vulnerability, and Blanche Dubois was mentally ill. So was Leigh. Judy Garland had problems, but she was tough, funny and honest in interviews. Leigh was terribly ill. Nobody understood her condition in those days. A promiscuous woman was considered the lowest of the low. Leigh was considered someone who betrayed her famous husband, though Olivier, who slept around too, was considered normal.
Her bipolar condition stunted her career. There was no effective treatment at the time, and she was so paralyzed with it. Leigh’s over-the-top moments were expressions her psychological disorder. Her over-the-top characters, whose crazy moments often were intentionally displayed, still had an element of camp to them. Maybe Leigh is not considered a Gay Icon because she didn’t present an invented public personality the same way Garland, Davis and Crawford did. Leigh was not funny. Davis, Crawford and Garland were funny.