From Scarlett to Blanche - Vivien Leigh’s 11 most memorable films
PUBLISHED: 07:53 05 November 2018 | UPDATED: 08:12 05 November 2018
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Film and stage legend Vivien Leigh was born 105 years ago, on November 5, 1913. Here is a look back at her greatest movies.
The camera always loved Vivien Leigh. Whether in a still photo or on film, her beauty is breathtaking.
Yet Leigh herself believed that her looks got in the way of serious recognition as an actress.
She once commented: “I think beauty can be a great handicap, if you really want to look like the part you’re playing, which isn’t necessarily like you.”
But, when you watch her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, it is hard to separate her beauty from her greatness as an actress. It all contributes to an undeniable star quality which makes her riveting to watch.
Her romance with another icon of stage and screen, Sir Laurence Olivier, might have been less glamorous and perfect than it seems, but there is no denying their chemistry together on film.
Leigh’s original name was “Vivian Mary Hartley”, although she later changed the spelling to “Vivien”. She was born in Darjeeling, India in 1913, but sent to a convent school in Roehampton, London, at the age of six. One of her early schoolfriends was another future film star, Maureen O’Sullivan who played Jane in the Tarzan movies.
The young Vivien later travelled with her parents and attended schools in France and Italy, before becoming a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.
She didn’t complete her training at RADA, leaving to marry barrister Leigh Holman, and giving birth to her daughter, Suzanne. She went on to adopt her first husband’s name when she made her stage debut.
Leigh made her first appearances on both stage and screen in 1935, and quickly built a reputation as a fine actress. In 1937, she starred as Ophelia opposite Olivier in a famous stage production of Hamlet at Elsinore in Denmark, and on film with him in Fire Over England.
Then came her journey to Hollywood and casting as Scarlett O’Hara, which turned her into a huge international star.
Sadly, the mental illness which overshadowed her marriage also led to her having a reputation as “difficult”, and made studios sometimes reluctant to cast her in her later career.
Leigh made only 19 films, but won two Oscars and was acclaimed for many demanding stage roles, packing a lot into her short life.
Her determination to perform to the height of her ability, despite her illness, shone through and made her an inspiration to others.
She also suffered from TB, which finally claimed her life in 1967, at the age of 53.
More than half a century after her death, our fascination with this iconic star is still as great as ever, as exhibitions of costumes, photographs and scripts have shown.
Now the makers of the hit TV mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan are also reportedly working on a new project based on Vivien’s life, which could introduce her to a whole new generation.
Vivien Leigh’s 11 most memorable films
Fire Over England (1937)
This stirring, patriotic swashbuckler, a historical drama centring on the Spanish Armada, is still hugely enjoyable. It is notable as the first time that Olivier and Leigh starred together on screen, both looking impossibly young and beautiful. Flora Robson is actually the top-billed star, giving a powerhouse performance as Queen Elizabeth I. Leigh plays 18-year-old lady-in-waiting, Cynthia, the sweetheart of brave Michael Ingolby (Olivier), who is sent to spy on the Spanish. Despite fairly limited screen time, Leigh makes a strong impression, especially in a scene where she has to tell Michael how much she will miss him while he is away, and imagines what her life would be like if she were to lose him. This scene gives a glimpse of the fire which she would show as Scarlett O’Hara two years later.
A Yank at Oxford (1938)
Vivien Leigh famously starred with Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge, but they first appeared together in this British comedy-drama. Taylor plays an American athlete who wins a scholarship to attend Oxford University. Leigh doesn’t play the romantic lead here - that part went to her old schoolfriend, Maureen O’Sullivan - but she clearly has fun as the outrageously flirtatious Elsa Craddock. Her performance in this film reportedly helped to win her the part of Scarlett O’Hara.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
The search for Scarlett famously saw almost every female Hollywood star auditioned - from Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, to Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Lana Turner. As a British actress who was almost unknown in the US, Leigh seemed a highly unlikely choice for the role of the ultimate Southern belle. But she stole the part from under the noses of a long list of established stars and made it her own, so that it’s now hard to imagine anyone else playing it. The role also won Leigh the first of her two best actress Oscars.
Like the original novel by Margaret Mitchell, David O Selznick and Victor Fleming’s lavish Technicolor American Civil War epic embodies attitudes which are difficult for modern audiences to swallow, in particular the view of slavery and the stereotyping of the African-American characters.
Despite these problems, it is still a stunning film, recognised as one of the crowning achievements of what is often described as Hollywood’s greatest year. And Leigh’s performance as the selfish, spirited, unstoppable Scarlett is simply luminous. One of her greatest scenes, against a backdrop of fire, sees her vow that she will survive, with the line: “I will never be hungry again.” But then, there are so many memorable moments and lines which have passed into the language, from the lighthearted “Fiddle dee dee,” to the poignant, “Tomorrow is another day.” Scarlett and Rhett, as portrayed by Leigh and Clark Gable became one of the most romantic and passionate film couples of all time.
If you’ve only seen this film on TV, it is really one to watch out for in a cinema revival, because it’s quite a different experience to see its spectacular set-pieces on the big screen, with the music blaring out.
Waterloo Bridge (1940)
Leigh returned to her English accent and to black and white for this moving drama, directed by Mervyn Le Roy, which was one of her personal favourites. The film was made during the Second World War and obviously has resonances of that conflict, featuring fashions and hairstyles from that era, However, it is a remake of a 1931 film and most of its events are actually set during the First World War. Leigh stars as a young ballet dancer who falls in love with an army captain, Robert Taylor, but finds it hard to survive while he is away at war. One review, featured in a trailer for a rerelease, pays tribute to her performances as, “dazzling, inexhaustible, vibrant and vital - worth all of the superlatives lavished upon her.”
21 Days Together (1940)
Although released in 1940, this British thriller was actually made in 1937/38 and shelved for two years, until it was released in the wake of Gone with the Wind. It was the second film to star Leigh and Olivier “excitingly together,” as the film posters had it, with Olivier actually cast as a character called Larry. Directed by Basil Dean, the film was based on a play by John Galsworthy and has a script partly written by Graham Greene, centring on a crime of violence. While this may not be one of Leigh or Olivier’s greatest films, it’s fascinating to see the couple together in a contemporary setting.
That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Leigh and Olivier, by now married, star opposite one another again, returning to historical drama in this film directed by Alexander Korda. Passion boils over as Olivier plays Lord Nelson with Leigh as Emma, Lady Hamilton. Also known as Lady Hamilton, it’s an epic with the proverbial “cast of thousands”, but was made in black-and-white rather than Technicolor. The film follows the rise and fall of Emma, a young courtesan who married an ambassador, only to fall in love with naval hero Nelson. There are slight shades of Scarlett about Emma, as she declares in one key scene: “Shame? I’m not ashamed. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Said to be Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite film, the movie includes some memorable battle scenes and draws parallels between the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War.
Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
This Technicolor historical romance, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play, was said to be the most expensive film ever made in Britain at the time of its release, costing nearly £1.28million. It ran into problems during production because of the war and Leigh’s mental health, and wasn’t a success the US box office, though it did better in Britain, If you enjoy historical spectaculars, this is definitely worth a look, for scenes like the Battle of the Nile and for the sheer gorgeousness of the Pharaohs’ palaces. But, inevitably, there just isn’t the same chemistry between Leigh and the aging Claude Rains, as Caesar, as there is with Olivier in That Hamilton Woman. A young and handsome Stewart Granger also stars.
Anna Karenina (1948)
After Cleopatra and Lady Hamilton, Leigh played another great tragic beauty, following here in the footsteps of Garbo, who had played Tolstoy’s heroine in 1935. Ralph Richardson plays her cold-hearted husband, Karenin, with handsome Irish actor Kieron Moore as her lover Count Vronsky. This film, directed by Julien Duvivier, proved to be a box-office flop, and is still overshadowed by memories of Garbo. But Leigh’s performance, just three years before in A Streetcar Named Desire, has worn well and brings a power and vulnerability to Anna. One of the greatest scenes is a train passing through a snowbound landscape, as Leigh stares out through the carriage window.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Despite playing English women in many of her films, Leigh won both her Oscars for roles as southern belles. However, although she might use a version of the same accent here that she learned for Scarlett O’Hara, faded teacher Blanche DuBois belongs to another world. Leaving her home in Mississippi for reasons which only become clear later, Blanche travels to New Orleans to live with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), but comes into conflict with Kim’s overbearing, slobbish husband, Stanley (Marlon Brando, in the role which made him a star.) Leigh pours all her real-life experience and emotions into the role of the unstable Blanche. It’s a fearless and unforgettable performance, creating the perfect contrast to Brando and his completely different style of acting.
The Deep Blue Sea (1955)
After Streetcar, Leigh starred in another adaptation of a stage play, this time by Terence Rattigan. she plays Hester Collyer, who is unhappily married to a judge (Emlyn Williams), but falls in love with a younger former pilot, Freddie (Kenneth More). This film is not currently available on DVD, but it was shown at the BFI during a Vivien Leigh retrospective season a few years ago.
Ship of Fools (1965)
Leigh heads a star-studded cast, including Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin and George Segal, for this film directed by Stanley Kramer. It follows a shipful of people who are travelling to Germany in 1933, unaware of what the future holds. All the characters have their own problems, with Leigh playing an isolated middle-aged woman. This turned out to be her last screen role, and Kramer later paid tribute to her courage in making the film despite battling illness. She won an Étoile de cristal, which was then the French equivalent of an Oscar.
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