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A useful life: Remembering Vivien Leigh

Posted in - essays, vivien leigh on July 7th 2012 21 Comments remembering vivien leigh july 7, 2010

Vivien Leigh

November 5th, 1913 — July 7th, 1967

Vivien Leigh’s death was shocking in its unexpectedness. The last few weeks of her life had been spent on mandatory bed rest. Friends and loved ones poured in to 54 Eaton Square to visit, noting that her bedroom resembled the Chelsea Flower Show– a rose bower fit for a queen. She had battled chronic bouts of tuberculosis several times over the years, always bouncing back with characteristic optimism. No one had reason to believe she wouldn’t recover this time. The script of Edward Albee’s  A Delicate Balance sat on her bedside table. She was set to star opposite Michael Redgrave as Agnes, a middle-aged upper-class socialite who feels herself on the brink of madness. Had the play come to fruition, those who knew her might have pointed out the similarities between actress and character. And Vivien may have acknowledged the truth in these words in some way before plunging ahead. After all, life’s experience, she said in 1960, was the best tool an actor could have.

The press mourned the loss of “the greatest beauty of her time”; her colleagues mourned an actress with grit and determination; moviegoers around the world mourned a luminous star, the eternal Scarlett O’Hara; and those who knew her well–and many who didn’t–mourned for a woman who, despite the shadows that often threatened to overwhelm her, enriched their lives in a profound way by simply being present.

It’s difficult to name a star who was as universally loved as Vivien Leigh. She had her detractors, it’s true. Many were jealous when she ran off with the most coveted role in film history. Others were quick to point out her learned, rather than natural, acting abilities. Once Kenneth Tynan and his ilk came onto the scene in the 1950s, Vivien became a virtual moving target for criticism all because she dared to act opposite the love of her life and her greatest mentor, who also happened to be England’s Greatest Actor. But for every jealous barb thrown her way, for every negative review or misunderstood tantrum, there were ten people willing to stand up for her, to protect her and to comfort her. “To know Vivien was to love her,” Terence Rattian eulogized in the New York Times, “to have loved Vivien was also to have been loved by her, and loved with a true devotion and a passionate loyalty that might well put your own wavering emotion to shame.”

Peter Finch once said that when Vivien walked into a room, all eyes immediately fixated on her. It wasn’t just her beauty. She had an aura–an intense magnetism that drew people in, and it is perhaps this quality that accounts for the legions of fans she has retained and continues to attract. Forty five years after physically departing this world, Vivien lives on in the film roles she made immortal. Whether clawing her way back to the top as civilization crumbled around her in Gone with the Wind, or fighting and ultimately succumbing to the harsh realities of the present in A Streetcar Named Desire (and many other roles in her 19-film career), Vivien had the unique power of immediacy which has kept her performances fresh– and thus helped keep her in the spotlight– long after many other stars of her generation have faded from memory.

Writing about Vivien today on the anniversary of her death, I contemplated how to give new life to a post I’ve made every year since this site launched. What is there to say about Vivien Leigh that hasn’t been said already? And then I remembered a letter I’d read recently while doing research for my book. On the eve of her divorce from Laurence Olivier, Vivien gave voice to her anxieties about the future, writing that she hoped her life would prove useful–to many people.

If only she were alive today to witness the lasting effects of her legacy.

As of now (21) people have had something to say...

  • Haley - Reply

    July 7, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    What a lovely post. Vivien Leigh has influenced my life more than I even know. She is a huge inspiration to me. I especially love the fact that she learned her trade instead of passing it off as “talent”. Talent, in my opinion, only goes so far. It takes drive and passion and a force beyond what your average person possesses. Vivien Leigh was definitely not your average person. You do a wonderful job on this site. I can’t wait for your book to come out. Thank you!

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 8, 2012 at 8:15 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Haley!

      I agree with you that the truly remarkable actors and actresses aren’t content to just sit on the heels of their talent, but strive to always be better through hard work. It’s amazing how many people Vivien continues to inspire so long after her death.

  • Chris - Reply

    July 8, 2012 at 5:30 am

    Vivien Leigh–as impossible to resist as she is to replace.

    Beautiful tribute, Kendra. Vivien’s legacy will never be forgotten while ever her influence can be expressed so thoughtfully and poignantly as in the article above. You do our lady proud…

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm

      Thank you! I think she’d be glad to know that so many people still admire her work and her life

  • Madelyn E - Reply

    July 8, 2012 at 5:38 am

    Kendra,
    Wonderful tribute to a legendary actress, beauty and woman . She was all of theses things and more. That she died so young in 1967 at the age of 53 is a tragedy . And a loss for us all.
    How proud she would be to realize the lasting elegant impact she had on all who admired her.

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 15, 2012 at 10:47 am

      Thank you, Madelyn. I also think it would make her happy to know she is still loved by so many.

  • Rita - Reply

    July 8, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Vivien Leigh is a legendary star and legends will live for ever.But,Kendra, you obviously do care about her as a human being and that’s what will make your coming book all the more precious; not only the hard work of your researches but the genuine interest in another person..

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 15, 2012 at 10:48 am

      Thanks, Rita. it’s true, I think she was a fascinating and beautiful person as well as a great actress. She certainly had that something that enraptured audiences and the people in her life. In the movies they’d call it charisma. But she seemed to have been a genuinely beautiful soul.

  • Tanguy - Reply

    July 8, 2012 at 10:09 am

    “A useful life. Someone to love me… forever.” The exact words of Mary Treadwell, in her last movie, SHIP OF FOOLS. Speaking of similarities between actress and character… Brilliant and moving tribute Kendra.

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 15, 2012 at 10:50 am

      Thanks, Tanguy. I know, I was a bit taken aback when I read that quote in a letter years before Ship of Fools was made. She chose characters who she connected with on a deeper level.

  • Sylvia Kodis - Reply

    July 9, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Kendra,
    A very lovely tribute for a beautiful and talented lady. Vivien will always be remembered for her many contributions to stage and screen, a true legend!

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 15, 2012 at 10:51 am

      Thanks, Sylvia. Yes, I agree that she certainly has left an indelible mark on the public imagination!

  • R.A. Kerr - Reply

    July 10, 2012 at 2:02 am

    This is a great tribute to Vivian. She was mesmerizing in everything she did.

    • Kendra - Reply

      July 15, 2012 at 10:52 am

      Thanks, R.A. She definitely had star quality!

  • renata corduan - Reply

    July 13, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    LlIKED YOUR TRIBUTE;KENDRA:YOU DO ADMIRE HER; IT SHINES THROUGH YOUR EVERY LINE: RENATA

  • Kendra - Reply

    July 15, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Thanks, Renata.

  • Walda - Reply

    August 8, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Thank you for this neat site ! I have GWTW on Tivo & whenever I need a “hit”, so to speak, of Vivien I just play a bit of it & settle in. This may be a sacrilege but I actually see Lucille Ball in Viviens acting. Lucy was very under rated as an actress, her incredible comedic skill really over shadowed wonderful acting. They both use their eyes in the most expressive way & their reactions to another actors dialogue is remarkable. Lucy as the Vita Meta Vegemin demonstrator
    is a masterpiece, totally convincing shivers as she reacts to the foul taste at first, then this gradual inebriation that gives way to the “stuff” not tasting so bad after all. Look at Vivien on stage
    in Waterloo Bridge her reactions to Robert Taylor in the audience is pure Lucy. Perhaps I should describe it as Lucy channeling Vivien though. Viv is lucky to have that physical trait of being able to lift one eyebrow, a very seductive skill, (wish I could do that) I am not sure if Lucy could do that. Finally both are beauties, Lucy is overlooked, her being a comic but separate her from that & she is quite lovely. Must say though that Lucy did not age well at all she became gravel voiced, & flabby in the face. It can be hard to compare them on latter day looks because Viv died at 53 & Lucy was close to 80. I love them both !

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  • loveviv - Reply

    November 6, 2012 at 4:13 am

    Thank you for your wonderful article! I feel very touched, and cannot wait to read your book for Vivien!

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