They were the epitome of glamour and style. They were the screen goddesses of the golden age of Hollywood and ushered in an era of cinema and movie stars that has been unmatched by modern actresses today. Before fx and elaborate special effects, these actresses had to not only look good on screen but had the acting talent to match it. Dialogue and delivery were everything. The studios were the ultimate marketing machine for these women and created glamourous lives for them on and off the screen. Starlets fade away but the legacy of these ladies live on.
Vivien Leigh’s mystique was her uncanny acting abilities and her remarkable beauty. Practically unknown in the States before her role as Scarlett O’Hara, she rose to stardom virtually over night. She was also famous for her tempestuous love affair and eventual marriage with the greatest actor of his generation, Laurence Olivier. The couple both starred on screen and on stage playing famous lovers in history and literature. Leigh beat out thousands of established Hollywood stars and unknowns for the most coveted role of the era. Playing Scarlett O’Hara, the courageous but selfish heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s celebrated novel Gone With The Wind, was one of Leigh’s defining moments of her life. She would achieve a level of cultural significance that would not be reached by any other British actress of her generation. Through her portrayal of the southern belle with an iron will, Scarlett became an international symbol for overcoming war, poverty, and suppression. At the age of 26, Leigh would also go on to be the first British actress to win an Academy Award in the Best Actress category.
In spite of her stardom, Leigh still considered herself a minor talent compared to her lover and mentor, Lawrence Olivier. He adamantly believed great acting could only be achieved on the stage and acting in movies was a much lesser medium to promote their abilities. Olivier’s meteoric rise on the stage was cemented by his knighthood for his services to the British theatre. The famous couple would spend the next many years performing classics with the Old Vic Theatre and touring intensively. They would both take big Hollywood screen roles in costume period movies to simply earn money.
Leigh would play another famous southern belle in 1951 over 20 years after her Scarlett. Tennessee William’s Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire was a tortured soul and playing her brought Leigh’s ongoing bouts of manic depression (later diagnosed as bi-polar disorder) she had been battling all her life to the fore front. Vivien had been perfectly cast as Blanche. They both had been great beauties and had a certain vulnerability which made them both tragic and mysterious. Blanche finds herself in a modern world bereft of beauty and love and ultimately realizes she has no place in this world and mentally breaks down. Her costar, Marlon Brando, wrote years later that Vivien lived Blanche DuBois. Leigh would win her second Oscar for her haunting performance.
Leigh’s manic episodes and mental breakdowns brought the end of the Oliviers’ turbulent marriage and collaboration as Theatre Royalty. Leigh would later confess she “would rather have lived a short life with Larry (Olivier) than face a long one without him.” She would go on to star in a few more memorable movies and stage roles. In 1967, at the age of 53, Vivien dies in her sleep. She had been battling chronic bouts of tuberculosis over the years, and had always refused prolonged hospital treatment. Her untimely death marked the loss of a consummate star.
When Vivien Leigh walked into a room all eyes immediately fixed on her. She had a magnetism not only because of her beauty but because of her hypnotic aura which transposed through in all her complex characters she played. She inspired many prominent and creative geniuses of the era. Winston Churchill praised her acting abilities, Christian Dior and Walter Plunkett dressed her, and the great Sir Laurence Olivier loved her. The famous writer and director Garson Kanin described Leigh in these words: “a stunner whose ravishing beauty often tended to obscure her staggering achievements as an actress. Great beauties are infrequently great actresses — simply because they don’t need to be. Vivien was different; ambitious, persevering, serious, often inspired.”