Loving Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier – A Fan’s Perspective
Today’s post is brought to you by my friend Irina N., a long-time fan of the Oliviers and at one time administrated a fan site called Vivien Leigh: A Lass Unparalleled – sadly no longer online :(. Here she talks about what continues to drive her interest in Vivien and Laurence Olivier.
As with many other fans, my interest in Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier started when I first saw Gone With The Wind. I was 12 and had read the book first and was spellbound by the story and the character of Scarlett. I could not wait to see the movie, but I was also hesitant for fear of being disappointed. One night, my mom who had seen and already loved the movie rented the VHS. We started in the evening and watched it all the way through and well into the night! I was certainly not disappointed. No performance, before or since, has made such a huge impression on me as that of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. Of course, I also thought she was the most beautiful actress ever. I really think that had it not been for her performance, GWTW would not have become the phenomenon that it did. I didn’t find either Clark Gable or Leslie Howard or Olivia de Havilland particularly good matches for the descriptions I remembered from the book (even though I really like these actors in other movies). I pictured Rhett a little differently and Ashley, of course, handsomer and younger. Olivia de Havilland seemed too pretty and lively for Melanie.
But all of these reservations were completely swept away by the force and authenticity of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. She makes the movie. She is the one responsible for its enduring success and the classic it’s become. A young British newcomer, whose talent has carried the most celebrated movie though decades, whose performance in one of the most beloved and coveted roles stands the test of time without ever looking dated or unbelievable for even a second. That’s the definition of a classic performance and that’s what Vivien Leigh’s work is: classic. Her Scarlett alone is an achievement that diminishes heaps of performances by other actors. But it was just an early, albeit huge success in Vivien Leigh’s incredible career of quality rather than quantity.
Being primarily a British stage actress and having made only 19 films, eight of them after GWTW, Vivien nevertheless won two Oscars and secured a place among the very few true Hollywood legends. That is a pretty impressive success rate. Her Scarlett and Blanche DuBois are often called the greatest performances by any actress ever captured on film. There’s a phrase – “to capture one’s imagination.” This is what Vivien Leigh did to me, first through her work and then through her incredible life, which I learned about as my interest in this great actress developed.
To learn about Vivien is to be transported into London’s theatre life of the 1930s through 1960s and to be widely exposed to the history of theatre and its participants. Of course, one of the major players in British theatre as well as in Vivien Leigh’s personal life was Laurence Olivier. I find it fascinating to read about their professional partnership and especially about their genuine dedication to theatre. Their personal love story is a separate subject all on its own, in my opinion having more in common with great fictional romances like those in GWTW and Wuthering Heights than with any real-life relationship that I personally ever heard of.
Perhaps it is inevitable that all too often, Vivien Leigh’s life and achievements are framed in terms of her marriage to Laurence Olivier. There’s no doubt he was a major influence on her growth as an actress. But I’m convinced she would’ve achieved the same great success if he had no part in her life. In her early films, which had nothing to do with Olivier she gives very lively and convincing performances. She played Scarlett when she was only 25 and all credit for that is certainly hers alone. Laurence Olivier himself considered her to be very talented and got very upset when critics couldn’t get past her beauty. Alas, the British stage was often an uphill battle for Vivien Leigh, where she fought against the critics’ prejudices that she was better suited to be a beautiful Hollywood movie star than a serious English actress. I for one prefer to judge her on her merit and not on her looks. And her accomplishments on the stage were stellar if you choose to trust the words of people like Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton or Orson Welles. Many have said that her Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra were among the finest they’ve ever seen. We are fortunate to have a glimpse of her Sabina, and thus can gauge two of her stage performances – Sabina and Blanche albeit captured in later productions. They’re but a small example of the versatility she displayed throughout her career as she played Shaw, Wilder, Williams, Shakespeare and finally Chekhov.
At the end of her life, despite devastating personal setbacks, frail health and an age when most actresses’ careers do indeed decline, she found enough personal strength and professional expertise to lead Old Vic tours all over the world, act in films and win a Tony in a musical. Surely, beauty alone could not have sustained such a consistent, quality-driven career, made all the more extraordinary by her circumstances. This is what amazes me about Vivien Leigh and why I have such great respect for her – this ability to get up and go about her life and work, with the same unwavering commitment to being an actress, nothing less and nothing more. She never rested on her laurels or took short cuts. It would’ve been very easy for her to settle for a comfy life as a Hollywood superstar. She instead chose to come back to war-time England and get back to her first love, which was the theatre. I believe that decision was hers just as much as it was Olivier’s.
What I think she may have perhaps taken from Olivier, is being a grounded and practical professional. It is revealing to read Olivier’s letter to Tennessee Williams in Terry Coleman’s book, where he sounds more like a detail-oriented engineer than an “inspired artist”. His approach was sensible and crafty, always centering on the audience, not some vague “self-expression”. To me, this just shows how well he knew what he was doing. I saw the Three Sisters recently, which he directed after his National Theatre production, and the whole flow of the movie and of course the acting of the ensemble are outstanding, just as you’d expect from a British theatre company. It is people like Laurence Olivier, with their technique and no-nonsense approach that helped to uphold and secure the reputation of the British theatre.
Given my high regard for both Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, I find it both sad and puzzling that these two great actors are largely remembered only by their dedicated fans, rather than by the public at large, unlike, say, Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn. It might’ve been somewhat understandable had Vivien Leigh been just a well-regarded stage actress. But she was a movie star and a great beauty, one of only a handful of truly naturally beautiful actresses. I’m sure part of it has to do with simple publicity and media exposure, but I think there is also the fact that Vivien Leigh herself was always after being a serious stage actress, rather than a movie star. She steered her career and her lifestyle towards that aim, never having much interest in fame and publicity. When people recognize the name Vivien Leigh, they think of her roles rather than some image derived from her personal life. Vivien’s personality disappears behind her professional achievements, and it is up to the fans to find out more about her. She’s not an icon or a persona or a symbol. She’s just an actress.
When we think of Audrey Hepburn, we think of her own personal style. When we think of Vivien Leigh, we think of Scarlett and Blanche and for those who are aware of her theatrical triumphs – her Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Paola, Sabina, etc. Similarly, Laurence Olivier, having been a handsome romantic Hollywood leading man, easily went between that and Shakespeare, modern and classic plays, leading and supporting roles. There’s no persona of Laurence Olivier, but there are Hamlet, Richard, Heathcliff, Hurstwood, etc. These were real and private people who simply concentrated on doing their job well. I personally find this dedication to their profession worthy of great respect and admiration and I actually cannot think of any other famous stars who always remained primarily committed to their original choice of being an actor, rather than someone famous. It is unfortunate that people of lesser talent and accomplishment are the ones that are remembered today, just because neither Vivien Leigh nor Laurence Olivier ever cared about being legends, but simply went about their work.
Irina has been a fan of Vivien Leigh’s for over 20 years. She maintained a comprehensive website about VL called a “Lass Unparallel’d” in the early 2000s. This website contained one of the largest online collections of VL photos at the time, which Irina mostly scanned from different books and some other printed materials. She had to take somewhat of a break from her hobby, but is very happy to return to it now and to the vibrant community of fans that have gathered around Kendra’s FB page and vivandlarry.com.