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Vivien Leigh: Stardom and Screen Image

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Vivien Leigh: Stardom and Screen Image

Back in February I was invited to give a lecture on Vivien Leigh for a symposium highlighting the recently acquired Vivien Leigh Archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Curators Keith Lodwick and Kate Dorney spoke about censorship and A Streetcar Named Desire, and scholar/author Helen Taylor gave a wonderful presentation on the associations between Vivien and Scarlett O’Hara. I was asked to present on the evolution of Vivien’s screen image, and therefore did more of a survey of her entire film career.

The technician at the V&A supposedly recorded the entire symposium, but it hasn’t appeared online as yet, so I thought I’d post the text for my segment here. I hope you find it informative!

*Note: There were more clips in my presentation but they’ve been replaced here with screencaps.

Vivien Leigh: Stardom and Screen Image

Written and presented by Kendra Bean
Vivien Leigh: Scarlett, Streetcar, Struggle and Success
V&A, London, February 2014

In 1966, actress Paula Laurence played Zinaida in Vivien Leigh’s final play, Ivanov. Two years later, after Vivien had died, Laurence published a memorial tribute to her late friend and colleague, in which she wrote the following:

“For me, Vivien’s acting on the stage was too rigid, too meticulous. She had figured out what was best for her and she stuck to it. Having learned all her lines before the first rehearsal, she never varied a reading of them nor an accompanying gesture. She was like the most exquisite and expensive watch in the world – everything ticked and everything was accurate but it was never thrilling, not to me. Nor was it ever as exciting or volatile as she was off-stage…However, I thought her film acting superb. She was an uncanny listener in life and this truly hearing and reacting to what she heard was magnificently captured on-screen. Her extraordinary beauty, almost too fragile and delicate for the stage, was made for films.”

Laurence wrote these words with heartfelt honesty, rather than the intent to offend. And she wasn’t alone in her opinion. Many of Vivien’s actor friends expressed similar sentiments, particularly during the years of her partnership with Laurence Olivier, whose shadow seemed overwhelming. Speaking for myself, I never had the opportunity to see Vivien perform on stage and so can’t pass judgement on her skills as a theatrical performer. But I do know that audiences packed in to see her, regardless of how old she was, what role she played, or where she was performing. She had star quality in abundance, and what came across on stage was magnified on the screen.

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The Vivien Leigh and Jack Merivale Papers

I don’t talk about Jack Merivale on vivandlarry.com very much at all, mostly because he came after Laurence Olivier in Vivien’s life and since the site focuses on Vivien and Larry, Jack has always been sort of peripheral.  But in this instance I think he deserves some space of his own.

Today I had the opportunity to look through the Vivien Leigh/Jack Merivale papers at the BFI Library in central London.  These papers, among those of many other British film luminaries, are held in special collections and are only viewable by appointment after having purchased a BFI membership and library card.  As a researcher of Vivien Leigh or anyone else in the film world, really, the BFI and other similar archives are essential to getting an in-depth, inside look at someone’s life and career.  The project I have been working on for ages (I think I’ve mentioned it here before in passing) has required extensive archival research, particularly of photographs.  The Leigh/Merivale collection only had a handful of photos related to Vivien, but the rest of the material was equally as fascinating.

The papers were donated to the BFI by Merivale’s wife Dinah Sheridan, whom he married after Vivien passed away, and they contain letters from Vivien to Jack (in her always difficult to decipher handwriting)–letters from the Civil War centenary/GWTW re-premier in Atlanta talking about drinking mint juleps and eating at “Aunt Fanny’s Cabin”, from New York, from India, from everywhere.  It seems she and Jack traveled solo about as much as she and Larry had previously–hundreds of condolence letters from Vivien’s friends and fans after her passing, letters from Larry Olivier to Jack on the eve of his and Vivien’s divorce, a psychiatric report from a couple different psychiatrists, and a few photographs of Vivien in the late 1950s.

Knowing to some extent what Vivien went through in her struggle with bipolar disorder, I’m really glad she had Jack to just…be there when she obviously needed someone to keep an eye on her.  I think he was a gentle and kind soul, a genuinely good guy, and just what she needed at the end of her life after all she’d been through with her divorce from Larry and life in general.  I know Larry was grateful for Jack’s presence in Vivien’s later life.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Vivien Leigh lived such a full life in such a short time, but the letters from her famous friends and fans after she passed away are a true testament to just how much she gave to the world.  Jack got letters from Lauren Bacall, Celia Johnson (who I didn’t know was even friends with Vivien), Cole Leslie, Binkie Beaumont, Rachel Kempson, Diana Cooper, Deborah Kerr, Ursula Jeans and Roger Livesey, John Mills, David Niven, and Victor Stiebel, among others.  In these letters, many of her friends mentioned how they knew she loved him very much and how he made her happy in the last few years of her life and enabled her to carry on as long as she did.  And he responded to every single letter that was sent to him.  Jack Merivale, I salute you.

The archive is nowhere near as extensive as the Olivier archive in the British Library, but for what it’s worth, I thought it was informative and obviously lovingly cared for.  If you’re ever doing a project on Vivien Leigh’s later life, this is a good place to start.