Tuberculosis. Nymphomaniac. Manic depressive. Alcoholic. Chain-smoker. None of these are words one associates with beloved movie heroine Scarlett O’Hara, but they were the reality of the woman who won the Oscar for playing the role, Miss Vivien Leigh. This isn’t intended as a “shock blog;” Miss Leigh lived her privileged yet troubled life with great dignity and was happiest when working on the stage or in a film. Anne Edwards, author of 1977’s simply titled ‘Vivien Leigh: A Biography’, writes:
“Tennessee Williams says of Vivien, ‘Having known madness, she knew how it was to be drawing close to death.’ Having often been close to death, I might add, gave her fearlessness, a daring, sort of insolence toward life, and a kind and tender and incredibly affectionate regard for the living. She was a good deal more than a film star who received two Oscars for two of the most celebrated roles in film history (Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois), or a stage actress who won acclaim for her Juliet, Antigone, and Cleopatra. Vivien Leigh was a woman of great extremes and greater excesses. A woman whose candle surely did burn at both ends, and yet refuses, through the incandescence of her friendships and film portrayals, even now to be extinguished.” (page 287)
Best known for playing Scarlett in 1939’s ‘Gone With the Wind’, Leigh was also an esteemed stage actress, which is how she secured her second Oscar-winning role as Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (by playing the part on the London stage first). She and Laurence Olivier both left their spouses and small children–she had a daughter and he had a son–to live together and finally marry in 1940. Leigh was mentored by Olivier to find film vastly inferior to being on the stage, and for that reason never appreciated her success in Hollywood as much as she should have. Her relatively slight voice did not project in playhouses nearly as well as his, but her stunning beauty radiated from her performances on the silver screen. Realizing this and playing up to her strengths, she took roles in Hollywood which coincided with Olivier’s, or if they needed money to put on productions back in England one or the other would take on film roles at separate times.
As her manic depressive spells became more apparent and more frequent, Hollywood friends such as George Cukor and Kate Hepburn would look after her if Vivien was left alone in Los Angeles, while friends such as Noel Coward and her mother would watch over her back in London while Olivier was working. (This was well before the days of suitable medications and Vivien received infrequent shock treatments and self-medicated with alcohol and pills.) No matter how manic or depressed she got, Vivien was the consummate performer and was able to put everything aside when she was working on the stage or set. The one exception was while she was filming ‘Elephant Walk’ in 1953 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); she suffered an acute breakdown and was rushed back to Los Angeles in hopes of salvaging the film. It was not to be; a 21 year-old Elizabeth Taylor was brought in to replace 39 year-old Vivien. (Miss Leigh can still be seen in long shots filmed on location in Ceylon and salvaged for the production–here’s an interesting compilation of a few of them, as well as photos of Vivien during the production and when returning to London with Olivier a few days after her breakdown: *Elephant Walk with Vivien Leigh*)
Owing to the age of the biography by Anne Edwards, salacious details about Miss Leigh’s nymphomaniacal tendencies are left out, with only a brief mention of her fantasies divulged to close friends. Which is just as well, as any of her manic actions were part and parcel of her illness which went virtually untreated–at least by today’s standards–for most of her life. Vivien told those closest to her that she related strongly to Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ because she knew what it was like to be on the verge of madness. She also feared growing older and losing her looks; her weight and facial features fluctuated greatly depending on how much she’d been drinking and the symptoms of her tuberculosis. When she won the Tony for 1963’s ‘Tovarich’, she was in the best shape of her life and delighted the Broadway crowds by dancing the Charleston nightly as part of her character’s performance.
In 1967 at the age of 53, Vivien Leigh died at her beloved Tickerage Mill home due to complications of tuberculosis. She looked much older than her years in her last few years of life, but continued to entertain friends such as Winston Churchill at her home while acting as much as possible. I think this quote from the original Tennessee Williams version of one of her last films–1961’s ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’–sums her up best:
“‘I am not going to lose my dignity, no matter what happens I am not going to lose it,’ but just as continually she caught herself doing things that were not at all consistent with that resolve.”
By the way, the title of the blog obviously comes from Scarlett’s signature catch phrase, but it’s also one that Vivien gladly repeated to fans upon request for the rest of her life while touring with plays, at movie openings, and even at the re-release of ‘Gone With the Wind’. She had a great sense of humour in that respect. Rest in peace, sweet Vivien.