A Re-post. For Vivien Leigh’s birthday, which is today.
Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh, by Alexander Walker
I had seen Gone with the Wind as a kid, and while it’s not my favorite movie, it certainly made an impression. One of the things I remember about my childlike response is that I got so frustrated and hurt FOR Scarlett that Rhett wouldn’t take her at her word. That he was so skeptical of her sincerity. Especially the scene when she was crying about Melanie on her deathbed – and she tries to comfort Ashley – and Rhett, naturally, puts a cynical spin on her actions. As a grown woman, I can now see Rhett’s point … but as a kid, I wanted to scream at Rhett, “BELIEVE HER. She really DID love Melanie and she really IS comforting Ashley!” The film is enjoyable, and there are some moments that rival the best moments in any movie ever (the long shot of the road filled with Civil War dead and dying, the burning of Atlanta, the hospital scene) but as you can see, I think the best parts of this film are the larger epic moments … historical moments. The soap opera tangled-web relationships part of the movie just doesn’t do it for me. The plot feels bossy, one of those plots that cannot leave well enough alone and has to keep cackling to itself, “Let me throw THIS at the characters and see how they handle it!” The story of the MAKING of the movie is better than the movie itself.
Of course it was only a couple of years later (in my life) when I saw East of Eden and everything changed, in terms of my perspective (story at 11) – and naturally I saw Streetcar Named Desire as often as I possibly could. Thank God for late-night television and channel 56. That movie was so real I could smell Stanley’s sweat, and the suffocating stink of overblown flowers, and garbage, and rain water. To think that that was the same actress who flounced around unconsciously (and annoyingly, to me) in Gone with the Wind was hard to get my head around. What had happened to her?
Many people said that the film Streetcar was superior to the original stage production (which starred Jessica Tandy as Blanche) … and I think some of that did have to do with Leigh’s powerful interpretation of the role (which she had also played on stage). Or … interpretation might be too intellectual a word. She wasn’t natural in the part, the way Brando was in his … It was almost like she flitted about nervously on the surface of the part, hoping to avoid the revelations therein, and Blanche’s inevitable end … and I think that is actually a perfect way to go about Blanche – the woman who is so insistent on NOT remembering certain things, that she snaps … Life itself is too treacherous for this woman to survive it … not because she is fragile, necessarily … but because she is sensitive. The world is not kind to its most sensitive members. I didn’t know how close the role of Blanche was to Vivien Leigh – I didn’t know of her own mental instability, her terror of growing old, her endurance of ECT treatments, her fear of losing her womanliness … but she was able, with Kazan’s great help, to tap into all of that in her portrayal. Pretty amazing.
I still think it’s hard to look at anybody else other than Brando in that film. Roger Ebert has written about the delicate moment when Brando picks up a piece of fluff in the middle of a scene. To compare that with his brutish manners and overall boarishness is to see a true genius at work, someone who didn’t say “No” to any of his impulses. Unfortunately, I see a lot of actors who have played Stanely say “no” to things that they do not consider to be “Stanley-ish”. In other words: they judge the character, they condescend (they don’t know that that’s what they are doing, but oh yes, they are: they consciously LIMIT Stanley by saying, “Oh, Stanley wouldn’t do that …” Brando did whatever the hell he felt like doing, including noticing a tiny bit of fluff and plucking it off a sweater with almost a crook-ed pinkie, an elegant careful gesture … No limits on Stanley.) So you know. Who can compete? Everyone is good in that film, particularly Karl Malden, but Vivien Leigh burns with a nervous brightness that at times is unbearable to watch. You want to just put her in bed, and gently rub her forehead, telling her that everything is going to be okay. Even in her “gay” moments, there is fear flicking at her heels. It’s not that it doesn’t seem like it’s acting: it DOES seem like it’s acting – but that is perfect for the role as well. Blanche is a master fantasist, escape artist, and pretender. She has to be. (More thoughts on Streetcar here.)
Alexander Walker’s book focuses mainly on the marriage between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh – an oftentimes stormy yet long-lasting deep relationship. They were clearly in love, and Leigh (always a bit of a fantasist – which created many of her problems later in life) had dreams of she and Olivier being considered the new “Lunt-Fontaine”. Things didn’t quite work out that way, and Walker documents the various breakdowns and miscarriages and problems in the marriage to such a degree that I actually found it boring. Life is more than marriage. But perhaps for Leigh she found it difficult to balance her marriage with her ambitions … especially because she was married to a man generally considered the greatest damn actor alive! Not that her star needed shining … she was a superstar forevermore from her performance as Scarlett O’Hara … but she was not a satisfied person. In many ways, there is some truth to that “queer divine dissatisfaction” phrase from Martha Graham’s famous letter to Agnes DeMille:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not yours to determine how good it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is ever pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
After years of “dissatisfaction” myself, I am not sure I can say what the hell is so “divine” about it, Martha, although I would concede that it is “queer”, and my unrest could barely be referred to as “blessed” – but REGARDLESS. There is much in that famous oft-quoted (TOO OFTEN) paragraph that rings true. I thought of it this morning when I was getting ready to write this post, and thinking about Vivien Leigh and her journey. She had great good fortune. Much of what happened to her was right place-right time kind of stuff, although she did have powerful people in her corner from the beginning. She also knew what she had to work on as an actress, and set herself the task of working on it. Her great good fortune did not make her lazy. But within her, there was an eternal feeling of “queer divine dissatisfaction”, leaving her a shell of a woman by the end. At least that is the portrait painted in this biography. You wonder what it is that makes her so frightened. And yet I really relate to her in many ways, especially in her fears of growing older and being forgotten. She was so beautiful it took people’s breath away … yet she wanted to be known as more than just a pretty face. Yet when she began to grow older, she really started to lose her mind, and needed incessant reassurance she was still beautiful. It is thought she had bipolar disorder, and she also was very ill a lot of the time with tuberculosis. It was a turbulent existence.
But for quite some time, she and Olivier were the premiere cosmopolitan actor-y couple in the world, living it up for the camera, onscreen and off. They were fish-out-of-water in Hollywood (although there was a huge British colony there) and there are great stories of the two of them, early on, doing movies for the first time, trying to reconcile their stagecraft with what was needed for the medium of the movies.
(I love love love that photo.)
The impression I am left with, from Walker’s book, is an unfortunate one. She comes off as spoiled, impossible, headstrong and mentally ill. I wanted to choose an excerpt that highlighted her strengths, rather than her weaknesses (because I’m all about that … what was she good at??) I also love to delve into the moments of “first success” in someone’s life, the moment when they are first lifted up above the pack, so I chose an excerpt having to do with her first big play in London, a costume drama called The Mask of Virtue. This was pre-Hollywood, pre-Gone With the Wind, pre-Olivier, pre Korda … The Mask of Virtue was the vehicle to stardom, even more so than Gone with the Wind, because without Mask of Virtue, there would have been no Hollywood, no GWTW, no nothing. Leigh was young and full of ambition, and yet she was cast mainly because she looked right, and the costumes would highlight her beauty. It was a star part: a double-role, and Leigh worked very very hard, even though it was apparent from early on that she was in over her head in many ways. Many people, though, do not recognize, “Oh. I am in over my head. I need help.” Leigh did. Yes, the costumes and wigs helped her with her part: it created a certain look, and her beauty was of that show-stopping kind, the Elizabeth Taylor kind, so there was THAT, but Leigh worked hard on her acting as well. Here she is in Mask of Virtue:
At the same time, though, the reviews she got at the time were so over-the-top with praise (she was the newest “great actress”) that it unbalanced her for YEARS. The pressure it put on her was extraordinary. She knew that she was NOT a great actress (yet), but from that early debut she had to live up to it. And she flat out couldn’t.
Vivien Leigh’s journey as an actress is fascinating. For a brief time there, even with her “queer dissatisfaction”, she was the biggest star in the world.
Here’s the excerpt (oh, and Vivian had not yet changed the “a” in her name to an “e” – she was already married as well, to a man named Leigh Holman, which is where her stage last-name came from):
It is interesting to consider, as well, that Leigh was, even with all her experience, unable to “fake” anything. She just didn’t have it in her. Her husband (Olivier) did. He was a craftsman, and was able to take his characters far far into the abysses of their psychologies … without going mad himself. Leigh always had blurred boundaries, which caused her a lot of problems with some of her roles. You can see a bit of that beginning here with Mask of Virtue, yet she was obviously cast perfectly, and protected by her fellow cast members. The excerpt is prescient.
EXCERPT FROM Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh, by Alexander Walker
Meanwhile, Aubrey Blackburn was still urging his production chief, Basil Dean, to take up Vivian’s option. As it was in his own interest to demonstrate the demand for the girl, he reacted promptly to a telephone call from a West End impresario, Sydney Carroll.
‘I’m putting on a play for Jeanne de Casalis … The Mask of Virtue. I need a girl for the ingenue role. Anyone you can send me? Doesn’t have to act … must be pretty.’
The casting director said at once, ‘Vivian Leigh.’
Gliddon, in due course, presented the opportunity of ‘an important role’ to his client, tactfully suppressing the news of how few demands it would make on her.
In Sydney Carroll’s office there were already four other girls waiting, all dressed in black to show off their youthful looks. The part was that of a young eighteenth-century prostitute who is presented as a girl of unblemished reputation and rank in order to compromise a French aristocrat. The dramatist Ashley Dukes had adapted it from the German of Carl Sternheim, who in turn had lifted it from a conte by Diderot (and much later, in 1945, it would form the basis of the Robert Bresson-Jean Cocteau film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne).
Though the girl’s was not the leading role, it was one that would grip the audience and to say that the actress ‘didn’t have to act’ was a considerable misstatement. She had to suggest how her real love for the victim of the cruel joke chastened and redeemed her. Perhaps Sydney Carroll’s opinion of what was needed revealed more about his own limitations than it did about the part he was casting. Carroll was a man of conceit and power, something of a Svengali in London theatrical management since he liked to assume total influence over those he put under contract.
He did several jobs, which nowadays would constitute a clear conflict of interest. For some years he had been the Sunday Times theatre critic and he still wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post while running his own theatre management. He had a talent for ‘discovering’ actresses to whom he could be a theatrical godfather – and sometimes something closer. As he was not a well-favoured man, this too was a test of protegee’s ambitions.
His producer on The Mask of Virtue was Maxwell Wray, a former dialogue director for Korda – in those days, London theatre and cinema was a very small world. He was a pliable man, which is how Carroll liked things; but the latter was surprised when Wray, who had strolled out to inspect Gliddon’s candidate, returned and said, ‘If Vivian Leigh’s the girl at the end, then as far as I’m concerned the part’s cast.’
Gliddon saw Carroll’s face show surprise at being preempted. Hastily he said, ‘You met her yourself, Sydney, at The Green Sash. You gave her your card. You must remember what Charles Morgan said about her.’ Carroll, mollified by the feeling that he had already passed a good opinion on Vivian, said, ‘Bring her in.’
‘I remember him sitting back in his office chair, just looking at this beautiful girl,’ Gliddon says. ‘He was smitten – and Vivian knew it. She did her usual spell-binding act and in what seemed an amazingly short time Sydney Carroll her at £10 a week, subject to a satisfactory audition. She got more than the job – she got Sydney Carroll round her little finger.’
Carroll made only one immediate demand on her, a small one, but it signified the proprietorial interest he was already taking in her. He didn’t like her first name. ‘ “Vivian” – it’s neither one thing nor the other. It’ll confuse people. They won’t know if you’re a man or a woman. Will you agree to spelling it “Vivien”?’
‘I changed my name again today,’ she told her husband that evening. To Holman ‘Vivien Leigh’ seemed an even more distant being, a different woman from the one he had married. A world he did not understand or have much use for had been gradually separating his wife from him and now, as if to register their apartness, it had changed her name for life.
Vivien looked so young and inexperienced at the audition that even Sundey Carroll began to doubt whether this virtual child understood that the part she was to play was, in the euphemism then employed, ‘a woman of easy virtue’. Not wishing to embarrass her, he prevailed on the actress Liliian Braithwaite, fortuitously encountered at lunch, to plumb the extent of Vivien’s knowledge of life. ‘Sydney,’ said this emissary, after a discreet tete-a-tete on the Ambassadors’ empty stage, ‘put your mind at rest. Miss Leigh is married and already has a child.’
As Vivien read for Sydney Carroll and Maxwell Wray, their anxiety shifted from moral to technical grounds. Her voice was clear and crisp enough, but small in volume and thin in tone. When she raised it, she tended to go shrill. But there was a month’s rehearsal – time to work on her voice. And with the right lighting and positioning, she was certain to look dazzling: her movements, her grace, the period costumes and her youth ensured that. Sydney Carroll knew the extra sensation that the ‘discovery’ of a virtually unknown actress would impart to his production. As he told her that she had the part, he invited her out to dinner to tell him more about herself.
She acquired one characteristic habit on the rounds of West End restaurants and supper-clubs while Sydney Carroll was presenting her as ‘his’ discovery. He had a fondness for asking for something special, something not on th emenu, something perhaps coming into season. Invariably, he ordered that dish – it was a way of making it recognized that he was knowledgeable and exacting. John Gliddon noticed how Vivien soon began quizzing the maitre d’hotel instead of going straight to the bill of fare. ‘What she couldn’t have, she wanted,’ was Lady Lambert’s comment in later years, referring to Vivien’s attraction to the ‘all but engaged’ Leigh Holman. What was within the gift of others, she wanted even sooner. Young Vivien had a ruthlessness that drove straight to the point in things large and small.
She also had a realistic view of her own limitations and this, as well as Sydney Carroll’s obvious fondness for her company, probably reprieved her in those first few weeks of rehearsals for The Mask of Virtue. It was a small cast: Lady Tree, Jeanne de Casalis and Frank Cellier (as the Marquis) were all accomplished players. Vivien was a tremulous beginner. They took pity on her. The play’s construction as a chamber drama fostered a working intimacy between them all. They generously guided Vivien through the passages where her inexperience was shown up painfully. For two-thirds of the way, her role was relatively straightforward, personifying the putative chastity and purity that are used as bait for the nobleman; but the last third, when her duplicity is exposed, was much more taxing. Prostrating herself before the angry man, who is threatening to shoot her, she has both to beg forgiveness and declare that her love for him is genuine.
The intelligence with which she read her lines might well have seen her through, but the muted appeal of her naturally small voice caused the audience to come to her, to lean towards her, so to speak, so as not to miss a word. Almost without trying, she invited them into her confidence, thus concentrating their attention, while those virginal looks which had perturbed the play’s producers excited their sympathy.
In later years, however, Vivien was the first to admit that she had been very lucky in the direction she received from Maxwell Wray and her fellow players.
‘Every day during the three-week rehearsal they nearly fired me because I was so awful. I remember someone saying at the Ivy restaurant: “She’ll have to go – she is terrible.” I was lucky enough to wear a lovely pink dress, a lovely black dress and a wonderful nightdress … but I didn’t know what to do … One of the women in the play had to say to me, “I shall not make many demands on you,” and I said, “Not more than the gentleman, I’m sure,” and it brought the house down and I never knew why. I was that much of an ass. I suppose, though, I must have had some sort of timing to get the laugh.’
That was the naive side of Vivien, which some of her school friends had noticed: oddly, although she had a notable sense of often randy humour, she kept her professional innocence for quite a time – as one of her later films was to show.
Those who knew Vivien best have given accounts which suggest that her part in the play was a triumph of personality over performance – allied to the expectancy that Sydney Carroll had created over the preceding weeks. John Gliddon was present. ‘The play itself wasn’t of much interest. But Vivien charmed everyone. The second act curtain went up and there she sat as the prostitute charming the old man. She charmed the whole audience. You could feel her charm come over the footlights.’ Oswald Frewen agreed, though he waited for a week or so before going to see ‘the Vivling’, as he affectionately nicknamed the ‘dear little creature’. He found her deficient in exposing her own frailties – ‘She had to cry two times and she could not do so convincingly, looking merely bored – or even asleep! – when she laid her head on the table to weep.’ But he found her ‘natural sweetness and loveliness’ coming across strongly – and so, apparently, did everyone else.
By the end of the evening, the promise that Sydney Carroll had hyped, to use a modern idiom, had been converted into what Harol Conway, the Daily Mail‘s theatre critic, called the next morning, ‘one of the biggest personal ovations a newcomer has had on the London stage for quite a long time.’
The following forty-eight hours gave shape to Vivien’s fortunes and ambitions for years to come. Her parents and her husband had been in the first-night audience on 15 May 1935, and all of them, accompanied by friends, made up a table at the Florida, a fashionable night-club, until the first editions came off the Fleet Street presses. Vivien didn’t need to strain her eyes in the dim lights of the night-club in order to discern her triumph – it was writ in headlines. The critics praised her without exception and the reporters succeeded in extracting a news angle from her ‘discovery,’ so that it ran both in the review columns and on the news pages. A very powerful combination.
‘New 19-year-old Star,’ cried the Daily Mail. Harold Conway hadn’t waited for his enthusiasm to cool. He had gone straight to Vivien’s dressing-room to report (and create) the phenomenon. ‘A new young British star … arose on the British stage last night with a spectacular suddenness which set playgoers cheering with surprised delight … In a difficult leading costume role, her exceptional beauty and assured acting set the experienced first-night audience excitedly asking each other who this unknown actress was.’ The praise in the other papers was pervasive and unanimous. A sense of exhilaration was created by headlines and sub-heads like ‘New Star to Win All London’ … ‘Young Actress’s Triumph’ … ‘Actress Is a Discovery’.
The interviews with Vivien which began appearing in the papers show the manner in which the Press then, as now, could wish celebrity on someone, irrespective of whether the facts justified the extravagant myths that are manufactured. Indeed a sudden discovery such as hers engenders a carefree attitude towards the facts by reporters pressed for time or misled by their own myth-making. Thus Vivien, just six months short of her twenty-second birthday, discovered that the newspapers preferred her to be nineteen; that, although she had attended RADA for a few months only, she had apparently won ‘the gold medal’ there; that she had a father in the Indian Cavalry (true in a limited sense); and that she had appeared at the Comedie Francaise. All this, given the years subtracted from her real age, added an element of precocious achievement to what was certainly a ‘discovery’, but as yet no more.
By breakfast time, the reporters from London’s three evening newspapers had converged on the house in Little Stanhope Street, knocking on the door and ringing the bell. Again, the competitiveness of their respective newsrooms urged the reporters on to new angles.
Vivien very willingly consented to be interviewed and photographed, and, judging from the published results, she spent a very busy morning in quick changes of clothes and equally breathless opinions.
According to the paper’s sophistication and readership, she was arranged to conform to the required view of her: curled up in the corner of a sofa in homely comfort; sitting on a pile of cushions vaguely suggestive of a harem; clad in a light white summer frock with her bare legs well to the fore; playing a ukelele, that favourite instrument for the outdoor girl of the times; and with hat, purse, unseasonable fur cape and dark town suit – probably the paper borrowed the photograph – holding little Suzanne in her arms, every inch the sophisticated matron of her Mayfair residence.
Under creative pressure from deadlines, other aspects of Vivien were now given a glaze of plausibility instead of strictly reflecting the truth.
Leigh Holman must have winced on reading that ‘My husband does not object to me being on the stage … In fact his belief in my ability has always been an inspiration.’ She was asked about her ambitions: not just the ones she had for herself, but also the ones she was cherishing for Suzanne, who was only nineteen months old at this time. Vivien’s reply makes it sound as if she were recapitulating her own life in terms of the hopes she held out for her child. ‘I believe that Suzanne is going to be an actress too. I hope she will go on the stage when she gets older and I am going to see that she is taught languages.’
The question of Vivien’s motherhood understandably came up again and again – despite the fact that, if the papers’ first estimate of her age had been correct, she would have had to have given birth to Suzanne at the age of seventeen and a half and been married to Leigh Holman at sixteen and a half at the very least! But achieving fame and motherhood at an undeniably early age gave an allure of unconventional feminism in keeping with the ideal of the 1930s woman who excelled in independent enterprises – flying, golfing, car-racing and so on – which didn;’t necessarily challenge their menfolk’s hegemony too sharply. Acting was another such ‘safe’ area. ‘Married and Has Daughter’ (or some such variant) was often the second deck of the headlines announcing Vivien’s triumph.
Margaret Lane had her report in the Daily Mail headlined ‘Combing Marriage with a Career … YOU CAN BE HAPPY’. It wasn’t simply ‘fame in a night’ that Vivien had acquired, she wrote. She had ‘other things to manage’, such as ‘a husband; house in Mayfair; small staff of servants; an eighteen-month-old daughter.’ Winding up a clockwork pig kept Suzanne absorbed, Vivien found herself quoted as saying, ‘It was a very arduous regime. I had to leave the house by six or seven every morning when I was filming and part of the time I was rehearsing and playing at the theatre as well. I had to run the house by a sort of correspondence course with my housekeeper – I’d leave her a note last thing at night about the baby and the next day’s meals, but I’d be gone before she got up in the morning. Then she’d leave me notes before she went to bed which I’d get when I got home late at night. There simply wasn’t any leisure, and my husband and I hardly saw each other at all. That was rather awful, of course, but he was as much interested in my acting as I was, and was very nice to put up with it.’
One of the editorial writers even used these views as a text for a sermon on what would today be called women’s rights. It is doubtful whether an increasingly resentful Leigh Holman would have sympathized with it. As one curtain rose publicly and dramatically on Vivien, another seemed to be dropping between him and his wife.
Sydney Carroll had sent Alexander Korda two tickets for The Mask of Virtue, following it up with a telephone call to alert him to Vivien’s West End debut. But if Paul Tabori, an early biographer of Korda, is to be believed, the appearance of the film magnate in Vivien’s dressing-room after the curtain was a fluke – the last and perhaps greatest stroke of luck for her. Tabori’s anecdote has doubtful aspects to it – he says ‘one of the film critics’ sent Korda the tickets and he writes as if Korda had not yet met her. But there are plenty of ironic parallels in the film world to the spectacle of Korda lazily working his way through supper at the Savoy Grill, along with Joseph M. Schenck, head of United Artists, and only remembering his theatre appointment when the play was half over. He and his American companion got there, says Tabori (who had the story from Korda’s financial advisor Monty Marks), in time for only the last few scenes. But Vivien’s looks so stunned them – the story continues – that Korda and Schenck held an impromptu conference as to which of them should go backstage and try to sign her up. Korda got first try – and won. However, the neatness of this tale is its own undoing. Korda had indeed said to John Gliddon, ‘Come and see me tomorrow.’ (He pointedly excluded Vivien; he was not going to let her charm him.) But it was far from cut and dried. Besides Vivien, Gliddon alone knew that ‘The only film contract in England she would sign was with Korda – she had told me so.’ But he certainly wasn’t telling this to Korda.
Her ultimatum was influenced by her annoyance over Basil Dean’s delay in taking up her Associated British Pictures option. She felt his lack of interest to be ‘demeaning’. Gliddon did not see it this way.
‘Actually, this decision saved her career,’ says the agent. If Dean had taken up the option, she would have been bound to a company which was provincial minded and had no links with America – United Artists was then distributing Korda’s films in the States. ‘In all likelihood, Vivien would have been offered a run of cheap little parts in cheap little films. She’d have rebelled pretty soon and got herself a bad reputation in the business.’