My first reaction on seeing Vivien Leigh was one of stunned disbelief. I’d thought her beautiful on screen, but was totally unprepared for the personal impact. She was wearing a simple black jersey dress, the figure was superb, but the symmetry of the face beyond belief. I’d never seen anything so perfect. As I gaped, Renée Asherson complimented her on her dress.
“I’m glad you like it, “said Vivien, “you’re going to see a lot of it in the next few weeks.”
Our distinguished director was systematically altering the script and, on occasion, cutting it. I found this disturbing because nobody was really giving a performance, most of the Southern accents were abominable, and until they were right, many of the nuances of the lines would be lost. The only person who argued from time to time was Vivien.
“Puss,” she’d say, “are you absolutely sure you want to cut that line?”
“Puss,” he’d reply, “absolutely.”
One day Renée read a line a line, and Sir Laurence said, “I’m afraid that will have to go.”
“Larry,” said Vivien, “you must be joking!”
“But I’m not, Puss, I’m not.”
“Not only is it the most important line in the play, it’s the point of the play!”
“A London audience will laugh, and we can’t afford a laugh here.”
For the next five minutes, they went at it hammer and tongs with neither giving way. Then Sir Laurence, realising that the cast was being treated to what had become a family row between the theatre’s best-known husband and wife, called a halt.
“We must get on with the rehearsal, Puss. We’ll hold this in abeyance and discuss it later.”
For the rest of the play Vivien gave a very sulky reading.
As rehearsal progressed I became convinced of three things:
1. that Olivier was a brilliant director
2. that he didn’t understand the play, and
3. that Vivien did
But there was a more important problem. Vivien Leigh was not an actress, and knew it. She also knew that the person who understood her limitations best was her husband, the director. So…when he gave her a direction she knew was wrong for the play, she couldn’t be certain if he was giving that direction simply because he didn’t understand, or to find a way around her inadequacies.
Early in the second week of the Manchester run I had my first intimation of “something strange about Vivien”.
The only time we ever spent together alone, off-stage, was a two-minute period before the curtain went up on the second act, which began with the two of us walking up a ramp to “the street”. We’d engage in conversation about what had happened during the day. Sometimes she’d be Lady Olivier, and sometimes she’d be Vivien, depending largely on how the first act had gone. As Vivien she’d be friendly, and curious about the activities of other members of the cast. As Lady Olivier she’d be aloof and formal. One night, definitely as Vivien, she confided that she and Larry were having dinner that evening after the show with David O Selznick and his new wife, Jennifer Jones, as well as the former Mrs Selznick, Irene.
She said, “I think I’m going to play Blanche in the film of Streetcar, and I’m going to suggest to David that you should play Mitch, because I think you’re so good in the role.”
On the Saturday night I realised we were at the end of our Manchester run, and I wouldn’t see Vivien again until the following week in London, so I swallowed my pride and asked if she’ mentioned me to Mr Selznick. Smoothing an invisible crease from her skirt on which she appeared to be concentrating, she said casually, “Oh…yes, I did mention you to David as a possibility for Mitch in the film.”
After a fairly long pause, and hating myself, I said, “What was his reaction?”
There was another long pause, then just as the curtain rose, she said, “Oh…he said…’a bit Shirley Temple, I thought’.”
Then she linked her arm in mine and we started walking up the ramp to begin the scene. It was the first of many similar encounters I was to have with Vivien, or Lady Olivier. She had this endearing quality of expressing admiration and affection until the result she wanted was achieved, then she’d favour you with a head butt.
Within the few minutes before curtain-up there was always a brief gossip conducted by Vivien from the chaise-lounge that was part of the set. One night she singled me out for attention because she’d read somewhere that I was doing a series with Gracie Fields on Radio Luxembourg. Did I think Gracie would be interested in seeing Streetcar? Vivien would arrange it to suit Gracie. Any night…any night at all. I promised to speak to Gracie.
Later, I asked one of the other women in the cast just why Vivien Leigh was so interested in impressing Gracie Fields, of all people. The actress said: “Vivien’s first screen role was in a small parting in a film starring Gracie Fields.”
At our next recording session I chose a moment to mention Vivien’s invitation to Gracie.
“Ee, love” she said, “I don’t think it’s my cup of tea, do you?”
I didn’t, but I also didn’t fancy the idea of telling Vivien that, for whatever reason, Gracie wasn’t accepting the invitation. Somehow I managed to persuade Miss Fields to come to the Aldwych Theatre on a specific Saturday night accompanied by a friend.
Vivien expressed herself delighted, the tickets were arranged and delivered by me.
After the show, back in my dressing room I found Gracie seated at the mirror, scribbling a note.
“I’m writing to Vivien,” she said. “I was right, love. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I thought you were all lovely, and that’s what I’m saying in this note. Would you be kind enough to deliver it for me?”
“You mean you’re not going round to see her?”
“I couldn’t, love. I just couldn’t.”
Like a coward I slipped the envelope under Vivien’s door. What I didn’t know was that Vivien had laid on lobster and champagne for Gracie Fields.
Because we didn’t play on Mondays, there was a long weekend in which to forget both Vivien and Gracie, and I was pretty good at that. On the Tuesday evening before curtain-up Vivien was vivacious and friendly, recounting stories of what had happened at the weekend at Notley Abbey. It wasn’t until we were standing together before the last scene in the second act that, as I went to taker her hand, she pulled it away. Then as the curtain rose, and we started walking up the ramp that represented the street she said quietly, “I don’t think much of your friend’s manner.”
I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. What friend? There wasn’t time to ask her; we were into the scene.
As it happened, the scene played better that night than it ever had before. The audience reacted superbly and Vivien, I think, forgot about Gracie.
I didn’t. I just kept wondering what she’d meant. It never occurred to me to connect “my friend” and Gracie. I meant to have it out with Vivien as soon as the curtain fell.
As the curtain fell to a storm of applause, Vivien did something that happened only very occasionally. She gave me a little bump and a grind.
I, still thinking of my “bad-mannered friend” said, “What the hell was that about?”…and Vivien, thinking I meant the bump and grind, stepped back and smacked me smartly in the face, then disappeared into her dressing room. It was too late to explain.
(by now Vivien was on her way to Hollywood to star in the movie and had been replaced by another actress)
After a morning rehearsal I found a message asking if I’d care to join Miss Leigh for lunch at the Savoy Grill.
I was seated at a corner table for two where Vivien was apparently engrossed in the Times crossword puzzle. I wasn’t impressed by that, because I knew she could do it in twenty minutes. We ordered our food, Vivien chose the wine and I waited. Finally she asked how the rehearsals were going.
I wanted to spare her the details, so I said something like, “As well as can be expected.”
“I only asked, because although I’m leaving the play in a few weeks, it’s not too late to learn, and if Mr Mann is doing interesting things that you think might be worked into the evening performances I’d be only too pleased to try them.
Then suddenly she said, “You and I have something in common.”
I gave her a wary “Oh?”
“We both had TB.”
It was true, but I wasn’t sure where it was leading.
“I have a theory that tuberculosis gives people like us an advantage over other actors. We’ve suffered in a particular way that they don’t understand, and we can incorporate that suffering in to our performances.”
Luckily the meal arrived then and Vivien launched into a long discourse about her return to Hollywood and how delighted she was to go back as “Lady Olivier”. She said that while she was making Gone with the Wind she and Larry, who were not then married, were allowed to live together in a Beverly Hills house, surrounded by a very high brick wall, but they had to got to and return from parties separately. It had been a matter of deep humiliation for both them. Now she could go into the Hollywood studios in the full knowledge, that she was the wife of the most respected actor in the world, and that her own star status would be unquestioned.
Since I was still very much in awe of both of them, it struck me as odd that she’d want to unburden this sort of sentiment to someone as unimportant as myself. I was fascinated though, until I looked at my watch and realised it was time to get back to the rehearsal. I made my apologies, stood up and kissed her on the check, hoping that some of the other diners in the room might think there was something between us.
When I got about ten feet from the table she said, “Just a moment.” I stopped and turned back.
In a voice unkindly loud, she said, “I supposed you’re wondering why I invited you here for lunch today.”
I gave her an embarrassed nod.
“I was supposed to lunch with Noël Coward, but he stood me up.”
A last little head butt from Vivien.
Vivien Leigh played her last performance of Streetcar on a Saturday night, and we all wished her luck with the film version in Hollywood. I said earlier that Vivien was not a “natural” actress. She was simply doing the best of her ability what had been agreed between herself and the director. No one was more aware of this deficiency that Vivien herself. And never did anyone work so hard to offset it. Technically she was as near perfection as was possible to get, and not just for herself, for others as well. I’ve seen her walk off stage at the end of a scene and call up to an electrician: “Light seventeen on bar three needs to be replaced.”
Sir Laurence once told me that when they opened a tour in Australia rehearsals became impossible because the lightning cues were all wrong. Nothing was where it was supposed to be. He and his assistants worked for hours, poring over the lighting plot and trying to make sense of what was happening. When Vivien arrived to take part in the rehearsal nothing was ready. She looked at the lighting plot and said, “Larry, in this theatre the prompt corner is on the other side.”
“If she hadn’t noticed it,” he told me, “I’d have had to phone our lighting director in London. It might even have delayed the opening.”
Something else Vivien had to fight as an actress was her quite incredibly beauty. In Streetcar she wore an unflattering blonde wig, and covered her face with garish make-up; but I, who sate beside her on a bench for twenty minutes every night while she poured out Blanche’s story, could see through the make-up, and there were evenings when, knowing the script as well as she did, the only way I could pretend hearing it for the first time was to concentrate on the line from the bottom of her chin down to her throat. How I wished I was Michelangelo.
No challenge was too great for Vivien, and she took on some of the greatest Shakespearean roles in an effort to prove she was worthy of them, but it was only in films that she truly came into her own. A box office manager in Leicester Square told me: “That’s all we need. Her name above the title.”
When I saw her in the film of Streetcar, I was watching an actress I’d never met on stage. She even managed to diminish Brando’s performance, and it was significant that she won the Academy Award and he didn’t.
The next time I saw Vivien was shortly after the movie opened in London. I asked her what she thought of Brando.
“Such a sweet naïve boy,” she said. “He came on the set one day bursting with news that he’d got the clap. I never saw anyone so proud.”
In the years that followed I saw her quite often, sometimes happily, sometimes not. People in theatre don’t usually tell colleagues in advance that they’re going to see a play in case they don’t like it. That didn’t work with Vivien. She had an uncanny knack of finding out if someone she knew was out front, and invariably you’d be handed a note in the interval inviting you backstage where you could either genuinely praise her performance or pretend.
Our last meeting, though, was a happy one. My wife and I were in New York and went to see Tovarich starring Vivien and Jean-Pierre Aumont. We received a note from Vivien inviting us backstage and were met by Jack Merrivale. We talked of many things, and on the spur of the moment she invited us to join them for dinner that evening after the evening performance.
The four of us talked well into the night and my last memory of Vivien was of a “happy time”.