Tag: london

Recap: Dressing Vivien Leigh

events vivien leigh

Recap: Dressing Vivien Leigh

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!

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien Leigh

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!

F&C3_26Introducing Streetcar with Tennessee Williams biographer John Lahr at Cine Lumiere in Kensington

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.

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighIntroducing The Roman Spring or Mrs Stone at Ham Yard Hotel in Soho

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.

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighWith Fashion & Cinema’s Diana Mclean before the Roman Spring screening

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighWe sold some books! Waterstones did a good job of displaying copies of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait in the lounge area at Ham Yard

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighFans lined up to get into Streetcar at Cine Lumiere

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien Leigh
Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien LeighCopies of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and Tennessee Williams: mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh on display at Cine Lumiere.

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

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien Leigh

events vivien leigh

Fashion & Cinema: Dressing Vivien Leigh

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!

 ♠ ♣ ♠ ♣ ♠

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

book news events london vivien leigh

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to give a lecture about Vivien Leigh at the National Portrait Gallery here in London to kick off the opening of the “Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration” exhibit, which I was also invited to co-curate. Vivien proved to be a very popular subject last month, with a hugely successful BFI film retrospective, some of the V&A items going on display, and now the NPG show. There have been numerous articles and mentions of her life and work in newspapers, magazines, on the radio, and across the web. I feel honoured to be involved and to have been able to contribute to the resurrection of Vivien’s memory in some way.

Needless to say, the free lunchtime lecture at the NPG (they have them every week, usually to coincide with one of the exhibitions) was hugely popular. The house was completely full, and apparently about 50 people had to be turned away due to lack of space. This was my first-ever big lecture, and I was terrified. Kind of like Vivien used to do before her performances, I was shaking and grasping my boyfriend’s arm with ice cold fingers before I went on stage. But once I got into it, I felt a lot better and was glad that the audience was so responsive. It was a wonderful learning experience and it has given me confidence for my next major talk in February at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as part of a Vivien Leigh symposium (more on that soon).

I really enjoyed speaking about my love for Vivien, and I hope you enjoy it, as well. If you’re in or around London between now and the end of July 2014, I highly encourage you to stop by the NPG to see the Starring Vivien Leigh display. It’s free and it’s a great selection of photographs and ephemera showcasing her unique career.

12 Must-see Vivien Leigh Locations in London

photo essay

12 Must-see Vivien Leigh Locations in London

One of the most commonly asked questions that I receive on this site is from people who are travelling to London and want to do some unique sight-seeing. Where can they go to see places related to Vivien Leigh? As we know, Vivien spent the majority of her life in and around London. She worked here, played here, lived here, and died here, so there are quite a lot of locales that were graced with her presence.

Here are 12 locations that I’ve mapped out along a walking route. Most of them are quite close together, but it covers a good bit of ground, so make sure you bring comfortable footwear and carry a bottle of water. Of course, you can always hop on the tube or get a bus, but the best way to see London is definitely by foot. I usually start the journey at Waterloo as it’s closest to where I live.

*Best enjoyed imagining commentary in a posh British accent.

Continue reading

classic film events london

Hollywood costumes come to London!

(Via the V&A)

On October 20, the Victoria & Albert Museum brought Hollywood filmmaking to the heart of London. Hollywood Costume, curated by designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis (Raiders of the Lost Ark), is an ambitious and beautiful exhibition that illuminates the central role costume design has played throughout a century of Hollywood filmmaking. As a previous resident of southern California, I’ve seen a fair share of old Hollywood costumes before. I’ve even been lucky enough to try some on (it turns out that with enough sucking in, I’m the same size as Hedy Lamarr). But none of these experiences had prepared me for the sheer volume and awesome spectacle of this exhibition.

I met up with Zoe from Vagabond Language on a particularly cold day a couple weeks ago. Exhibitions are always more fun when you see them with someone else who enjoys the subject matter as much as you do. Several of the most iconic outfits in film history were on display. Most astonishingly, they weren’t behind glass cases, but out in the open with strategic lighting and projected images that made it seem as if we had stepped into a Technicolor fantasy.

The exhibition is arranged in three sections: Deconstruction (designer’s research), Dialogue (innovation and design), Finale (a huge mash-up of noteworthy designs).  There were costumes worn by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Matt Damon – Mary Pickford to Meryl Streep and just about everyone in between; we’re talking Hedy Lamarr, Carole Lombard, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Depp, Greta Garbo, Kate Winslet, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland – they even had the original ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz shipped over from the Smithsonian.

vivien leigh gwtw dresses

While I enjoyed the full range of costumes on offer, there were two that particularly stood out to me. These were the green curtain dress and  red ostrich feather dress worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, which were among those recently restored by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. This exhibition marks the first time the costumes have been in the UK since the 1940s and it was surreal to view them up close. I’d seen a version of the green dress at the Atlanta History Center back in 2009, but was quite unprepared for the vision of the red dress. Major kudos to the people who did the restoration. It looks absolutely stunning. It also reaffirms the fact that Vivien Leigh’s waist was smaller than my thigh.

Aside from ogling at the artistry on display, I was quite surprised to see that many of the older costumes came from a select few collectors or costume companies in Los Angeles and Asia. It must have taken quite a while for the curators to track all of them down, let along negotiate for them to be shipped to London.

Whether you’re in to fashion, film or plain old nostalgia, Hollywood Costume has something for everyone and should be on the top of every tourist’s list of things to see and do in London.

*Hollywood Costume runs until January 27, 2013. Advance bookings strongly recommended.