Famed actress Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5 1913, in Darjeeling, India, to an English stockbroker and his Irish wife. The family returned to England when Hartley was 6 years old. A year later, the precocious Hartley announced to classmate Maureen O’Sullivan that she “was going to be famous.” She was right, though her fame would eventually come under a different name.
Vivien Leigh made both her onstage and film debuts in 1935. She starred in the play ‘The Bash’, which, although wasn’t particularly successful, allowed Leigh to make an impression on producer Sydney Carroll, who soon cast the actress in her first London play; and lande9d the lead role in the aptly titled movie ‘Things are Looking Up’ (1935).
Although Leigh was initially typecast as a fickle coquette, she began to explore more dynamic roles by doing Shakespearean plays at the Old Vic in London, England. There, she met and fell in love with Laurence Olivier, a respected actor who, like Leigh, already happened to be married. The two soon embarked on a highly collaborative and inspired acting relationship, not to mention a very public love affair.
Around the same time, American director George Cukor was hunting for the perfect actress to play the lead role of Scarlett O’Hara in his film adaptation of ‘Gone with the Wind’. “The girl I select must be possessed of the devil and charged with electricity,” Cukor insisted at the time. An impressive list of Hollywood’s top actresses, including Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, had long been vying for the part by the time Leigh, who was on a two-week vacation in California, took and passed the screen test.
Finally having secured divorces from their respective spouses, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier married in 1940, cementing their status as a powerhouse couple in the world of show business. The pair continued to co-star in movies and plays, but tried to stay out of the limelight, often taking breaks of several years between films, this was partly due to the deteriorating state of Leigh’s mental health, as increasingly severe bouts of manic depression strained her relationship with Olivier and made it difficult for her to perform.
Tragedy struck in 1944, when Leigh fell during a rehearsal for ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and suffered a miscarriage. Her health took a turn for the worse; she became increasingly unstable while simultaneously battling insomnia, bipolar disorder and a respiratory ailment that was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis. Hoping for relief, Leigh underwent electroshock therapy, which was very rudimentary at the time and sometimes left her with burn marks on her temples. It wasn’t long before she began to drink heavily.
That changed in 1949, when Leigh won the part of Blanche Du Bois in a London production of Tennessee Williams’s play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. After a successful run that lasted nearly a year, Leigh was cast in the same demanding role in Elia Kazan’s 1951 Hollywood film adaptation, in which she starred opposite Marlon Brando. Her portrayal of Blanche Du Bois, a character struggling to hide a shattered psyche behind a facade of gentility, may have drawn on Leigh’s real-life struggles with mental illness, and perhaps even contributed to them. (The actress later said that the year she spent inside the tortured soul of Blanche Du Bois tipped her “into madness.”)
In the judgment of many critics, Leigh’s acting in ‘Streetcar’ surpassed even her star turn in ‘Gone with the Wind’; she won a second Best Actress Oscar, as well as a New York Film Critics Award and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award, for the part.
Soon after, Leigh made theater history by starring alongside Olivier in simultaneous London stage productions of Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’, both of which were critical successes.
Despite these triumphs, bipolar disorder continued to take a heavy toll on Vivien Leigh. After another miscarriage, she had a breakdown in 1953, forcing her to withdraw from the filming of ‘Elephant Walk’ and earning her a reputation for being difficult to work with. Additionally, her relationship with Olivier became more and more tumultuous; in 1960, their troubled marriage ended in divorce.
After Olivier remarried and started a new family, Leigh moved in with a younger actor named Jack Merivale. The change of pace seemed to do her good, as she re-emerged to take part in several successful performances during the 1960s. In 1963, she headlined in a musical adaptation of ‘Tovarich’ and earned her a first Tony Award. Two years later, she starred in the Oscar-winning film ‘Ship of Fools’.
Just before she began rehearsing for a London production of ‘A Delicate Balance’ in 1967, Leigh fell seriously ill. A month passed before she finally succumbed to her tuberculosis, on July 8 1967, at the age of 53, in London, England. Marking a sad and premature end to a career that was both tumultuous and triumphant, the London theater district blacked out its lights for a full hour in Leigh’s honor.
In 2013, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London purchased her personal archives, which includes her personal diaries and previously unseen photographs. The museum’s director Martin Roth told UPI that the archive “not only represents Vivien Leigh’s career, but is also a fascinating insight into the theater and social world that surrounded her.” Selections from the archive will put on display in time for the centennial celebration of Leigh’s birth.