This blog post is Vivien-Leigh.com’s participation in the awesome Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathan. To check out the other posts made by other fabulous blogs around the Internet, check out this link. Big thanks to Kendra of VivandLarry.com for organizing this event.
People often think Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O’Hara. There definitely is a strong case here. Scarlett is the heroine we love to hate; she is attractive, forward thinking, and manipulative. And she often gets what she wants… except Rhett. Vivien Leigh was beautiful (bordering on goddess gorgeousness), forward thinking, and manipulative. She too often got what she wanted… except Laurence Olivier? Vivien shrugged at the comparison and once said: “I hope I’ve one thing that Scarlett never had. A sense of humor. I want some joy out of life. And she had one thing I hope I never have. Selfish egotism.”
In fact, people also compare Vivien to other roles she played… what about Vivien’s first film performance after her divorce from Laurence Olivier, Roman Spring of Mrs Stone? Karen Stone is a fading actress who agonizes over being alone and growing old. She’s hopeless. Or what about Vivien as Mary Treadwell in Ship of Fools? Mary Treadwell, a divorced woman who enjoys her alcohol to numb herself, tells a fellow passenger about her ex-husband, “Oh we put up a wonderful front in public. We were everybody’s favorite couple.” And later she continues explaining, “He was the most promising. The most handsome. He had the most glorious facade. A facade was all there was. He made me the best known wife of the best known skirt chaser in the community. I made life hell for him. It ended in divorce courts.” Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Why did she play these roles? Did these roles hit too close to home? Or was it all just a coincidence? Maybe Vivien was not like any of these roles at all. I found an article asking this very question. “Deadly is the Female,” by Jeri Jerome, says that Hollywood remembered the ruthlessness of Scarlett and expected Vivien Leigh to be like her. But was she? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!
It was the first day of production on “Streetcar Named Desire.” Over at Warner Brothers, the entire lot was keyed with expectancy, for a great picture was about to roll. Director Elia Kazan was set to go. The publicity department was geared for action. Even the gaffers and grips shared in the excitement of the first day.
The entire supporting cast of the New York production to the West Coast. There was Marlon Brando, sensation of “The Men,” Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, and –the start of the picture—Vivien Leigh.
Everyone watched her as she came on the set. They noticed her friendliness, her slight British accent, her laughter. They noted her resemblance to Hedy Lamarr, even with the blonde wig she was wearing for the part of Blanche. There was no doubt Vivien’s appearance caused more than the usual excitement due a star. Her husband, Laurence Olivier, busy at Paramount on “Carrie,” had filled her dressing room with flowers. It was like opening night at a theater. This doesn’t often happen in Hollywood where pictures begin and end with steady monotony. But this was more than a first night; it was the triumphed return of Scarlett O’Hara after an absence of ten years.
The memory of Scarlett lingered, like an uneasy ghost, over the Warner lot. Scarlett had been ruthless. She had been deadly—and deadly is the female. Was Vivien deadly, too? Would she be difficult to work with? Weren’t there stories, went the whispers, that she had been “hard to handle” ten years ago, “difficult” with the press, “temperamental”?
As walked on the set, oblique glances went her way. She was tinier than most people thought she would be, ethereal and dainty. She looked like a flower, poetic as that sounds. Her face had been made to look older. Lines had been drawn in. A deep shadow of rouge gave her face an unnatural thinness. She was no longer the tempestuous Scarlett; she was the defeated and pathetic Blanche of “Streetcar.”
The tension on the set began to ease. People looked at each other and grinned. Vivien Leigh wasn’t Scarlett after all. She was an actress.
All this was behind her the day I had lunch with her in her dressing room at Warner Brothers. It was her first magazine interview in this country. Neither of us had met before.
She came into the room with an excitement that belied the pathetic makeup of Blanche. She was gay and friendly, with laughter on her lips. She was totally unexpected.
The blonde wig throws you at first, of course, and the carefully applied lines and wrinkles. But her eyes are the same green-blue you remembered from Technicolor, and her teeth as miraculously pearly white. I asked her what color her hair was naturally, and she pushed back her wig instantly and said, “This color!” It was a rich rust-brown.
Then I asked her what changes she noticed in Hollywood since she had been here before. “The weather!” she said ruefully. “over in England I have been thinking all this time that every day was beautifully balmy and sunny in California. But this is the first pleasant day we’ve had since we got here. I expected many changes, but not that the weather would change!”
We sat down to lunch, and Vivien told me that, as a rule, she rested on her lunch hour, bringing sandwiches from home. The part of Blanche is an exhausting one, running the gamut of emotion, a strenuous, demanding characterization. Vivien had played it for none months in the theater in London. It had been even more strenuous then because there was no pauses between scenes. There was a mad rush into costume changes. But the camera, she at least had brief respite now and then.
But not much, because director Elia Kazan was not wasting a precious minute of his production time. When the crew was setting up another scene or another angle, Kazan took the cast to rehearsal hall in a remote section of the sound stage and rehearsed the next scene. The cast works throughout the day, either in rehearsal or before the camera. At night, Vivien is exhausted. At first, she had Laurence accepted the invitations of their many friends without regard for this stiff schedule. They went out every night, renewing friendships and making up for ten years they’d been away from Hollywood. Gradually, they ruefully had to cut down their social engagements—accepting dates only for Saturday nights. The set was closed to interviews. Vivien had to conserve strength and energy.
Immediately the word went out that Vivien wasn’t well. That’s Hollywood for you—building facts of rumors. It’s a town that should know better, a hip place for people who should be the first to realize that you can’t leave a dramatic, emotional, heart-tearing scene and have some flip reporter ask, “What’s new?”, and then go back into the scene.
I felt this as we talked. It was sort of a constraint, a feeling of walking into the middle of something. I had been told that Vivien Leigh did not have the usual British reserve, but it was there, nevertheless, even while she was answering questions charmingly, even while she laughed spontaneously and indulged in social chitchat. There is something about Vivien Leigh that makes you refrain from digging too deeply under the surface.
What had happened in the ten years she had been away from America? There was, of course, the war. Larry was a flyer. “Although I don’t think he was a very good flyer, really,” smiles Vivien. “I think they were really quite pleased to release him to go on with the theater and to make “Henry the Fifth.’”
Vivien played “Doctor’s Dilemma” for nineteen months, thirteen in London and six on the road. She toured South Africa for three months entertaining the troops.
“It was a new experience for me,” she explains. “All the other who went on the tour were revue artists. They did the things they were used to doing. I didn’t have a similar repertoire, so I did a skit from ‘Gone with the Wind. I sang a song—not too well, I’m afraid. I did a soliloquy from ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ At the end, the whole cast did a mad kind of concert thing which I think we enjoyed more than the audiences. It was thrilling playing to the troops, very moving. Sometimes we played four shows a day.”
All during the war, the theater went on. It was difficult because of the blackout and the lack of transportation and the bombing, but there was a certain pride in keeping the theater intact during those war years. Vivien remember many times when the buzz bombs were being dropped. You could hear a long bzzzz, then a silence before it hit. When she heard the bzzzz, she felt like stopping in the middle of a line, and it took real will power to go on with apparent unconcern. She recalls all this today with a gay humor that must have been typical of the gallantry of all Britain at the time. Deadly is the female, and staunch in time of stress.
Vivien, Larry, and sixteen-year-old Suzanne are only a small part of the Olivier family. The rest consists of a collection of cats which number, at various times, from two to fifteen! There’s picture of one of them, a Siamese named Boy, on Vivien’s dresser. “He’s one of the things I miss most, being away from home,” Vivien confessed to me.
There are two kinds of female deadliness—the kind which, like Scarlett’s, is born of ruthlessness, and that like Vivien’s—a deadly determination to do good and thoughtful things; and to devote herself to her work and her family. The two are as difference as night is from day.
Goodbye, Scarlett. Hello, Vivien.