Category: books

Book Corner – Vivien Leigh: Dark Star

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Book Corner – Vivien Leigh: Dark Star

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.

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Vivien Leigh: Actress and Icon

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Vivien Leigh: Actress and Icon

Excellent news! Remember about a year ago when I put up a fan survey as part of my research for a chapter in an upcoming Vivien Leigh compilation book? Well, that book has finally appeared on the Manchester University Press website and is slated for publication in November of this year.

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Interview with Laurence Olivier author Margarida Araya

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Interview with Laurence Olivier author Margarida Araya

Richard III is one of Laurence Olivier’s most critically acclaimed films, both as an actor and director. Filmed in Spain in 1954 with interiors shot in England, it is the third film in what is now known as the Olivier Shakespeare Trilogy (out on Criterion Collection). While information about Olivier’s life in England is abundant, his time in Spain is less well-known–until now.

Here, Tanguy Deville interviews theatre historian, author, and Laurence Olivier expert Margarida Araya about her debut book, Sir Laurence Olivier in Spain.

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Author Margarida ArayaTanguy Deville: Can you introduce yourself briefly and tell us how you became interested in Laurence Olivier?

Margarida Araya: I’m from Barcelona and I’m a translator and an Air Navigation Technician. I started to get really interested in Laurence Olivier (I had seen some films before) when I watched The Entertainer. It contained everything I liked: theatrical references, a looser character and a great performance. Then I started to look for information/photos of him on the Internet and discovered what a glamorous couple he and Vivien Leigh made.

TD: How did the idea of the book come about?

MA: I always love to investigate things. I started to investigate (through newspaper libraries) if LO had even been to Barcelona. Then I started to find about the shooting of Richard III near Madrid and the Oliviers’ holiday in Andalucia.

Laurence Olivier directing Richard IIIWhen I had compiled a lot of information I decided to create a small site to share it. I kept on investigating (travelling to Madrid and to the British Library in London) and after discovering some interesting facts I thought that they deserved to be published in a book. So I sent my proposal to different publishing houses and then a friend put me in contact with Camelot.

TD: We know a lot about the Oliviers in Italy, and in France. Their stay in Spain is less well-known; very few biographers have investigated it. Why is that?

MA: They only came to Spain on holiday once so there is much more documentation of them in Italy.

TD: How did you work on the research?

Laurence Olivier in SpainMA: My main research has been through Spanish newspaper libraries (online and physical). I travelled to Madrid to visit the zone where they shot Richard III and I contacted several towns in the zone, but just one (Torrelodones) gave me feed-back and helped me answer a couple of questions. I also went to the British Library in London where I could read Olivier’s personal diaries.

TD: Were the Oliviers big stars in Spain at the time?

MA: The Spanish press was quite disconnected from the rest of the world; they hardly Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh 1955knew anything about the Oliviers. They only knew them from being the stars of Hamlet and Gone With the Wind. In my book I reproduce some original interviews and they are very naive.

TD: Why did Olivier decide to film Richard III in Spain?

MA: After filming Henry V in Ireland, he looked for a location with better weather. Spain was cheap and had a lot of sun. The only problem he found was that the grass was too yellow to look like Bosworth…

TD: The Oliviers made many trips to Spain. What did they do and who did they meet there?

MA: There isn’t much information about their visits in the Spanish press. These were pre-paparazzi times! They met Lola Flores, the flamenco dancer, during the shooting of Richard III. During their holiday in Andalucia they also meet Antonio, another flamenco dancer, so we can guess they really liked flamenco! They visited several Andalucian towns and they even went to the cinema to see a Spanish movie.

TD: At the time of Richard III and later in the ’50’s, Spain started to become a great place for filming…

MA: Yes, and Olivier claimed his was the first international production to do it. After him came Orson Welles, the Samuel Bronston productions and Kubrick’s Spartacus*, for example.
(*Olivier didn’t come to Spain for the Spartacus filming. They used a body double during the battle scene.)

TD: During the writing of your book and the research did you make some interesting discoveries?

Laurence Olivier in SpainMA: I can’t tell you about the main discovery, it’s a secret! (It will surprise Spaniard readers.) But I can tell you that in many interviews LO said he had been in Spain before August 1954, and I couldn’t find any reference of this trip. One day, by chance and through a Marilyn Monroe book, I saw a photo of him standing in front of a Spanish sign. I was lucky to find the Spanish magazine that had published that photo. They even interviewed him. This visit was confirmed in his diaries.

TD: Richard III is considered to be the greatest part of Olivier’s (specially on stage). What is your opinion of that movie today?

MA: When I first saw the movie it surprised me to see it had a comical tone and I immediately fell in love with Richard. I think it’s a combination of his two previous Shakespearean films. The first part is very theatrical and then, we have the ‘Spanish’ part with a lot of real action. The cast and the rhythm are great. I’ve seen other Richard III versions but I stick with Olivier’s.

TD: After their divorce, did Larry go back in Spain? What about Vivien?

MA: Yes, Larry came back to Spain many times, with Joan Plowright, to spend different summers in the Balearic Islands. He was also in Costa Brava for two days filming Nicholas and Alexandra.
I centered my research on Larry so I can’t tell you for sure if Vivien came back to Spain, but I haven’t seen her name in any subsequent document.

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Laurence Olivier en EspanaSir Laurence Olivier en España tells us why the British actor and director Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) chose “those stunted Spanish trees and the silver grass” to shoot part of his film Richard III near Madrid in 1954. Despite its secrecy, and thanks to certain documentation such as Olivier’s personal diaries, some mysteries of the shooting are revealed. We also have access of several interviews given by Olivier and his then wife, the actress Vivien Leigh, to the Spanish press in 1954 as well as on his later visit, on holiday in Torremolinos, in 1957.

Sir Laurence Olivier en España is published by Camelot and is available in Spanish, with an English language version coming soon.

Margarida Araya also runs the Sir Laurence Olivier Stage Work website and the wonderful Sir Laurence Olivier Fan Page on Facebook.

Book Diary 2015

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Book Diary 2015

*Header image by Nina’s Clicks

I’ve got a few New Year’s resolutions, although some of them are New Years hopes. But one of the things I’m determined to achieve from the outset is to read more books for fun. Last year was the first time I was able to do this in ages, although I neglected to keep a written list. (Highlights included Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild by David Stenn, In The Woods by Tana French, The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport, Garden of Dreams: The Life of Simone Signoret by Patricia DeMaio and Brando’s Smile by Susan Mizruchi) That changes this year, dammit! I’ll be keeping track on GoodreadsInstagram and will do my best to keep this log updated here.

So far, so good!

1. Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe (historical non-fiction; true crime)
2. My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor by Sir Alec Guinness (memoir)
3. Neverhome by Laird Hunt (historical fiction; American Civil War)
4. Of All Places! by Patience, Richard and Johnny Abbe (memoir)
5. The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert K. Massie (non-fiction; Russian history)
6. Wild by Cheryl Strayed (memoir; travel)
7. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (fiction)
8. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (non-fiction; science)
9. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach (non-fiction; science)
10. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (fiction)
11. Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie (biography; Russian history)
12. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (fiction)
13. The Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers by John Kobal (film studies; photography)
14. A Girl Walks into a Bar by Rachel Dratch (comedy; memoir)
15. Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog by James Grissom (memoir; theatre)
16. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (historical non-fiction)
17. An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks (psychology; neurology)
18. Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult (fiction)
19. The Natty Professor by Tim Gunn (memoir)
20. The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke (historical fiction)
21. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (fiction; thriller)
22. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (historical non-fiction)

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Commonplace Books of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

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Commonplace Books of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

In December 1946, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were chosen by Strand magazine in London to contribute literary quotes from their personal Commonplace Books. Commonplace Books (commonly referred to today as “inspiration journals”) are blank notebooks that differ from traditional diaries in that they’re not meant to record life events in a chronological order. Rather, they’re a random hodgepodge of thoughts, quotes and passages from books, sketches, recipes, etc. that made an impression in the moment.

Strand printed a running series called “The Commonplace Books of…” where “Every month [they] publish quotations from the Commonplace Books of people whose names you know and whose wide reading you envy.” While the choice of works the Oliviers quote from may seem familiar from what we have read about them in biographies, what is interesting is what these particular quotes reveal about their individual personalities. To me, Vivien seems like a dreamer, whereas Larry Olivier comes off as a romantic.

What do you think of this list?

Vivien Leigh

Entries in my Commonplace Book are very varied and I am continually adding to them. My favorite quotations include “The Cloths of Heaven” by W. B. Yeats:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths
Enwrought with gold and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet;
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

And that memorable sentence on the death of William III, the last sentence in J. L. Motley‘s “Rise of the Dutch Republic”:

As long as he lived, he was the guiding star of a brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the streets.

In humorous prose I like the entry of April 23rd in “The Diary of a Nobody” by George and Weedon Grossmith:

Mr. and Mrs. James (Miss Fullers that was), came to meat-tea, and we left directly after for the Tank Theatre. We got on a bus that took us to King’s Closs, and then changed to one that took us to the Angel. Mr. James each time insisted on paying for all, saying that I had paid for the tickets and that was quite enough.

We arrived at the theatre, where, curiously enough, all our bus-load except and old woman with a basket seemed to be going in. I walked ahead and presented the tickets. The man looked at them, and called out “Mr. Willowly! Do you know anything about these?” holding up my tickets.

The gentleman came to, came up and examined my tickets and said: “Who gave you these?” I said rather indignantly: “Mr. Merton, of course.” He said: “Merton? Who’s he?” I answered rather sharply, “You ought to know, his name’s good at any theatre in London.” He replied: “Oh! is it? Well it ain’t no good here. These tickets, which are not dated, were issued under Mr. Swinstead’s management, which has since changed hands.”

While I was having some very unpleasant works with the man, James, who had gone upstairs with the ladies, called out: “Come on!” I went up after them, and a very civil attendant said: “This way, please, Box H.” I said to James: “Why, how on earth did you manage it?” And to my horror he replied: “Why, paid for it, of course!”

This was humiliating enough, and I could scarcely follow the play, but I was doomed to still further humiliation. I was leaning out of the Box, when my tie – a little black bow which fastened on to the stud by means of a new patent – fell into the pit below. A clumsy man not noticing it, had his foot on it for ever so long before he discovered it. He then picked it up and eventually flung it under the next seat in disgust. What with the Box incident and the tie, I felt quite miserable. Mr. James, of Sutton, was very good. He said: “Don’t worry – no one will notice it with your beard. That is the only advantage of growing one that I can see.” There was no occasion for that remark, for Carrie is very proud of my beard.

To hide the absence of the tie I had to keep my chin down the rest of the evening, which caused a pain in the back of my neck.

Of many favorite passages in Shakespeare, I like best of all the last speech of Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” from which these lines are taken:

Never more, hair, nor scar,
Nor mark prodigious, such as are
Despised in nativity,
Shall upon their children be.

And the 29th Sonnet, beginning,

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s
eyes,
I alone be weep my outcast state…

I have read a great deal of Thomas Hardy and Dickens. The chapter on sheep-shearing in “Far from the Madding Crowd” ranks, I think, among the finest descriptive writings. With these I also place the beginning of “The Battle of Life” from Dickens “Christmas Books” – the description of the field from which “the painted butterfly took blood into the air upon the edges of its wings.”
For pure joy of reading I choose the reunion scene at the end of “Pickwick Papers”:

…. The coaches rattled back to Mr. Pickwick’s to breakfast, where little Mr. Perker already awaited them.

Here, all the light clouds of the more solemn part of the proceedings passed away; every face shone forth joyously, and nothing was to be heard but congratulations and commendations. Everything was so beautiful! The lawn in front, the garden behind, the miniature conservatory, the dining-room, the praying room, the bedrooms, the smoking room, and above all the study with its pictures and easy chairs, and odd cabinets, and queer tables, and books out of number, with a large cheerful window opening upon a pleasant lawn and commanding a pretty landscape, just dotted here and there with little houses almost hidden by trees; and then the curtains, and the carpets, and the chairs, and the sofas. Everything was so beautiful, so compact, that there really was no deciding what to admire most.

And in the midst of all this stood Mr. Pickwick, his countenance lighted up with smiles, which the heart of no man, woman, or child could resist: himself the happiest of the group, shaking hands…over and over again with the same people, and when his own were not so employed, rubbing them with pleasure; turning round in a different direction at every fresh expression of gratification or curiosity, and inspiring everybody with his looks of gladness and delight.

And, finally, a quotation from Plato which is, I think, particularly appropriate at the present time:

Then tell me, O Critias, how will a man choose the ruler that shall rule over him? Will he not choose a man who has first established order in himself, knowing that any decision that has its spring from anger or pride or vanity can be multiplied a thousand fold in its effects upon the citizens?

Laurence Olivier

Nearly all of my leisure reading is Shakespeare. May passages from the works of that greatest of poets come to my mind, notably Burgundy’s speech in “Henry V,” Act V, and part of the concluding chorus in the Epilogue, which runs:

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly
lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world’s best garden he achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.

Here are four other of my favorite sonnets from Shakespeare’s plays:

Brutus in “Julius Caesar”
(Act IV, Scene iii)

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such full sea we are now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

The Boy’s Song in “Measure for Measure”
(Act IV, Scene i)

Take, O, take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn;
And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn:
But my kisses bring again, bring again;
Seals of love, but seal’d in vain, seal’d in vain.

Holofernes in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”
(Act IV, Scene iii)

This is a gift that I have, simple, simple;
a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms,
figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions,
motions, revolutions: these are begot in the
ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb
of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing
of occasion. But the gift is good in those
to whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it.

The First Murderer in “Macbeth”
(Act III, Scene iii)

The west yet glimmers with streaks of
day:
Now spurs the lated traveller apace
To gain the timely inn; and near approaches
The subject of our watch.

I am also very fond of the two songs dedicated to Spring and Winter which come at the end of “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Of other poets, Keats has always been one of my favorites. There is a delightful stanza from his “Ode to a Grecian Urn”:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

In prose, I share with my wife a liking for both ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ and Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” I am an admirer of Rupert Brooke, especially the first half of that poem “The Great Lover,” which begins:

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love’s praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.

My favorite quotations would be incomplete without the first stanza of Gray’s “Elegy”

The curfew tolls the knell of a parting day
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

– an this memorable verse by William Allingham:

Four ducks on a pond,
The blue sky beyond,
White clouds on the wing.
What little thing
To remember for years,
To remember with tears.

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait