Vivien Leigh

by John Kobal
Hollywood Color Portraits, 1981

In the book “The Dream of the Red Chamber”, there’s a magical stone, which at one point snaps back at the constant demands to explain itself with: ‘What do you mean, what do I mean! I’m a stone!’ The British actress Vivien Leigh might have vented her exasperation at similar demands by us with: ‘What do you mean, what do I mean! I’m Vivien Leigh!’ born in India in 1913, Vivien made her film debut in 1934, played Scarlett O’Hara in 1939, and died of tuberculosis in 1967, long after people still died of this obsolete illness. But then, this extraordinary star, unsentimental, detached, neither asking nor giving nor expecting sympathy for herself or her characters (the two being far more interchangeable than anyone ever expected), was nothing if not contrary. She was predestined to make her mark in something as sprawling and epic as Gone with the Wind, for only in the midst of such sturm und drang would her precise articulate self-control and emotional coolness receive its due. While all around her were losing their heads, she kept hers. And it’s no surprise that she should get some of her worst reviews for her finest performance as Anna Karenina, for she was Tolstoy’s foolish, self-indulgent, anti-romantic heroine to perfection. When the train came, under it was the only place to go. No tear for such logic. Highly undervalued by English critics–what other actress was as capable as she of speaking the most profound, lengthy text at so rapid a pace, with such brilliant clarity, and without spittle?–it took the camera to get to the heart of this woman, and make the need that drove this lovely, lonely spirit all the more appealing for asking nothing for itself except to be allowed to get on and do her work. She won two Oscars for her work.

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