Since her centenary in 2013 Vivien Leigh has been enjoying an extended moment in the spotlight and I am sure I’m not alone when I say it’s pretty great. She has been recognised through exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery, V&A, and Topsham Museum. Several one-woman plays have been staged. Actress Natalie Dormer is adapting my own book into a TV series. Vivien’s family made millions from a Sotheby’s sale of belongings from her estate. And Manchester University Press published a compilation of essays examining various facets of her life and career. It’s wonderful that, despite having died half a century ago, interest in Vivien is still going strong.
Alan Strachan’s new biography, Vivien Leigh: Dark Star (I.B.Tauris), is the latest addition to these ongoing celebrations. Full disclosure: I’ve met Alan and donated images for the book. I am also fully aware that, having written my own book on Vivien Leigh, a review by me may be seen as coloured with a certain bias. I am writing this from a fan’s perspective but also as someone who has extensively researched the same subject.
Dark Star tells Vivien’s story in a linear narrative, from her birth in colonial India to her death at age 53 in London’s exclusive Belgravia district. Her marriages to Leigh Holman and Laurence Olivier are covered in-depth, as is her career on stage and screen. Strachan is a theatre director as well as a writer and brings an intimate knowledge of the backstage workings of the theatrical world, including actors’ temperaments. This is especially useful when explaining the way Laurence Olivier spoke to other people (lots of saccharine epithets and ‘darlings’), and what some perceive as his rather camp or ‘hammy’ mannerisms and performances. His personal experiences serve to colour in the lines of London’s West End in the mid-20th century and the theatrical scene in which Vivien moved. As he points out in the book’s postscript, Strachan seems to be the only Vivien Leigh biographer to date to have seen her perform on stage and thus is able to give first-hand impressions of some of her later performances. In terms of Vivien’s film career there isn’t much behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt that we haven’t heard already but Strachan commendably sticks to the facts and doesn’t veer off into Gossipland. (For the opposite see Anne Edwards, who was chided by Jack Merivale for writing that Vivien Leigh hated kissing Clark Gable and complained about his bad breath.) As to be expected, Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire are given the most space on the page, but later films such as Ship of Fools and The Deep Blue Sea are also afforded a certain depth of examination. Although I personally disagree with some of the opinions stated about certain films, I appreciate that Strachan engages with Vivien’s filmography on a more critical level than previous biographers.
To flesh out Vivien’s Life, Strachan relies heavily on some material in the Vivien Leigh Archive at the V&A, particularly her diaries (read: day planners, not journals). Because of this we get a better picture of Vivien before she became famous. She was impetuous, strong-willed and self-assured. The last few years of her life are also well illustrated. In fact the bookends on either side of Vivien’s relationship with Laurence Olivier are arguably the best parts of this biography. Things get a bit murky once husband number two enters the picture. A looming presence in any situation, Vivien has largely posthumously existed in Olivier’s shadow and unfortunately that remains the case here. It’s not that this significant time is poorly documented, non-factual, or totally subjective. It’s just that at times it felt that Olivier became the central focus and Vivien got lost. I know how difficult it is to tell the story of their relationship in a balanced way; I’ve been trying to do just that through this website for over a decade. It’s a fine line. At times it seems impossible to extract Vivien from Olivier’s shadow because their lives and careers were so entwined for so long — basically the whole of Vivien’s adult life. Due to accepted gender roles in the 1930s-1950s Olivier often had control over decisions concerning Vivien. This is not to say that Vivien wasn’t an autonomous person and lacked agency – she was not afraid to speak her mind and in several aspects of their relationship she emerged the dominant figure (social situations, particularly) — but that Olivier’s needs often took precedent over her own, and she largely accepted this because she saw him as a mentor, lover, and the true genius in their partnership. I think this segment of Dark Star could have benefitted greatly by quoting more letters that Vivien sent to other people — George Cukor and Alan Dent immediately come to mind as people to whom Vivien wrote vividly — which would have illustrated her feelings about certain situations and made the whole thing feel more personal rather than examined from a distance.
What I really appreciated about this book is Strachan’s ability to move the narrative along without getting mired in minutiae, and also that he took the time to contextualise certain quotes and occurrences in Vivien’s relationship with Olivier that fans tend to question or misinterpret. For example, the instance in 1948 or thereabouts when Vivien told Olivier she no longer loved him; why they got divorced; the difficulties of living with bipolar disorder. Certainly the latter topic is explored with more understanding than any other such Vivien biography, probably because we’ve come a long way in our understanding of mental illness since the 1970s and 1980s. I also really liked the appendix at the end of the book in which Strachan attempts to dispel some of the rumours surrounding the Oliviers’ relationship — namely that Olivier had a long-standing affair with actor Danny Kaye which was, according to Donald Spoto, the root cause of many of Vivien’s disturbances. As Strachan notes, there is zero proof of any of this, and such rumours also illustrate a gross misunderstanding of Vivien’s battle with mental illness. I raise my glass to Strachan for hopefully putting that rumour to bed (no pun intended).
In all, Dark Star is well-written, objective, and moves at a quick pace. It doesn’t trade in hearsay or salaciousness, which is refreshing. Die hard fans won’t find any major revelations, but the devil is in the details and Strachan is particularly strong in fleshing out Vivien’s early life and putting things into context. I gave it 4/5 stars on Goodreads and would recommend you add it to your Vivien Leigh collections. It’d make a nice Christmas gift!
Vivien Leigh: Dark Star is currently available in the UK. It will be published in the US in early 2019.
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