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{Guest Post} Vivien Leigh: How Her Struggle with Bipolar Disorder Helped Me Navigate My Own

31 days of Vivien Leigh and Laurence OlivierI have a bunch of magazine and newspaper articles left over from my dissertation research, so I’ve decided to do “31 Days of the Oliviers.” Each day I will post a new article or blog post, ending with Vivien Leigh’s birthday on November 5. These articles (most of which have Vivien as the main subject) span the years 1937-1967 and come from both American and British sources. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I do!

{Day 3} Today’s post was submitted by Vivien Brunning, a fan who shares the personal story of how reading about Vivien Leigh has helped her in her own battle with Bipolar Disorder. Thanks so much, Vivien, for the insightful and heartfelt post.


By many accounts, Vivien Leigh had it all – she was a true renaissance woman. The public and Laurence Olivier adored her, she won two Academy Awards, had impeccable taste and several devoted, lifelong friends. She also suffered from a torment that took its toll, one that eventually she could not hide. In addition to suffering from tuberculosis, Vivien was Manic Depressive or as the disease is known today, Bipolar. Her plight may have been devastating and severe, but in a very profound way she also helped me successfully navigate my own journey through the lands of Bipolar Disorder.

By the time I was 20 years old I knew I was suffering from a mood disorder. I didn’t know it had a name but I knew I was in trouble. While I was investigating the origins of my first name, some miracle of fate brought a biography of Vivien Leigh into my hands. I read it. Then, I read another. And then another. By the time I had devoured all three I was dead certain I was just like her. I was cycling with highs and lows, and exhibiting a lot of the same behaviors and traits that Vivien had; little sleep needed, trouble with balance (Vivien could never ride a bicycle, I’m not much better), almost super-human productive periods followed by a ‘crash.’ Stressful events would set off manic periods for me, and were always followed by periods of long and crippling depressions, as they were for Vivien. For her, the news of Olivier’s impending knighthood set off a manic attack, with a deep and long depression following. At the time I was reading about her life, I was coming down from a high of my own, set off by receiving the extraordinary news I’d been accepted into every college to which I applied. I was spiraling down for no good reason and knew it, but thankfully, right in front of me were several accounts of someone who did the same. This thing had a name and I wasn’t alone. I also realized that left to my own devices, Vivien’s story would become my personal roadmap.

There are two main types of Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar I, which Vivien suffered from, is more severe and distinguished from the other forms of BD by the presence of psychotic features (hallucinations, hearing voices, paranoia, etc.). Bipolar II is the milder form wherein depressions are still experienced, but full blown mania does not occur. A condition called hypomania (below mania) is present. Hypomanic people do not suffer from any psychosis and often find they are most productive during bouts. All too often, however, hypomania carries with it the same risky behavior that mania does, such as overspending and lashing out. Although uncomfortable to read about, Vivien certainly and unfortunately suffered through her share of risky behavior and even at times, psychosis. She was known as being a lovely and very generous person, but exhibited odd and uncharacteristic behavior when manic. Although she didn’t remember much about the events which transpired while she was experiencing mania, Vivien always insisted on apologizing afterward for any transgressions she may have committed. This is a facet of the illness I am unfortunately also familiar with.

Another reason Vivien’s story convinced me to seek help when I was only 20 was the severity of her decline. One of the most distressing things about Bipolar Disorder is that it gets worse without treatment or careful supervision at onset, and without continued maintenance throughout one’s life. Although her treatment began relatively late in the course of her illness and ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) was given to Vivien, its administration was still rather crude in her times. Actually, most treatment of Bipolar was still in its infancy. Even medication for the condition was something of a novelty. An Australian psychiatrist named John Cade began treating patients with mania using lithium in 1948, but it was many years until it came into wide-spread use. Had Vivien been born 20 or even 10 years later, she would have most likely found more relief from her Manic Depression. But, then there’s the possibility she would never have played Scarlett O’Hara or Blanche DuBoise, and may never have had a relationship with Larry.

After reading about Vivien’s plight, I was prompted to see a physician and was diagnosed with Bipolar II. I am currently on an effective course of treatment, living a happy and productive life, and can’t stress enough that I would not be in this position were it not for learning about Vivien’s story. It may sound trite, but when I am hitting a rough patch in my own battle with Bipolar, I pull out one of my Vivien Leigh biographies. She is the epitome of discipline, professionalism and grace, whether or not she suffered from Manic Depression. Surely, if Vivien could accomplish the many things she did while battling a full-blown episode, like performing in various plays, winning Oscars and even a Tony, there is much strength to be gained from such a fine example.


Vivien Brunning is an IT Architect, Viv and Larry fan and author who loves to hear from her readers.  You can reach her at manicmuses {at} gmail {dot } com.

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TCM Classic Film Festival: Spartacus

Laurence Olivier and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus

As many of you know, Turner Classic Movies hosted its second annual TCM Classic Film Festival a couple weeks ago in Hollywood. They screened two Vivien Leigh and/or Laurence Olivier films: A newly restored print of A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951) and Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960). Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there, but luckily some of you were able to attend and report back on how amazing it was!

Kristen Sales has a BA in Film and Media Studies from the University of California Irvine (which happens to be my alma matter; small world!). She is a big fan of classic films and regularly contributes to FilmFracture and has her own blog, Facbook page and Tumblr dedicated to the wonderful world of film and her own writings on the subject, all titled Sales on Film. Kristen got to sit in on the TCMFF screening of Spartacus, which was introduced by film legend Kirk Douglas and TCM host Robert Osborne. Luckily for us, she was willing to write about the experience for! Thanks, Kristen!

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Backstage with Vivien Leigh

I was recently contacted about a never-before-published interview that Vivien Leigh had done in 1966 during the run of her last play, Ivanov, in which she co-starred with her good friend John Gielgud. Peter Coyne, a former student and good friend of the interviewer, Richard F. Mason, was kind enough to choose as the source of publication. He has written a marvelous introduction to the interview, as well as provided a scan of the letter Vivien sent to Mr. Mason in response. Thanks, Peter.

Richard F. Mason was a professor of drama and director of university theater productions at Hofstra University on Long Island from 1964 until 1993. I was his student there from 1977 until 1981, and his friend thereafter. He wrote the following interview with Vivien Leigh in 1966, when she was appearing in New York City in her last play, Ivanov. Mason was still fairly new to New York at that time, having recently moved into the Charles Street apartment in Greenwich Village where he would live until his dying day, November 26, 2010. Although he was already 37 years old at the time of the interview, there is still a touch of the “stage door Johnny” about him, even if one armed with a PhD. He often mentioned in later years, when recalling the experience, the degree to which he felt star-struck, and how his time with Vivien felt rather like being in a dream state. Writing was never as great a strength for him as teaching and directing were, yet he manages to be rather funny in his own very arch way (to me, at least), and Vivien herself says she was “delighted” with the result.

Since Mason frequently references in his interview a piece about Vivien Leigh written by Elaine Dundy that had just been published, a summary of that article might be helpful. It appeared in the Village Voice on May 5, 1966, under the headline, Vivien Leigh: On Interviewing a Star On a Wet Washington Day. Ms. Dundy describes the colorful roles Vivien has played, the exciting life she has lived, and labels her an “Adventuress.” She describes boarding the plane for Washington, hauling herself and her overnight gear through a D.C. downpour to get to the theater, all for what she labels a “Snub Interview.” Her greeting from the star: “‘Don’t come near me!’she cries out as I advance into the dressing room. ‘I’ve got a cold.’ (I mention this as the most gracious thing she will say to me in the next 20 minutes.)” Her Vivien emerges as not chatty, but catty. There is one hilarious moment: After a pause, Vivien says to the writer, “I loved that piece you wrote about Barbra Streisand.” Response: “I have never written about Barbra Streisand in my life.” In the end, Ms. Dundy must make due with terse, sometimes monosyllabic answers (“No.”) to her rather inane questions. She dashes for the last flight back to New York City instead of remaining in Washington overnight as planned, feeling very snubbed indeed.

Now, for a glimpse at a very different Vivien Leigh, as seen through the eyes of young Professor Mason in his heretofore unpublished interview. I hope you will enjoy reading it.

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Mother Courage: Remembering Elizabeth Taylor

The news of Elizabeth Taylor’s death this morning has effected classic film fans around the world. She was a great beauty and a true star in every sense of the word. Her passing signals the end of an era and I couldn’t think of a better person to write a tribute to the late screen icon than Andrew Budgell.

Andrew is one of Elizabeth’s most loyal, and certainly one of her most knowledgeable fans. He is the brains behind The Elizabeth Taylor Archives and also moderates the Elizabeth Taylor Facebook fan page. The following tribute was written especially for and eloquently puts into words how much Elizabeth meant to him, and the impact she had both on and off screen. Thanks, Andy, it’s lovely.

Elizabeth Taylor

For anyone who has ever idolized a celebrity, it’s difficult to articulate what they mean to you. But when that person dies, it’s next to impossible.

This morning the film world lost its brightest star, Dame Elizabeth Taylor, at the age of 79 due to complications of congestive heart failure.

I first discovered Elizabeth Taylor in 1995 when I was a mere eight years old. I was channel surfing and came across the TV miniseries, Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story on NBC. I can’t remember now what made me stick with this program, but I quickly became engrossed with this woman and her life story. I’ve been hooked ever since.

I could provide you with a resume list of accomplishments; her filmography contains the names of some of the greatest and most iconic films of all-time. I might tell you that she was a two time Oscar winning best actress, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), or that she was the first star to command one million dollars a picture for 1963’s Cleopatra. But simply put, Elizabeth Taylor’s greatest role was herself. While she seamlessly transitioned from child star, to ingénue, to leading lady, Elizabeth Taylor, the woman, transcended every part she ever played. Acting, for a time, was fun for Elizabeth, but real life was what counted, and she lived it to the fullest in the public eye for nearly 70 years.

Most importantly, Elizabeth Taylor used her unparalleled fame for good. In 1985, government leaders around the world were allowing their people to die of AIDS because it was a disease associated with homosexuals. Elizabeth got angry, refused to remain complacent, and began to work tirelessly on the APLA Commitment to Life Dinner, becoming one of the first celebrities to lend their names to the cause. Despite death threats, Elizabeth’s singular courage and determination would see her become the face of HIV/AIDS, co-founding amfAR in 1985, and her own Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation in 1991. Because of her, millions of people are alive today and fundraising for the disease became acceptable.

I was fortunate enough to have seen my idol, Elizabeth Taylor, twice in person. In 2005 she was honoured with the BAFTA/LA Britannia Award for Excellence in International Entertainment. It was one of those moments you can only dream about. I turned away from the chatter at my table to look into film history’s most storied eyes. I sat in my chair transfixed, but snapped out of it in time to muster, “Hi!” She beamed a smile back at me and returned the greeting before heading backstage.

Two years later I was seated in the audience among LA’s glitterati to watch Elizabeth Taylor perform in Love Letters. It was her first time on stage in nearly a quarter of a century, and she was acting alongside James Earl Jones. Seated in a wheelchair, she was a revelation in the part of Melissa Gardner, a tragic figure that recalled some of her best work. But most astounding was her steadfast commitment to HIV/AIDS. Despite ill health, it was still her top priority, and that is the legacy I hope we’ll all remember.

Today I celebrate Elizabeth Taylor, a woman who utilized her fame for good, and left the world a better place because of it.

Please consider making a donation to The Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation.

[tags]Elizabeth Taylor, classic film[/tags]

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A Letter from France

In keeping with the theme of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier location scouting, I’m excited to share this guest post with you.  Tanguy is a Vivien and Larry fan from France, and he has researched and written a fascinating history of the Oliviers’ adventures in his home country.  Vivien Leigh fans most likely know Tanguy from his amazing youtube video tributes, which I highly recommend watching for rare footage and photos. Thanks, Tanguy!  Now, who wants to take a field trip to Paris?


The Hôtel de France Choiseul is a four floor building located in rue Saint Honoré. The very simple and nearly common facades don’t compete with the high elegance of the Lutecia, or Georges V, both of the same period. The main entrance is discreetly set between beautiful luxury boutiques. And you could pass in front of the carved dark brown door without paying attention or getting the slightest hint of its past popularity with a prestigious and international clientele. President and Mrs Franklin Delano Roosevelt honeymooned there. People still leave nostalgic posts on the Hôtel’s website, remembering the warm atmosphere and the beautiful bedrooms with little flowery Victorian wallpaper overlooking Paris rooftops, with a curious mention of a domestic turtle which roamed around the interior garden room and ate lettuce.

The register doesn’t mention if the turtle was already there when Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier visited for the first time. Neither did anyone talk about the haughty and snobbish staff which drives a regular customer to prepare her best “I’m snottier than you” attitude just to fit in every time she stays there. But Denise Tual, a very famous literary figure on the Parisian scene, remembers being slightly shocked when hearing first from Alexander Korda that Vivien and Larry had settled there  for their  first post war trip to the capital of France.

The Hotel de France Choiseul

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