INTERVIEW: Kendra Bean, author of 'Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait' on the woman, the actress, the legend.
Vivien Leigh's own tale of beauty, talent, love and tragedy is just as dramatic as any of the roles we know her for. Her Oscar-winning performances in Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire made her a household name, as did her marriage to Laurence Olivier. Film Scholar Kendra Bean has written an in-depth narrative combined with a stunning array of photos in Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, presenting the personal story of one of the most celebrated women of the twentieth century.
We spoke to Kendra about delving into the Laurence Olivier Archives, being bipolar in Vivien's time and why the actress still fascinates us in the year that would be her hundredth birthday.
RR: The BFI Vivien Leigh season features her well known films like Gone with the Wind as well as some of her lesser known titles- which are your favourites?
KB: Gone With the Wind was really the film that introduced me to Vivien Leigh and classic cinema, so it will always have a special place in my heart. Her Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is still considered by many to be one of the best female performances on film, and rightly so. I think she was equally wonderful as the ambitious street performer in St. Martin’s Lane, the luminous Emma Hamilton opposite Laurence Olivier’s Horatio Nelson in That Hamilton Woman, and the tragically doomed Anna Karenina. But if I had to choose one film to recommend to audiences who are perhaps less familiar with Vivien’s work, it would be Waterloo Bridge. Released in 1940 just after the start of WWII, Waterloo Bridge was the first film Vivien made following her Oscar-winning success in Gone With the Wind, and it is said to have been the one that she was most proud of. In it, she plays Myra Lester, a ballerina who falls for charismatic Scottish soldier Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor). In the tradition of Hollywood wartime romances, their love story takes a tragic turn, leading Myra to take desperate measures. Although not an epic of Gone With the Wind proportions, one can’t help but be mesmerized by Vivien’s performance as she transforms from a vulnerable girl into a cynical woman of the night.
RR: As a virtual unknown in Hollywood, how did Vivien manage to get the leading role in Gone with the Wind?
KB: Vivien winning the role of Scarlett O’Hara had become part of Hollywood lore before she even started making the film. It seems to have been a mixture of determination, knowing the right people, good timing, and sheer luck on her part. She read Margaret Mitchell’s novel when it was published in England in 1937, knew of David O. Selznick’s massive search for Scarlett, and was convinced the role should be hers. Vivien was fortunate to be under contract to the Hungarian producer Alexander Korda, whose partnership with United Artists allowed many of his British films to be shown in the United States. This meant that David O. Selznick was aware of Vivien before he met her, even if she didn’t register in the public consciousness at the time. Along with her Korda connection, Vivien made her own attempts to ensure that Selznick took notice. She invited her friend, the photographer Angus McBean, to take a set of alluring photos that represented her idea of Scarlett, with the intention of mailing them to Hollywood. Then, in 1938, director William Wyler came to London to convince Laurence Olivier to play Heathcliff in Samuel Goldwyn’s Hollywood film version of Wuthering Heights. Vivien really wanted to play the role of Cathy Earnshaw, but it had already been promised to Merle Oberon. Nevertheless, Olivier finally accepted the part, and Vivien followed him to Hollywood. Olivier’s Hollywood agent happened to be David Selznick’s brother Myron. When Olivier arranged a meeting between Myron and Vivien, the agent saw enough potential in her to drive both her and Olivier to the Selznick backlot, where his brother and director George Cukor had started filming the epic burning of Atlanta scene. The story goes that David Selznick took one look at Vivien and knew he had found his Scarlett. We don’t know if it happened exactly this way, but we do know that she was offered a screen test almost immediately. The footage still survives, and when comparing Vivien’s tests to those of the other actresses vying for the part, it’s pretty obvious why she was chosen in the end.
RR: You've had access to the Laurence Olivier archives to write about Vivien's love affair with the actor; what do you think it is about their relationship that fascinates everyone?
KB: The Oliviers were one of the great celebrity power couples of the 20th century. They were glamorous, beautiful, successful, well respected in their profession. They were also, at least for a good while, genuinely in love, and it doesn’t seem they ever completely got over one another. Vivien certainly continued to venerate him for the rest of her life. To the fans that flocked to see their films and stage performances, they represented a romantic ideal, and they were very good at maintaining their mutual public image – so much so that people were shocked when they divorced after 20 years of marriage. I think the fact that things didn’t work out for them in the end is part of why people are still fascinated by their story today. The idea of the tragic romance is appealing.
RR: Vivien battled with bipolar disorder- was she diagnosed at the time or is that a conclusion medics have come to now? Given that it's a condition which is still widely misunderstood today, it must have been very difficult to deal with in Vivien's day- how did it effect her life?
KB: Vivien was diagnosed as bipolar (back then it was referred to as manic depression) in 1953 after suffering a widely reported mental crisis while making the film Elephant Walk. It was very difficult for her and her loved ones to deal with, and it affected both her career and her personal relationships (most famously her marriage to Olivier). She was hospitalized several times in the following years and underwent electroshock therapy, which was then the common treatment for mood disorders. Vivien’s frail physical health was fairly well known; she also suffered bouts of tuberculosis throughout her adult life. However, mental illness was a very taboo subject in Vivien’s time. It wasn’t like today where actors such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Stephen Fry are public spokespeople for bipolar awareness. Public admission would have meant the end of Vivien’s career and likely social ostracism. Most people who knew her were unaware that what she suffered from was a legitimate illness, and even those who did know about it lacked the understanding that we have of this illness today. The public weren’t made aware of the situation until ten years after Vivien died and Anne Edwards published her revealing biography, which was pretty controversial at the time.
RR: Your book features interviews with people who knew Vivien- can you give us an example of the sort of people you spoke to?
KB: Most of Vivien’s close friends have sadly passed away, but there are still some people around who had interesting stories and were willing to share them with me. Some of the people I spoke to included Olivia de Havilland, the only remaining star of Gone With the Wind, and Renee Asherson who played Stella opposite Vivien’s Blanche in the London stage version of Streetcar. I had a lovely chat with Vivien’s sister-in-law Hester who was married to Olivier’s older brother and who lived in the cottage at the Oliviers’ country estate for a number of years. Hester’s daughter Louise had some great memories, as well. I also got to interview a few of the actors and crew members who worked with Vivien in the 1950s and 60s on stage, and Olivier’s eldest son Tarquin, who was really fond of his step-mother.
RR: This year would be Vivien's 100th birthday, what do you think she would make of the public's obsession with film stars today?
KB: People have been obsessed with film stars since the early days of cinema, so I don’t think that aspect has changed much over the years. Vivien was used to public adulation during her lifetime and although there are stories of her sometimes feeling ill at ease around people who approached her, she was kind and even indulgent toward her fans. Part of that kindness probably stemmed from the fact that she was aware of the role fans play in a star’s success. She wanted to bring joy to people’s lives through her work, and she succeeded in winning the public over in such a way that she remained popular despite periodical, long absences from both stage and screen. In addition, she knew what it was like to be a fan. George Robey was her favorite actor when she was an adolescent, and she saw his show Round in Fifty sixteen times. She also sat through 14 performances of Olivier’s Hamlet during the 1937 Old Vic season, so I think she understood that sort of mentality to some extent. What Vivien wouldn’t enjoy about the nature of public adulation today is the invasiveness of the press. She was very lucky that she lived in a time when reporters and photographers were more respectful of people’s personal lives and the studios had a lot of control over what was printed about stars. The paparazzi emerged around 1960 and Vivien died in 1967 so she never really experienced an invasion of privacy on the level that many actors do today. I’d hate to think what would have happened if TMZ had been around in Vivien’s day.
We have one copy of 'Vivien Leigh: An Initimate Portrait' to be won.To enter the competition, send an email to email@example.com with the correct answer in the ‘subject’ box. The winner will be randomly selected.
Q: How many Oscars did Vivien Leigh win?
A: .1) one .2) two .3) three .4) none
You can order your copy of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait from any of the sellers linked to here.
Kendra will be signing copies of the book here on 5th November.