Beyond Scarlett & Blanche
by Tavo Amador
Because she gave brilliant, Oscar-winning performances in two of the most coveted roles in Hollywood history, it's easy to overlook Vivien Leigh's (1913-67) other movies. Like most English actors of her era, she preferred the stage to film, even though the screen made her an international star. Consequently, she made relatively few pictures. During her long, troubled marriage to Laurence Olivier, she was determined to prove herself his equal in the theatre. Critics were often hostile, refusing to believe that anyone so beautiful could be talented.
The recently released Vivien Leigh Collection includes Gone With the Wind (1939) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), both of which have long been available. Of greater interest are the other pictures the set contains. In Waterloo Bridge (1940), she plays Myra, an exquisite ballerina who meets Roy, a British soldier (Robert Taylor), during World War I. They're smitten, but their affair results in her being kicked out of the ballet company. After they marry, he is sent to the front. She thinks he has been killed, but keeps the news from his mother and breaks off contact with the family. Depressed, too proud to ask for help, she sinks into prostitution. While waiting for potential clients at a train station, Myra sees Roy, very much alive. Their bittersweet reconciliation is touching, as is the tragic denouement. Leigh is sympathetic and believable, obliterating every cliche. The handsome Taylor seems very American, but he's otherwise at his best. Mervyn Leroy directed. The film was a commercial success.
She and Olivier, free from their respective spouses, wed in 1940, and starred in Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman (1941). (They previously had supporting roles in 1937's Fire Over England.) She was first-billed as the scandalous Emma Hamilton, with whom Napoleonic War hero Horatio Nelson (Oliver) had a notorious affair. Leigh's Emma is convincing, an adulteress who had more than one lover. Olivier is fine, but she seems more natural on screen. The popular movie struck a patriotic note, with Napoleon substituting for Hitler.
Plagued by tuberculosis and poorly understood bi-polar disorder, she was off the screen until 1945's lavish Caesar and Cleopatra . Directed by Gabriel Pascal with a screenplay by George Bernard Shaw, it's a faithful version of his play, which he confidently compared with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Top-billed Claude Rains is a witty, shrewd Caesar, who resists the charms of the youthful Egyptian would-be queen while focusing on the political issues the Romans face. Leigh is breathtakingly beautiful, and gives a vivid, nuanced performance, beginning as a flighty girl and becoming an ambitious, intelligent ruler. Pascal, an almost uncritical admirer of Shaw (he had previously produced successful films of Pygmalion and Major Barbara ), directs too reverently. The first part is talky. The last 30 minutes, however, are rousing. With a strapping Stewart Granger, on the verge of becoming a matinee idol on both sides of the Atlantic, Flora Robson, wearing dusky make-up and unintentionally campy as the queen's devoted slave Flatateeta, and, in a bit, the young Jean Simmons, who would marry Granger and have a successful Hollywood career in the 1950s and 60s. (Leigh was alternating Shaw's and Shakespeare's Cleopatras opposite Olivier on Broadway when she won her second Oscar in 1952.)
As Anna Karenina (1948), Leigh challenged the legacy of Greta Garbo, who had played Tolstoy heroine to great acclaim in Love (1927) and, using the correct title, in 1935. Leigh is glorious as the reckless, doomed Anna, who throws away respect, social status, financial security, and surrenders her son to live with Count Vronsky (handsome Kieron Moore). If audiences are to find Anna affecting, the actress playing her must convince them that she has no control over her feelings – Anna must follow them no matter what may happen. Leigh is utterly compelling, a supremely romantic creature, helplessly self-destructive. Viewers watching as she slowly, inexorably moves towards her tragic fate are unlikely to remain dry-eyed. She's better than Garbo. Keira Knightley was foolish to invite comparisons. Ralph Richardson is a chilling Karenin, demanding sympathy for his humiliation, yet remaining unlikeable.
Leigh's physical and mental health remained frail, and she was often unable to work. She made only four more movies: Streetcar, The Deep Blue Sea (1955), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961, the year she and Olivier divorced), and played one last aging, southern beauty, Mary Treadwell in 1965's Ship of Fools, another stunningly etched portrayal in the unsuccessful but excellent film version of Katherine Anne Porter's sole novel. In 1963, she won a Tony for Best Actress in a musical for Tovarich.
Her 1967 death triggered a huge wave of popular and professional grief. Olivier was reportedly inconsolable. Critic Kenneth Tynan, who had lambasted her sexually alluring Lady Macbeth opposite Olivier in 1955, wrote that his original opinion "was one of the worst errors in judgment" of his career. Perhaps Tennessee Williams, who hadn't seen Leigh's Blanche in the London production of Streetcar and was skeptical of her being cast in the movie, summed her up best when he said she brought everything to the part he had intended, and much that he had never dreamed of.