Tag: laurence olivier

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Destination: Notley Abbey

Although A Weekend with the Oliviers officially ended on Sunday the 29th, there was still one last treat in store for those who were free on Monday morning. I think it would be accurate to say that the one place many Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier fans want to visit is Notley Abbey, the 15th century country estate near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. The Abbey was bought by the Oliviers with Larry’s salary from Henry V just before the end of the war. It has been widely reported that Larry loved the house from the beginning but it took some time before it started to grow on Vivien. It had been in a state of neglect and was in desperate need of refurbishment.

Over the years Notley became a weekend retreat from the hustle and bustle of busy London but the glamorous life was never far behind. The Oliviers hosted their famous fashionable parties for the who’s who of the entertainment business. You weren’t famous unless you were invited for a weekend at Notley. But it was also a place that offered quiet solitude when needed. Vivien’s heartbreak at the idea of having to sell the Abbey  gives a good indication of just how much it meant to her:

On top of all this it seems as if Notley is sold. I can hardly write the words. A Canadian couple saw it some weeks ago, made an immediate and perfectly good offer and want to move in at the end of April. It doesn’t seem possible, does it? Of course it is looking particularly beautiful. We have had the most glorious crisp and dazzling winter days…I walk from place to precious place and gaze at the beloved views with tears pouring down my face. What memories for all one’s life—such unbelievable rare happiness, sweetness and quietude there has been here. I don’t forget the other times too, but they seem to me outweighed by blissful togetherness. Dear God it is a heartache…the fact that we have known for some time now that it would have to go doesn’t seem to help in the least.It is fifteen years—a great part of one’s life…Oh the hundreds of times my beloved Larry and I have wandered here in wonder and grateful amazement at the beauty all around us—the feeling that we were a little responsible for creating it too made it all so doubly dear. It is hard to imgine life without such an oasis.

Today Notley Abbey is a wedding venue, which means the inside is more like a hotel than a home. The outside, however, retains its old-world romantic charm. Many of the touches that made it such an “oasis” still remain: the lime walk drive, Vivien’s folly, rose bushes and exotic trees. The beauty of the countryside is like something out of a Jane Austen adaptation. The canopy of trees hangs over you as you walk down the long gravel drive. The lazy river with its reeds and lily pads meanders through the pastures. Vines of flowers cling to crumbling garden walls. If you listen closely, you might just hear the ghosts of the past whispering in the spring wind.

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Wrap-up: A Weekend with the Oliviers Part 3

Sunday morning had an early wake-up call. Our first adventure was a walking tour of London. We met at the ungodly early hour of  9 am at the Laurence Olivier statue in front of the National Theatre and at 9:30 set off to see some of the places where Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier worked and lived. Our route took us across Waterloo Bridge (sorry, guys, not seen in the 1940 film) to Aldwych, down to the Strand, up to Covent Garden, over to Soho and Piccadilly, down through St James’ Park to Westminster, over to Belgravia and finally to Chelsea. The list of sites:

  • Aldwych Theatre — where Laurence Olivier directed Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1949
  • The Savoy Hotel — where Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier formally met in 1935 while having dinner in the famous Grill Room
  • St. Paul’s The Actor’s Church, Covent Garden — The plaque dedicated to Vivien Leigh, which was given by John Mills after Vivien died, is special because it is, in a sense, the only sort-of grave marker that she has.
  • St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square — The beautiful church where Vivien Leigh’s public memorial service was held
  • The Noel Coward Theatre — Formerly the New Theatre in St. Martin’s Lane. This is where the Old Vic company performed during and after the war while waiting for bomb damage at the Old Vic to be repaired. The stage at the New Theatre is where Laurence Olivier officially became a theatrical superstar during the 1944-1945 season.
  • The Ivy — This famous, exclusive restaurant near Covent Garden was frequented by London’s smart set, including Vivien Leigh who could often be spotted dining alongside Noel Coward and other theatrical luminaries.
  • Ambassadors Theatre — Just next door to the Ivy, Vivien Leigh became an overnight star when The Mask of Virtue opened here in 1935.
  • The Phoenix Theatre — This Soho theatre is ticked away in a not-so-nice alley, but it is noteworthy because this is where Vivien Leigh performed in The Skin of Our Teeth in 1945 before falling ill with tuberculosis. When the play was revived in 1946, it was performed at the Piccadilly Theatre.
  • The Apollo Theatre — This Shaftesbury Avenue theatre is where Vivien Leigh performed in Duel of Angels during the London run of the play.
  • The Lyric Theatre — Vivien Leigh performed here in Noel Coward’s South Sea Bubble in 1956.
  • Theatre Royal, Haymarket — When The Doctor’s Dilemma came to London in 1943, it opened at this theatre and ran for over a year because audiences were thrilled to be able to see Scarlett O’Hara in the flesh.
  • St. James House – The former site of the St James’ Theatre. It was demolished and rebuilt as a modern office building, but the alley between the office and the pub next door boasts a relief of the Oliviers in the Two Cleopatras as well as a plaque commemorating the protest to save the theatre that was led by Vivien Leigh in 1958.
  • Westminster Abbey — The final resting place of Sir Laurence Olivier, O.M.
  • 54 Eaton Square — This flat (flat D) in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in London, was purchased by the Oliviers in 1958. After their divorce, as part of the settlement, Larry continued to pay rent on the flat so that Vivien and Jack Merivale could continue to live in London in style. Vivien Leigh died here in July 1967. Today, Academy Award-winning actress Louise Rainer occupies No. 54 and the bench Gertrude Hartley dedicated to Vivien upon her death still sits in the garden. You can see more photos of Eaton Square here.
  • The Royal Court Theatre — This off-the-beaten-path theatre in Chelse’a Sloane Square was the birthplace of kitchen sink dramas in the late 50s and 60s, starting with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Laurence Olivier performed here in The Entertainer in 1958. Vivien Leigh also performed here in a different sort of play in 1959, Noel Coward’s Look After Lulu.
  • Durham Cottage — Laurence Olivier’s and Vivien Leigh’s love nest is situated on a quiet street just off the King’s Road in Chelsea. It was purchased in 1937 and served at their London base before relocating to Belgravia in 1957.
  • For a full photo tour of London’s Theatreland, click here.

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Vivien Leigh and the Search For “Rebecca”

One of the things Vivien Leigh did after finishing filming on Gone with the Wind was test for the role of the second Mrs. DeWinter in the film version of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca.  The film, being directed by Alfred Hitchcock and produced by David O. Selznick, was set to star Laurence Olivier (Vivien’s then fiancee) in the lead as Maxim DeWinter.  Vivien wanted the part because she’d be acting opposite Olivier, but not many people were enthusiastic about her getting it.  It wasn’t because they doubted her acting ability, it was because her personality was deemed too strong for such a weak character.

Vivien and Alan Marshall

Even in the book, DuMaurier’s heroine is shy, plain, meek, and “gauche,” as she describes herself.  Vivien, even without make-up and silly blond wigs, is anything but gauche and plain.  Her eyes have a fiery intensity in the screentests, and opposite Alan Marshall, she seems more Scarlett in a cardigan than the weakling the part called for.  Her test opposite Laurence Olivier is very interesting by contrast.  Vivien plays it down but puts forth obvious love and intensity for “Maxim.”  When the two tests are compared, I think it is easy to tell that she and Larry were in love with each other off-camera, and this is something that Hitchcock did not want.  He thought it would not be believable to audiences when everyone knew they were together in real life.  Larry shared in this sentiment as well.  In Charlotte Chandler’s book “It’s Only a Movie,” Larry is quoted having said:

“When they called to say someone named Joan Fontaine had been given the role opposite me, I can’t say I was thrilled. I’d certainly never heard of her. When I met her, what I noticed was how young and skinny she was. I didn’t really understand what my character, Maxim DeWinter, could see in her. As I understood Max better, I decided that she was just what he wanted–someone exactly the opposite of Rebecca. He’d had enough of Rebecca, and he was looking for docile, even wilted.

“I admit I was prejudiced from the start. I’d exerted my influence to persuade Selznick that the best possible choice for the part was Vivien. Vivien had her heart set on playing opposite me, and she loved the part, which she tested for. She was a very good actress, and it was rather mortifying for me not to have been more influential. It affected our personal lives for a while…

“I didn’t like having to plead Vivien’s case, but I couldn’t say no to her. Hitch was very decent about it. But the worst part of it was I really didn’t want to have her get the part. There was already so much strain in our personal life, our divorces, leaving a wife and a child, and a husband and child in England, the European situation, the war. It was perhaps better for us to have a little vacation from constant togetherness.



“Vivien thought I didn’t try hard enough for her with Hitchcock for the part in Rebecca. Well, I didn’t. I hadn’t felt she was right for that part, truth be told.

“Vivien was exactly the opposite of Scarlett O’Hara, who said something like, ‘I’ll worry about it tomorrow.’ She worried about everything–yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But she was so beautiful.”

Despite Vivien being thought of as totally wrong for the role of Mrs. DeWinter and was thus denied the part (which eventually went to Joan Fontaine, who happened to be blond, in true Hitchcockian form), there was a role Alfred Hitchcock, at least, thought she’d have been perfect for: the ghostly, yet ever-present Rebecca.  When Hitch was interviewed by Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinematheque Francais, he spoke of the perfect Rebecca.

“But there WAS an actress to play Rebecca. A perfect Rebecca. And she even wanted to be in the film, only she wanted to play the wrong part, that of the cringing, meek girl with rounded shoulders who was totally lacking in self-confidence.

“The actress was Vivien Leigh, who was born to be Rebecca, as she was to be Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett shared many characteristics with Rebecca. Vivien Leigh had the requisite beauty. She and Rebecca were both uniquely strong women who knew that they wanted and how to get it, if not how to enjoy it. They were not girls; they were women.

“Vivien Leigh was absolutely right to play Rebecca, but Rebecca never appears in the film, so neither does Vivien. And for people who knew about the real life affair between Olivier and Leigh, that would have intruded on any illusion.”

I have to say I agree with Hitchcock. Although it’s a shame she and Hitch never worked together, I think Vivien would have been much more believable as Rebecca than as “I” in this film. Apparently the people who design Italian movie posters thought so, too.

Watch Vivien Leigh’s screentests for Rebecca in the vivandlarry.com Cinema Archive