Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, 5 November 1913.
Attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton; schools in Europe;
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London.
Married 1) Leigh Holman, 1932 (divorced 1940), daughter: Suzanne; 2) the
actor Laurence Oliver, 1940 (divorced 1960).
1934—film debut in
Things Are Looking Up
; 1935—stage debut in
The Green Sash
; 1935—contract with Alexander Korda, and, in 1938, contract with
David O. Selznick; 1940—Broadway debut with Olivier in
Romeo and Juliet
: later stage roles in
Caesar and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra
The Skin of Our Teeth
A Streetcar Named Desire
(in London, and in film version),
Look after Lulu
; also a season with Olivier at Stratford upon Avon.
Academy Award, for Best Actress, and Best Actress, New York Film Critics,
Gone with the Wind
, 1939; Academy Award, for Best Actress, Best Actress, New York Film
Critics, Best Actress, Venice Festival, and Best British Actress, British
A Streetcar Named Desire
In London, England, 8 July 1967.
Films as Actress:
Things Are Looking Up (de Courville) (as schoolgirl)
The Village Squire (Denham) (as Rose Venables); Gentleman's Agreement (Pearson) (as Phil Stanley); Look Up and Laugh (Dean) (as Marjorie Belfer)
Fire over England (William K. Howard) (as Cynthia)
Dark Journey (Saville) (as Madeleine Godard); Storm in a Teacup (Saville and Dalrymple) (as Victoria Grow); 21 Days ( Twenty-One Days Together ; The First and the Last ) (Dean) (as Wanda)
A Yank at Oxford (Conway) (as Elsa Craddock); St. Martin's Lane ( Sidewalks of London ) (Whelan) (as Libby)
Gone with the Wind (Fleming—additional scenes directed by Cukor, Wood, Menzies, and David O. Selznick) (as Scarlett O'Hara)
Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy) (as Myra Lester)
That Hamilton Woman ( Lady Hamilton ) (Korda) (title role)
Caesar and Cleopatra (Pascal) (as Cleopatra)
Anna Karenina (Duvivier) (title role)
A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan) (as Blanche Dubois)
Elephant Walk (Dieterle) (as Ruth Wiley in Ceylon long shots)
The Deep Blue Sea (Litvak) (as Hester Collyer)
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (Quintero) (title role)
Ship of Fools (Kramer) (as Mary Treadwell)
On LEIGH: books—
Barker, Felix, The Oliviers , Philadelphia, 1953.
Dent, Alan, Vivien Leigh: A Bouquet , London, 1969.
Robyns, Gwen, Light of a Star: The Career of Vivien Leigh , New York, 1971.
Memo from: David O. Selznick , edited by Rudy Behlmer, New York, 1972.
Edwards, Anne, Vivien Leigh: A Biography , New York, 1977.
Lasky, Jesse Jr., with Pat Silver, Love Scene: The Story of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh , New York, 1978.
O'Connor, Garry, Darlings of the Gods: One Year in the Lives of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh , London, 1984.
Taylor, John Russell, Vivien Leigh , London, 1984.
Walker, Alexander, Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh , London, 1987.
Vickers, Hugo, Vivien Leigh , London, 1988.
McBean, Angus, Vivien Leigh: A Love Affair in Camera , Oxford, 1989.
Guandalini, Gina, Vivien Leigh , Rome, 1990.
Molt, Cynthia Marylee, Vivien Leigh: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, Connecticut, 1992.
On LEIGH: articles—
Current Biography 1946 , New York, 1946.
Raper, M., "They Called Her a Dresden Shepherdess," in Films and Filming (London), August 1955.
Bowers, Ronald, "Vivien Leigh," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1965.
Obituary, in New York Times , 9 July 1967.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 5 July 1984.
Film Dope (Nottingham), March 1986.
Stars (Mariembourg), March 1990.
Scalzo, T.A., "Hollywood's Helens of Troy," in Hollywood: Then and Now , no. 10, 1990.
Edwards, Anne, "Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier: Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights Stars in England," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1992.
Cahir, Linda Costanzo, "The Artful Rerouting of A Streetcar Named Desire ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1994.
* * *
Vivien Leigh was a complex personality though she appeared at first to be just a petite, distinctly upper-class young girl with an
It was her romantic supporting role in Fire over England in 1936, opposite Laurence Olivier as a dashing young man in the court of Elizabeth I, that led to one of the cinema's most celebrated acting partnerships, as famous a love-match in its time as that between Burton and Taylor in the 1960s. Olivier's Hollywood engagement to play Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights drew Leigh to California in his wake, and her arrival coincided with the prolonged search for a suitable actress to appear as the seductive, self-willed Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind . In the face of the fiercest competition, Myron Selznick persuaded his brother David to give her the part, and her success in a role that seemed made to her measure led to world fame and an Academy Award. Nevertheless, her special qualities—elfin stature, a grace of movement and gesture, and a porcelain-like facial beauty always enhanced by subtle black-and-white cinematography—had already been revealed in the romantic British film St. Martin's Lane , opposite Charles Laughton as a street entertainer entranced by her vagrant, waiflike girl.
The outbreak of World War II brought Olivier back to London, and Leigh (who was free to marry him only in 1940 due to the complications of their respective divorces) temporarily halted her promising Hollywood career in order to be with him during his period of war service in the Fleet Air Arm. Nevertheless, she appeared with Robert Taylor in the American film Waterloo Bridge , made in Britain, and with Olivier in Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman , in which she was again able to play the siren in a romanticized version of the notorious, obsessive relationship between Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton.
From this point on, Leigh was to maintain an active stage career, together with infrequent film appearances. She worked closely with Olivier in many stage productions, notably Shakespearean seasons in Britain and America. She was effective in Gabriel Pascal's ponderous screen adaptation of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and as the ill-fated heroine in Julien Duvivier's filming of Anna Karenina . Having played Blanche Dubois in Olivier's London stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire , she was invited by Elia Kazan to recreate the role in his 1951 screen version of the Tennessee Williams play.
One wishes Leigh had not treated the movies disdainfully in favor of living up to the demands of being Lady Olivier on stage. Despite health problems stemming from tuberculosis and spells of nervous exhaustion, she managed to enchant audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, even winning a Tony Award for her musical comedy brio in Tovarich . It is one of the cinema's great ironies that a genteel Englishwoman's most notable screen roles were both quintessentially American Southern belles. In inhabiting the fierce soul of Dixie in Gone with the Wind and then illuminating the decline visited upon Southern hospitality in Streetcar Named Desire , Leigh rose to the occasion of giving definitive interpretations to two great roles in one lifetime. If one examines Joanne Whaley-Kilmer chafing udder her starched petticoats in television's Scarlett or Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange riding their respective Streetcar s, one is confronted with understudies barely scratching the surface of indelible creations Leigh clawed to singular life. If Tennessee Williams's The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone fails to camouflage its homosexual undercurrents, Leigh brings great dignity to a crudely directed film about the symbolic link between death and the decay of desirability. After this hothouse chronicle of the unloved (which can be viewed as a menopausal horror film), she turned up her pert nose at another gambol through the magnolias, the scary Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte , and instead graced the stage once more. Booked aboard the metaphoric claptrap of Ship of Fools , Stanley Kramer's floating Judgment at Nuremberg , Leigh sails above her material with a luminous portrait of a coquette unwilling to sell herself short despite the ravages of time. Magically when Leigh does the Charleston, the years melt away; Leigh always acted with her entire being, and one can sense her feeding the role of Mrs. Treadwell with her own despair about time running out. Whatever physical or psychological demons she wrestled with, she was never an actress for half-measures and she danced out of her film career on a high note on the high dramatic seas of Ship of Fools . She died in 1967 while rehearsing with Michael Redgrave for a stage production of Albee's Delicate Balance .
—Roger Manvell, updated by Robert Pardi