Ruling the Stage and Screen: The Legacy of Vivien Leigh

In honor of her birth month this November, we look back at the achievements of Vivien Leigh, who immortalized Scarlett O’Hara for the big screen.

Mention the name Vivien Leigh and you will likely get a comment about her turn as Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. Less remembered, though, is the fact that Leigh was also an accomplished theater actress who took on towering roles like The Bard’s Cleopatra. Hence, on Leigh’s birth month, we rediscover her life and career, and the mark she left behind.

Life and early career

Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in That Hamilton Woman/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, the woman we would later know as Vivien Leigh (she later switched from Vivian to Vivien because she thought Vivian was too masculine) studied in a Bavarian convent and finishing schools in the UK and Europe.

Taking part in school plays ignited her interest in acting. She started studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and received coaching from a private tutor on her craft. In 1932, she married her first husband, London barrister Herbert Leigh Holman, whose middle name she would borrow. With him, she had Suzanne, her daughter and only child.

1935 was a crucial year for Leigh. She made her film acting debut in Things Are Looking Up and had a number of roles in budget films.

In addition, she would take on her first theatrical role in The Green Sash, where she captured the audience’s attention. Sydney Carroll, a producer, noticed her and gave her a part in the film The Mask of Virtue. It was a role that earned her praise from critics—which did not please her in the least. Later, in the book Actors Talk of Acting, she would say the following of the commentary she garnered (via the New York Times): “Some critics saw fit to be as foolish as to say that I was a great actress. I thought that was a foolish, wicked thing to say because it put such an onus and such a responsibility onto me, which I simply wasn’t able to carry.”

Despite her feelings, she was on an upward trajectory. The Los Angeles Times relays that she won a part in a theatrical production of Hamlet, where she met Sir Laurence Olivier. Their letters later reveal, however, that they had met when Olivier commended her for her performance in The Mask of Virtue. Whatever the case, she and Olivier, who was a married man, embarked on an affair. They would divorce their spouses and marry each other in 1940. (Two decades later, after a relationship described as tempestuous, they would part ways.) She worked together with him for many other plays and some movies, including Alexander Korda’s Fire Over England.

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Finding Scarlett O’Hara

Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The role that would send her to stardom was, of course, Scarlett O’Hara. The Los Angeles Times recounts George Cukor, the film’s first director (he was later replaced by Victor Fleming) saying, on finding an actress for the movie’s lead role, “The girl I select must be possessed of the devil and charged with electricity.” An exhaustive search for the perfect actress began.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Leigh had been traveling to see Olivier, who was filming Wuthering Heights. Olivier acquainted her with Myron Selznick, brother to Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick. The former introduced her to the latter, saying, “Meet Scarlett O’Hara.”

Leigh’s casting to play a native Southerner generated disapproval from the Daughters of Confederacy in Florida, who believed that a British woman couldn’t possibly do the role justice. When the film came out, however, Frank E. Nugent, the film reviewer for the New York Times, wrote of Leigh: “She is so perfectly designed for the part by art and nature that any other actress in the role would be inconceivable…The very embodiment of the selfish, hoydenish, slant-eyed miss who tackled life with both claws and a creamy complexion, asked no odds of any one [sic] or anything—least of all her conscience—and faced at last a defeat which, by her very unconquerability, neither she nor we can recognize as final.” Leigh would take home an Oscar for Best Actress.

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Shining onstage

Vivien Leigh in Anna Karenina/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Despite her star-making role in Gone with the Wind, Leigh considered her career in theater more important. Spurred on by Olivier, she sank her teeth into Shakespeare, seeking parts that demanded her best. Her time as Scarlett O’Hara, she once said, was, despite boosting her career, superficial in contrast to her Shakespearean Cleopatra.

She played Cleopatra on the stage twice, reports the New York Times. As the young queen in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, she was “coy, kittenish, the adolescent becoming a woman.” Every other night she, with Olivier again co-starring, took on Shakespeare’s more mature version in Antony and Cleopatra. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times’ drama reviewer, wrote that she was “superb. We all knew that she would be every inch a queen.”

In addition, she would take on comedic characters in plays like George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma and Richard B. Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. Believing that comic roles were more challenging than dramatic ones, she said (as mentioned in the New York Times), “It’s much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh.”

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Later career

Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Most notable among her later work is her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Besides winning a second Oscar, she also received a BAFTA for Best British Actress for the role.

Says Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s film reviewer, “Vivien Leigh gives one of those rare performances that can truly be said to evoke pity and terror…[Together with Marlon Brando, y]ou’re looking at two of the greatest performances ever put on film[.]”

Other late-career highlights include, on film, 1961’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and 1965’s Ship of Fools. On the stage, she excelled in the musical Tovarich, which brought her a Tony, and Ivanov, a production of an Anton Chekov story.

Ivanov was to be her last role. In 1967, at age 53, Leigh died in Eaton Square, London, from tuberculosis, which had afflicted her for 22 years. Though she had to stay at home for a month, she had been practicing for Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance for the London stage with Sir Michael Redgrave. Out of respect for her passing, theater signboard lights at the West End were put out for an hour.

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Throughout her sadly brief career, Vivien Leigh had beguiled us all with her talent. Though it is a shame we living today can’t watch her dominate the stage, her primary arena, she nevertheless left behind a body of work on film we can enjoy. So, next time you are watching Gone with the Wind, allow her a toast—to the field she enriched with her gifts, and to the characters who have, in a sense, made her immortal.

Banner photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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