This is the second of two posts detailing the private view of the V&A’s Vivien Leigh: Public Faces, Private Lives traveling exhibition, which took place last Saturday at Nymans in Sussex. You can read part 1 here.
Back at the end of March, thousands of film nerds from around the US (and as far afield as Canada, Sweden, Norway and Scotland) descended upon Hollywood Blvd for the 6th annual TCM Classic Film Festival. I was lucky enough to be one of those nerds, making the pilgrimage to the film capital of America from the exotic and far away land of Sacramento.
I arrived on the afternoon of Wednesday the 25th and was immediately reminded of the one thing I hate about LA – the traffic. Don’t get me wrong, I love LA for many reasons but the constant gridlock on the 405 and the 5 is not one of them. What is usually about a 30-40 minute drive from LAX to West Hollywood without traffic took me a good two hours. There’s always the one mile-long stretch on the 405 just as you come to the 10 junction at Culver City where you end up crawling bumper to bumper. I blame the lack of sufficient public transportation in this glorious but sprawling city.
As a first-timer at the TCM Film Fest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Were the regulars nice? Were the fans crazy? How many films could I realistically see in one day? What about food? I forgot my phone charger – does anyone have a cable I can borrow? No, it’s an iPhone 4S, I’m too lazy to upgrade at the moment. It turns out the answers were yes, yes but in a good way, four, In n Out Burger, and yes because the people manning the ticket desk at the Chinese Theater were all sorts of helpful (thanks, longtime V&L supporter Sari Navarro!).
I saw 11 films in total plus attended two talks at Club TCM. Here’s the run down:
The opening night film this year was the 50th anniversary restoration of The Sound of Music. Unfortunately, only special guests and top-tier festival passholders were admitted into this screening. But part of me really wanted to see Julie Andrews in person, so I decided to brave the bleachers with fellow bloggers Jessica Pickens and Angela Pettys. It was about 85 degrees outside and pretty sweaty and uncomfortable. But Julie and Christopher Plummer were worth it, right? Back-of-knee sweat be damned! And the good people of TCM handed out free water bottles.
I’m sorry to say the red carpet bleacher experience was a let-down. Most of it was spent greeting passholder fans as they walked down to enter the cinema. On the plus side, we did get to see Shirley Jones (radiant in a turquoise pant suit), Norman Lloyd (100 years old and still kicking ass and taking names), Keith Carradine (remember when he played Doc Holiday on season 1 of Deadwood? I do! He seems like a nice guy), Diane Baker (gorgeous), and Robert Morse (so sweet and touched that people remember him). And then the big moment arrived: Christopher and Julie were in the house! They stopped to chat with the press and were then quickly whisked past the bleachers while bodyguard/assistant people shielded them with giant black umbrellas. Neither of them stopped to acknowledge us cheering fans in the bleachers. It was really disappointing.
For future reference, I’d recommend the red carpet event only if you’ve got a press pass to either interview the stars or attend the film. Well, at least I can say I caught a glimpse of Julie Andrews’ chin!
My personal opening night film was Queen Christina. This was a first for me – my goal was to check out films I’d never seen before. It was followed by My Man Godfrey, which is one of my all-time favorites. Carole Lombard films on the big screen are too few and far between, so it was a real treat with a great audience and by far the better of the two films that evening. Unlike Garbo and John Gilbert in Queen Christina, the performances in and the overall pacing of Gregory La Cava’s 1936 screwball comedy still hold up pretty well today.
Friday March 27 was the first full day of the festival. The theme this year was “History according to Hollywood.” There are countless films that fit under this broad umbrella but TCM had the challenging task of curating a selection that spanned about 80 years of filmmaking and appealed to a broad audience. There were many people who complained online about some of the films that were chosen; we tend to adhere to the idea that the 1960s was the cut-off in terms of “old Hollywood” and that anything made beyond 1967 (or even earlier for some people) doesn’t belong at a festival like this. But how do we even define “classic”? Because there were many films made during the studio era that haven’t endured. Just because it’s old, does that automatically make it a classic film? Maybe. Maybe not. The idea of a classic film is pretty subjective. I mean, Raiders of the Lost Arc is a classic in my book (as are the other Indiana Jones films – especially Temple of Doom. Haters to the left! – except that new one which I didn’t care for at all). I saw it in a packed screening at the El Capitan and I loved it!
That said, I ended up veering from my original schedule and saw some films I hadn’t planned on seeing. And it was great! The only thing I’m sad to have missed was Anthony Mann’s little-known 1949 film Reign of Terror. I fully planned on going, but being a first-timer at this festival, I completely underestimated the tastes of my fellow festival-goers. Having met up with Cindy De La Hoz, my editor at Running Press, for a coffee beforehand, I figured getting there 40 minutes beforehand would be plenty of time. I was wrong. I was so wrong. As I walked down the line and saw that many of my blogging friends had been queueing for a while, I had the sinking realization that I wasn’t going to get in. And I wasn’t the only one. It ended up being such a popular film that they screened it again on Sunday. Alas, I missed that one, too. Cindy and I ended up watching The Purple Rose of Cairo, which was a suitable consolation prize. It’s my favorite Woody Allen film and it fit the History According to Hollywood theme to a “T”.
Here are the other films I saw during the festival:
+ Naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty 42nd Street – my friend Amy drove up from Orange County to watch this with me! She used to take dance lessons and so knew the songs but had never seen the film (neither had I). I thought it was a blast. Who doesn’t like a good Busby Berkely number? Or a young Dick Powell? Or toe-tapping dance numbers? Would watch again.
+ Gunga Din – another first for me. I really enjoyed the film itself but the introduction by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences made it even better. They gave a really informative presentation about the making of the film, including screening color home video footage of Joan FOntaine, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Victor Mature and Cary Grant on the set, and traveling to northern California to scout out the locations used in the film. They did all of this while wearing pith hats. While parts of the film were rather uncomfortable to watch (most notably the title character being played by white actor Sam Jaffe in brown face), Barron and Burtt reminded us that Gunga Din, like many other films of the era, was a product of its time, and that to really enjoy it, we might have to remove our “PC hats” for a couple of hours. Good advice, guys.
+ An Affair to Remember – This is one of those iconic love stories that sucks you in and at the same time makes you want to smack the characters.. Aren’t you asking why Terry isn’t getting up from the couch and greeting you, Nicky? And Terry, why didn’t you contact Nicky after the accident and tell him you didn’t run out on him at your Empire State Building wedding?! What’s wrong with you two? “If you can paint, I can walk!” *Melts into a puddle of tears in the audience*
+ Apollo 13 – We owned this on VHS when I was a kid and it’s far from my favorite film so I wasn’t planning to see it at the festival. But my other plan ran afoul and my friend Jeremy was in line, so I decided to join him and boy, am I glad I did! To introduce the film, everyone’s favorite Jeopardy! host interviewed astronaut Jim Lovell live onstage right there in the Chinese Theater. Lovell, for those of you who have never seen Apollo 13 or don’t care about space, was played by Tom Hanks in the movie. It was one of the most interesting and gripping interviews I’ve ever witnessed. I was literally on the edge of my seat as he talked about being on that spaceship when it blew up and having to steer his co-astronauts back to earth. The infinite concept of space in and of itself is one I have a hard time wrapping my brain around. So you can imagine how blown my mind was when Lovell described having a two degree window in which to steer the little module they were in. If they went too far to one side, they’d burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Too far to the other side and they’d miss Earth completely and float out into the abyss forever. I can’t imagine anything more terrifying. He was so calm about reliving that experience and I was sitting there going:
Bill Paxton also turned up.
+ The Grim Game – Harry Houdini + previously considered lost silent film + live orchestra accompaniment by the TCM Players = total geek moment for Kendra
+ Out of Sight – Sadly, this screening wasn’t very full. I’m assuming that’s because Out of Sight was made in 1998 and stars George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez (those last two things being why I’d never bothered to watch it before). But it turned out to be one of the best films I saw at the entire festival. It was introduced by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, who claims it’s one of his favorite guilty pleasure films (after watching it, I’d like to say “Come on, Ben. Nothing to feel guilty about here!”), and editor Anne V. Coates – my favorite celebrity at the festival (more on that in a bit). Coates chose this film along with Lawrence of Arabia to represent her work at the festival and after watching it, it’s easy to see why. Coates is a brilliant editor and is especially known for editing sex scenes. Out of Sight may be one of the hottest films I’ve ever seen, and one even gets naked. It was a masterclass in creating sexual tension without resorting to nudity and exhibitionism. In addition to enjoying Steven Soderbergh’s humorous crime drama as a whole, Out of Sight taught me two things: George Clooney was never better looking and Jennifer Lopez is actually a really good actress, something many of us tend to forget in lieu of her pop career and string of subsequent mediocre film choices.
+ Earthquake – Ava Gardner? Charleton Heston? Monical Lewis? Awful 1970s disaster film? Sign me up! I joined Amy, Lara and Kristen for this poolside screening at the Hollywood Roosevelt. There was alcohol and a veggie platter. We laughed. A lot. There was a very long-winded intro by Illeana Douglas and Richard Roundtree. My favorite part was when Roundtree spoke about how wonderful it was to work with the great David Niven and how funny he was. My ears perked up. David Niven’s in this film? It’s going to be brilliant. Well, it turns out that David Niven actually isn’t in the film. Rather, it’s some guy called Kip Niven who probably isn’t even related to David. But you know what? I’m glad Mr Roundtree has memories of working with David Niven, because that’s how I’d want it to be too, even if that memory was false. Also, Ava Gardner’s performance in this film was the greatest! So camp and fun! She apparently did her own stunts so we were hoping she’d ride away into the sunset on Richard Roundtree’s motorcycle. Alas.
One of the great things about the TCM Film Festival is that there’s always something going on. Miss a screening? Head to Club TCM at the Roosevelt for special talks and activities. I attended two of these. The first was a conversation with editor Anne Coates, who I mentioned above as being my favorite celebrity at the festival. I went because I wanted to learn about her association with David Lean, but I walked away having learned a lot more about this fascinating woman.
Coates fell in love with the movies when she saw Wuthering Heights in England and fell in love with Laurence Olivie. She began her career working as a director of religious films in the 1940s for her uncle, one J. Arthur Rank (producer of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, several Powell and Pressburger films, and many other British classics). It was Rank who suggested she should become an editor and she got to assist on the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes. It was fascinating to hear her talk about her role in shaping an actor’s performance. If an actor gave a good performance, her work was relatively easy. If it was a terrible performance, she had her work cut out for her, trying to turn something terrible into something worth watching. Much to our disappointment (but much to her credit), she didn’t name names. However she did speak of one anonymous actress who had most of her dialogue cut out of the finished film because the delivery was so awful. Everyone praised the final performance, but it was Coates who deserved the accolades.
Coates is in her 80s now and is semi-retired. Throughout her busy career she’s edited choice films like To Paris with Love (1956), Becket (1964), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Elephant Man (1980), Chaplin (1992), In the Line of Fire (1993), Unfaithful (2002). Her most recent film was Fifty Shades of Grey (2014).
“Good gravy!” Child star Jane Withers talking about her home movies at Club TCM.
The second special event I attended at Club TCM was “Hollywood Home Movies,” which is exactly what it sounds like: Jane Withers, Bob Koster and Neile Adams McQueen joined AMPAS’ Randy Haberkamp and Lynne Kirste for an afternoon of home videos. It was so much fun and such a treat to see color footage of famous names like Freddie Bartholomew, Elsa Lanchester, Charles Laughton, Jane Withers, Steve McQueen and others going about their normal lives – lives that included pool parties, motorcycle riding, luncheons, tennis matches and other activities. Haberkamp and Kirste also treated us to rare footage of Gary Cooper behind the scenes on one of his lost silent films. Getting an inside perspective into this footage really brought it to life. Now if only AMPAS would release that color footage from Wuthering Heights!
The festival itself was enough to write home about but what really took it to the next level for me was meeting so many fellow film bloggers and people I’d been talking to on social media for ages. There was a real sense of camaraderie – of people being interested in each other’s work and what they’re doing in the classic film community, whether it’s reporting for top publications, writing books, archiving, or simply blogging as a hobby. I felt I gained some real friends, people I’d actually hang out with in real life. Everyone, bloggers or not, came together to celebrate a mutual love of movies, and it was beautiful. So cheers to all of you that I met. You’re all extraordinary in your own ways. And cheers to TCM for creating this wonderful event where we could geek out to our hearts’ content without embarrassment or judgement. I’m moving back to London in the fall, so I might not be able to go again next year, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity to experience the TCM Film Festival in all its glory at least this once.
Finally, I’d like to give a special shoutout to the following people whom I had the pleasure to meet and whose blogs you should definitely seek out: Aurora (Once Upon a Screen), Jill, Carley and Wade (The Black Maria), Diana (Everywhere, basically), Marya (Cinema Fanatic), Kellee (Outspoken and Freckled), Raquel (Out of the Past), Kristen L. (Journeys in Classic Film), Christy (Sue Sue Applegate), Kristen S. (Sales on Film), Kim (I See a Dark Theater), Lara (Backlots), Jessica (Comet Over Hollywood), Angela (Hollywood Revue), Trevor (A Modern Musketeer), Joel (Joel’s Classic Film Passion), Iba (I Luv Cinema), Laura (Lauras Misc. Musings), Casey (Noir Girl), Kendahl (A Classic Movie Blog).
All photographs in this post © Kendra Bean
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Around this time a couple of years ago, I sat in the flat I shared with my boyfriend and cat in London and wrote a
jealous and bitter post about how I wasn’t going to the TCM Film Festival like everyone else in blog land but it was okay because I had other things to do, so there! Whatever!
Despite living in southern California when Turner Classic movies launched their now-annual film festival in Hollywood, I’ve never been before. I haven’t mentioned this here, but I’ve been back in California for a year now (visa issues; but I’m going back to London in the fall for another Master’s degree – professional student for life! – and to resume my life with boyfriend and kitty). So this year I was determined to go to the festival I’d heard so much about…if I could get a media credential. TCM, smartly in tune with how much their fans drive their success as a network, has reportedly been pretty open to allowing film bloggers to cover the festival for their respective sites. I was encouraged by a friend to apply to be one of these reporters, so I did and I guess they liked my blogging skillz to pay the billz (or something) because I’m heading down to LA next week to cover the festival for vivandlarry.com! Thanks, TCM!
This year’s theme: “History according to Hollywood.” Unfortunately, they’re only screening one Vivien Leigh and/or Laurence Olivier film this year – Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. But since I’ve already seen that film on the big screen and have written about it previously, I’ve decided to forego it in favor of curating a personal schedule of films that I mostly haven’t seen (or haven’t seen on the big screen, anyway) before.
Here’s my tentative schedule. I didn’t think it would be this hard to choose! In fact I posted this on Facebook about 10 minutes ago and have already changed my mind about some films.
This year’s festival takes place from March 26-29. I’m very excited to finally meet a lot of the bloggers I’ve had the fortune of “knowing” on social media over the past few years, as well as seeing some old friends!
Be sure to subscribe to updates in order to be notified when new posts are made here on the blog. I’ll also be live Tweeting/Facebooking/Instagraming so you can be part of the experience, too! Join me on this adventure where I talk about films, old movie stars, and what happens when you get a ton of rabid classic film fans in a one mile radius. It should be interesting!
And if you’re going to be at the festival, please let me know because I’d love to meet you! Also, if you have a copy of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait on hand, I’d be happy to sign it for you.
See you next week in LA, everyone!
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2014 has been a wonderful year for Vivien Leigh, and the train is showing no signs of stopping. Just a couple weeks ago (December 5-7), London-based organization Fashion & Cinema hosted an event titled Dressing Vivien Leigh, which focused on – you guessed it – Vivien Leigh and her relationship with fashion, particularly costume design.
I was over the moon when my agent forwarded me an email from the organizers of Fashion & Cinema inviting me to introduce the two films they’d lined up for the weekend. Since Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait was published, I’ve jumped at any opportunity that’s come my way. Not only do I feel like these speaking engagements help me build up a portfolio of experience, they also help me on my quest to get over an irrational fear of public speaking. I feel less nervous each time I do it. So thanks for letting me use your microphones, past and future event planners!
Dressing Vivien Leigh kicked off on Friday December 5 with a fantastic lecture at the V&A. I always enjoy listening to curator Keith Lodwick speak about the treasures that he oversees in the V&A’s Theatre and Performance collection. His enthusiasm is so engaging. This was the third or fourth time I’ve seen him speak and each time I come away from it feeling like I’ve learned something new.
Keith delved into Vivien’s relationships with a handful of costume designers – notably Oliver Messel, Beatrice (Bumble) Dawson, and Roger Furse. He also spoke about past exhibitions that included Vivien-related materials, such as Hollywood Costume (now in Los Angeles), and gave us all a treat by revealing never-before seen color photos taken with Vivien’s stereoscopic camera. And of course tongues started wagging when Keith revealed that the Vivien Leigh Archive is currently being catalogued and will be open to researchers in January. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be at Blythe House!
I was thrilled to take part in both film screenings on December 6 and 7. Tennessee Williams biographer John Lahr and I spoke off the cuff when introducing A Streetcar Named Desire, and I had a talk prepared for the Roman Spring of Mrs Stone screening at Ham Yard Hotel in Soho on Saturday the 6th. Fashion & Cinema organizers Joanna Sanchez and Diana Maclean did a great job choosing the venues for these screenings and there were pretty good sized crowds at both of them. In fact, I was happy to see some familiar faces (Terence Pepper and Clare Freestone from the National Portrait Gallery, my agent Laura Morris, fellow film fans Anthony Uzarowski, Katie Sawyer, Alejandro Pappalardo), and it was a bit surreal chatting with Vanity Fair UK‘s online fashion editor Emma Marsh.
I thought Roman Spring was an interesting choice for a screening because it’s not one that people talk about very much where Vivien’s career is concerned. Often overshadowed by her Oscar-winning turn as Tennessee Williams’ wounded butterfly Blanche DuBois, Karen Stone, and the film itself, tends to divide audiences. But it is an interesting film in the context of Vivien and fashion. Here’s what I had to say about it (let it be said that it was more difficult than I had thought to contextualize an entire film in 15 minutes):
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, based on the novella of the same name by Tennessee Williams, is the story of a middle age actress who suddenly finds herself too old to play the ingénue roles that made her famous. She decides to flee the profession, settling in Rome following the death of her husband. She takes a palazzo near the Spanish Steps and there, with only the cold comforts of her late husband’s “filthy millions,” she begins to drift – to move through life and through the ageing process alone and without reason. This, according to Karen Stone, was the worst thing that could happen. In her loneliness, she meets with Contessa Magda Terribbli-Gonzales, who introduces her to a gorgeous young Italian called Paulo. She falls in love, but in typical Tennessee Williams fashion, the union isn’t exactly a happy one.
Vivien Leigh actually wasn’t the first choice to play Karen Stone. Williams had Greta Garbo in mind while he was writing the book. But, as is typical in Hollywood, it was some years before the film version went into production. By 1960, Garbo was deep in seclusion in New York. Screenwriter Gavin Lambert later wrote about how Vivien came to play the title character: “While I was working on [the script], various people suggested actresses for the part, but none of them seemed right to Tennessee Williams, or to the director Jose Quintero, or myself. Then, one day, Tennessee said, ‘Vivien must play it.’ We immediately realized she was ideal. Why hadn’t anyone thought of her before?” The reason for this was probably because it had been five years since Vivien last appeared on screen. This was actually typical in her career. She preferred the stage to the screen, although her previous successes, particularly Gone With the Wind, had kept her firmly on top of the star ladder.
It was a risk to cast her. While filming Elephant Walk for Paramount in 1953, Vivien had a nervous breakdown and had to be replaced by Elizabeth Taylor. She was thereafter considered uninsurable – a liability- by producers. But she was a guaranteed box office draw, and for independent American producer Louis de Rochemont and first-time director Jose Quintero, a name like Vivien’s was worth the gamble.
Vivien initially refused the role. She said of Tennessee Williams, “For myself, I don’t believe there’s anyone writing today who can illuminate the soul of a character with greater clarity or greater compassion.” Their relationship dated back to 1949 when she starred as Blanche DuBois in the London stage production of Williams’ Pulitzer-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, and she won her second Oscar for bringing Blanche to life on screen in 1951. Vivien once told a reporter she’d play in anything Williams wrote, with the exception of Suddenly, Last Summer. She had been considered for the role of Violet Venable in the 1959 film, a part eventually played by Katharine Hepburn. It wasn’t Karen Stone’s story that put her off, but rather Williams’ description of her degradation, which Vivien considered “cruel” and “grotesque.” Only after reading Lambert’s screenplay did she change her mind and accept. Part of her reasoning seems to have been the chance to make a film in Rome. However, owing to anger over La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s recent portrayal of decadence in the Italian capital, the production company was forced to abandon their on-location plan and film most of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone at Elstree Studios just outside of London.
There were perks for Vivien, though. While her friend Beatrice Dawson designed the costumes for the rest of the cast, Vivien’s star power allowed her to go to Paris to be dressed by her favorite real-life fashion designer, Pierre Balmain. We don’t typically think of Vivien as a fashion icon. She was known for being well dressed and fashion forward in public, but she didn’t have a particular connection with any one designer like Audrey Hepburn did with Givenchy, for example. But any regular reader of Vogue or other fashion magazines between 1936 and 1960 would have come across Vivien frequently posing for Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, and Clifford Coffin, in gowns by Victor Stiebel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Molynoux, Hardy Amies, and Dior, to name but a few.
The costumes she wears as Karen Stone befit the character, described by Williams as glamorous where she was once beautiful. Karen starts her life in Rome wearing well-tailored, classic black. Later in the film, when Karen is in the honeymoon stage of her affair with Paulo, she takes on a more youthful look with a pixie haircut, pastel colors, light fabrics, and Grecian draping. Still later, when Karen accompanies Paulo to a busy restaurant, she sits in a corner wearing a heavy gold silk with lots of jewelry. This scene in particular is pivotal to the story because into the restaurant comes plucky American starlet Barbara Bingham (played by future Bond girl Jill St John), surrounded by paparazzi. Paulo gravitates toward her and Karen has a flash of self-realization: her glamour and money might not be enough to hold a young man like Paulo when there are plenty of younger fish in the sea. The age factor is a very literal element in this film. We are constantly reminded through dialogue and lighting that Karen is no longer a kitten but a full-fledged cougar. The cinematographic and costume techniques used to make Vivien appear younger didn’t sit well with some people.
I have a letter here that I’d like to read. It was written to LA Times gossip columnist Hedda Hopper by a Vivien Leigh fan called Jane Harris from Statten Island, New York on February 20, 1962:
Dear Miss Hopper:
I have just seen “Roman Spring of Mrs Stone” starring my favorite actress Vivien Leigh and newcomer Warren Beatty and had to write to tell you how unfair I think the camera work was to Miss Leigh’s beautiful face.
I realize a great many years have passed since she enchanted audiences with her rare beauty and acting ability as Scarlett O’Hara, but having seen her just two years ago on stage here in N.Y., I know what a beauty she still is. This picture made her look just terrible, and I’m surprised at Warner Brothers for the unfair close-ups of her, she looked so sickly and white, it hardly even resembled her. Why they didn’t let her keep her hark hair I’ll never understand, the ash blonde color even made things even worse, and she looked so much older than she really is. Miss Hopper, I hate to bother you, but you’ve always been my favorite movie columnist, and I’m sure you agree with me that something should be done to assure these well-known actresses that the cameramen will do their best to make them look as good as they can instead of making them look as bad as they can I’m so disgusted with the outcome of this movie, and I hope that the next time Miss Leigh appears on the screen she’ll look as beautiful as she does off-screen instead of like some old hag. I also think it’s a shame that such a fine actress has to degrade herself by playing in Tennessee William’s trashy stories.
If Warner’s was trying to make Vivien look like a very old and very unattractive Mrs. Stone, believe me, they more than succeeded.
But being close to movie people, I hope that you’ll be able to tell the heads of Warner Bros. not to bother starring Vivien Leigh in anymore movies unless they can photograph her as the beautiful star she is instead of as someone’s great Grandmother, what a blow to such beauty and talent.
After seeing some of the so-called new stresses on the screen today, I know why Vivien Leigh is still, and will always be my favorite star, there never was an never will be a greater star on the stage or on the screen, and as for beauty, in her day she was more beautiful than Liz Taylor, Suzy parker, and Marilyn Monroe put together.
I hope something will be done in the near future to protect other stars from the humility Miss Leigh must have suffered because of this film, the photographer should be hung from his toes on Hollywood and Vine.
This letter is really interesting because it illustrated conservative attitudes toward Tennessee Williams’ work at the time, as well as a conundrum that Vivien faced throughout her career, which was attempting to make people take notice of her talents as an actress rather than focusing on her beauty. It was extremely difficult for film stars to break away from their set images generated by producers and audience feedback. Take Ava Gardner, for example. Like Vivien, she was known for her stunning looks, and as a consequence she was never taken very seriously by critics, or given much of a chance by her colleagues at MGM to improve on her talents. Vivien, on the other hand was taken a bit more seriously as a film actress, particularly in America, but audiences were very resistant to accepting such drastic changes in looks and character. While filmgoers like Jane Harris of Staten Island decried what they saw as degrading treatment of a star, Vivien was actually happy to don tatty wigs and unflattering make-up if she felt it would help convey the character she was playing. This was most noticeable in A Streetcar Named Desire, but we also see it here.
What interests most about The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone are the similarities between Vivien and Karen Stone. While this is in no way meant to detract from the work she put into her performance, however knowing what we do about Vivien’s life, it’s difficult not to draw parallels between actress and character. When this film was released in 1961, Vivien was approaching 50 and had just gotten a divorce from her second husband and long-time collaborator, Laurence Olivier. The event made headlines around the world and along with it, speculation of how Vivien was facing the future alone. What fans at the time were really interested in was how she was going to get along in life and work without Larry by her side. He married the much younger actress Joan Plowright. Was Vivien destined to drift through middle age alone? Plot twist – she was with a younger actor called Jack Merivale from 1960 until the end of her life so she wasn’t alone and drifting per se, but she was frequently cited as being lonely. And even Vivien, who had spent the majority of her career on the stage, was not immune to the perils of growing older in the business. “What’s happening,” she noted in 1960 “is that roles come few and far between when an actress gets older. In the past, and particularly in London, producers, playwrights, and directors would think nothing of casting a woman in her forties or fifties to portray a heroine in her twenties. These days age has become such a factor.”
And she wasn’t alone. Think of actresses like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford who took to playing grotesque parodies of their former selves in horror films – Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a classic example of this trend. While Vivien never quite reached that level of shock value, I think she was brave for tacking a role that reflected what was considered a rather sad and perilous time in many actress’ lives and also, in particular, in her own life. Critics agreed. While many thought the subject matter and plot depressing, Vivien was praised for bringing dignity, glamour, and most importantly, believability to a character that was largely unsympathetic. It was hoped that this film would mark the start of a new career for Vivien on the American screen. Unfortunately, she only appeared in one more film before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1967 at age 53. But just think of the potential.
The audiences seemed to largely enjoy both screenings and I was able to meet some interesting people, including an elderly woman who said she purchased a copy of my book as a Christmas present for her sister who has been a lifelong Vivien Leigh fan. As children, she said, her family lived in Alexandria, Egypt. When Vivien Leigh came to town during the Old Vic Spring Party organized by ENSA in 1943, the two sisters went to her hotel and knocked on the door. “A beautiful woman in a flower print dress and high heels” opened the door, asked how she could help, and signed their autograph books. After the war, the family relocated to England and both sisters again wrote to Vivien and Laurence Olivier. They received autographed photos in return. The lady that I met (whose name I didn’t catch, sadly) had wanted to be an actress when she was younger, and wrote Laurence Olivier to tell him so. He kindly responded by saying “Best of luck with your acting career.” The sisters may be in their 80s now, but they still have the photos and the memories.
Dressing Vivien Leigh was a wonderful experience. It’s always nice to witness the appeal Vivien still has for so many people.
Photos © Leodegario Lopez
Isn’t it nice to know that, a full year after the fanfare surrounding Vivien Leigh’s centenary, her contributions to popular culture are still being celebrated? Because that’s exactly what’s happening in England next month.
London-based event company Fashion & Cinema is hosting “Dressing Vivien Leigh” a series of talks and screenings focused on Vivien’s relationships with costume designers. On Friday, December 5, V&A curator Keith Lodwick will be presenting on this very topic. Having been to a few of Keith’s lectures in the past, I’d highly recommend attending this one. This will be followed by screenings of The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (Saturday, December 6) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Sunday, December 7). The screenings will be introduced by myself and Tennessee Williams biographer John Lahr, author of the National Book Award-nominated Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.
For the full program, including times and locations, please see the schedule on the Fashion & Cinema website. I’m so excited to have been invited to participate in this event. It’s a great way to introduce different aspects of Vivien’s career, as well as to meet new people and sell books (signings or Mad Pilgrimage and Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait will follow the respective screenings – hopefully).
If you’re in London from the 5th-7th of December, please consider attending. It’ll be a great time!
Tickets are currently on sale. Hope to see you there!
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