How the Most Beautiful Woman in Hollywood Lived and Worked Despite the Illness Everyone Mistook for Her Bad Temper
She was great at portraying the classical characters in the theater, and she always thought it was better than the big screen: Ophelia and Cleopatra, Juliette and Lady Macbeth. She discovered her talent in dramas and she is world-famous as the inimitable Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind and Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire. She was the first British actress to receive the Oscar and she dreamed of making people laugh. But under this elegant guise and an interesting life story, there was the very difficult life of Vivian Mary Hartley, which was the real name of Vivien Leigh.
We at Bright Side are really interested in the story of this unusual woman who believed that anyone could get anything they wanted, if they just really tried. But her life showed her a different side of things: Vivien experienced both unlimited happiness and serious depression, but she always tried to be herself.
The actress was born in 1913 and her childhood was controversial. The character of the future star was formed in the free and hot country of India where she was born, but when Vivien was 7 years old, her parents returned to England and sent her to study in a monastery to make sure “she loses the Indian spirit.” She didn’t return home until 11 years later.
And interestingly, the amateur theatricals in the monastery school she took part in helped Vivian understand what she wanted her future profession to be. At the age of 18, she entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London because she had decided to become the wife of a “true Englishman.”
Her first husband, lawyer Herbert Leigh Holman, was 12 years older than her. He didn’t approve of her love for acting, so Vivien had to drop out of school but she still dreamed of becoming famous. When she was married to Holman, she had her only daughter Suzanne, but she never managed to become a traditional English wife. She took part in shooting commercials and movie episodes. It was also the time when she came up with a stage name Vivien Leigh and played a part in The Mask of Virtue. After that, important people from the theater sphere of London noticed her as “a promising non-standard actress, who was incredibly beautiful.”
At about the same time, she met Laurence Olivier. Vivien saw him on stage and told her friend that she would definitely marry that man. The friend pointed out to Vivien that she was a married woman already and Vivien just responded with a mysterious smile. Soon after that, they started playing on the same stage. In the beginning, their relationship was nothing more than sympathy, but soon they had a whirlwind romance. Olivier remembered that he was fascinated by the incredible beauty of Vivien. Olivier’s wife and Leigh’s husband didn’t agree to a divorce for a long time, so the couple didn’t get married until 6 years later.
And by that time, Vivien was already world-famous thanks to her role as Scarlett O’Hara and she received her first Oscar.
The Gone With the Wind crew after winning the Oscar
“I hope I have something that Scarlett never had — a sense of humor. I want to be happy in my life. And also, she had something that I hope I’ll never have — selfishness.”
It was Vivien’s popularity that became a true challenge for Olivier’s feelings. He might have been a famous actor and director but he could not even dream of having his wife’s popularity. He was jealous and had suspicions even though Vivien did everything she could in order to not provoke him.
She continued to act in the plays that Olivier directed and she still did movies. That Hamilton Woman was their work together that made them the most beautiful couple in Hollywood.
At the same time, the actress had a huge personal tragedy: during the shooting of Caesar and Cleopatra, she had her second miscarriage. The shock provoked her first nervous breakdown and it was the time that everyone saw what Vivien could be like when she was angry. But she couldn’t remember anything after the breakdown and she apologized to the crew after she was told what exactly she had said to everyone.
At the peak of her fame, Vivien went on a tour to Africa and, when she returned, she found out that she had tuberculosis. She was diagnosed in 1945 and her treatment started right after that. But strange things were happening: supposedly the illness also caused fits of madness. She would try to fight with her husband and then she wouldn’t remember anything, she had very sudden mood swings: from euphoria to complete exhaustion, and these things even happened right on stage.
For a long time, Vivien tried to explain it as being tired and stressed out, but after that she went to the doctor. She didn’t get an exact diagnosis and very radical methods were used to treat her disorders, including electroconvulsive therapy. Vivien agreed to several sessions because she was desperate, but it only made her condition worse.
Later, they will find out that she had a bipolar disorder that was partially caused by the TB medications she had been taking for over a year.
During that time she was forced to be out of the spotlight and her fame decreased a little. It started to seem to her that it was hard for her to talk to directors. She thought she wasn’t taken seriously because she was so beautiful. Leigh was convinced that they wouldn’t let her discover her full comedic and dramatic talents. But the reason was actually different: she was famous for being a hard-to-work-with person because of her mood swings. Vivien did her best to hide the fact that her episodes were anything more than just her bad temper, but the rumors still spread and directors didn’t want to take the risk.
She had several unsuccessful projects, for example, the movie Anna Karenina. At about the same time, Hamlet with Olivier was released. It was just about as successful as Anna Karenina was unsuccessful and Olivier received his first Oscar.
Of course, he still included Vivien on the playlist of his theater, they traveled together, but, according to their close friends, they were falling apart: he was being consumed by his work, and she — by her illness.
In 1947, she read the play A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and she wanted to portray Blanche DuBois just as much as she once wanted to play Scarlett. The critics spoke about her sensitivity to the role: this work ended up being her second best, absolutely outstanding work that won her her second Oscar. But her inner circle said that both Scarlett and Blanche had so much of Vivien in them that she just couldn’t have played them badly.
Despite mixed reviews from critics, the play A Streetcar Named Desire was shown 326 times in the London Theater. After that, Vivien did the movie where her partner was Marlon Brando. This role made her popular again, but it also made her illness worse. “I was Blanche DuBois for 9 months and she is still controlling me. She is a tragic figure and I understand her. But when I play her, I dive into the madness.”
The illness was progressing and her relationship with her husband was getting worse. On her birthday, Olivier gave Vivien an unbelievable gift — a Rolls-Royce, and told her that he wanted a divorce. After a very difficult divorce, Vivien had a romantic relationship with actor John Merivale.
Vivien Leigh together with her husband Laurence Olivier and her daughter, Suzanne, from the first marriage
In the breaks between her depressive episodes, the actress tried to give all she could to her work. She got the Tony Award for the musical Tovarich, she starred in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Ship of Fools where she played the unusual role of a mature woman. The director of Ship of Fools Stanley Kramer said, “She was sick, but she had the courage and she was moving forward. It is incredible, but she just couldn’t live in any other way.”
Vivien was sincerely enjoying her personal role as a grandmother: her daughter had 3 children and she fixed her relationship with her mother, who she couldn’t forgive for “choosing the theater over her.” In her new house with a pond and a windmill, she had guests, and Winston Churchill visited her often. It seemed that everything was good. But her old enemy had returned — tuberculosis.
Vivien Leigh’s last role in Ship of Fools
In 1967, she pulled herself together and started rehearsing for the Chekhov play Ivanov. Despite the illness, she continued to rehearse at home hoping to be able to go on stage.
On Friday, July 7 it happened. Merivale returned home from a rehearsal, went into Vivien’s bedroom, and found her lying on the floor, dead.
Vivien Leigh died when she was only 53 years old. Every theater in central London shut down their lights for one hour in her memory. She was not afraid of being old and she dreamed of playing the roles that would allow people to see her personality, and not just her appearance. And she partially succeeded.
“Beauty is fleeting. But the beauty of the spirit, the beauty of the imagination, and the beauty of the soul are the really important things. I’m not young. What’s wrong with that?!”
Which fact from Vivien Leigh’s biography surprised you the most?