As we all know, Karl Malden, Vivien’s costar in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire, passed away earlier this month from natural causes. He was 97 years old. What you may NOT know is that Malden did not like Vivien Leigh very much. Earlier this year, I wrote to the aging actor and requested that he take a trip down memory lane. I asked him about his experience with Vivien Leigh and what her impact was on the film version of Streetcar. All the major actors in the film came from the NY theater production, except for Vivien. She came from the London production. Well, Malden was kind enough to write back almost immediately, but I found his Vivien answer to be rather short and curt. All is had to say about Vivien was this (I can’t translate 2 words… “Jessie” obviously refers to Jessica Tandy, who played Blanche with Marlon Brando and Karl Malden on Broadway:
can you translate? click to enlarge
To further investigate the situation, I went to the library and checked out his autobiography, When Do I Start? Vivien is mentioned on 2 pages, and Malden’s anecdote is not a glowing one. Here is what he says:
I was destined to have another Blanche in my future. About a year later, we were all called together again to shoot the film. All except Jessica.
I know that it broke Jessica’s heart when she was not hired to do the film version of Streetcar. There was, of course, no question that Marlon would be in the film, but at that time, he had no screen recognition.
… Marlon did not yet have what they call “marquee value.” Vivien Leigh, however, was a major star, still so powerful because of Gone with the Wind that she could carry all of us nobodies, including Marlon Brando.
It was a wonderful experience for me to be able to come back to the role of Mitch after two years, having done other things in between, with a fresh perspective. After the play had closed, I was plagued by the usual ideas about things I could have done differently with Mitch. Thoughts that (often in the middle of the night) come with the territory. Doing the film presented me with a unique opportunity to try all those ideas out. Some worked. Some didn’t.
Oddly enough, I believe the truer interpretation of the play ended up being the movie’s. Marlon was so powerfuk on stage, so compelling, that through nothing other than his own presence, he distorted the play. When Marlon stepped onto that stage, it became a play about Stanley Kowalski. You held your breath until he came back. It was no longer a play about Blanche DuBois. No matter what Jessica did on stage, or what any actress could have done, she could not overcome his force. The movie gave Kazan the chance to keep the focus when Tennessee Williams intended it, on Blanche. He could manipulate the focus in the editing room.
Vivien Leigh had played Blanche in the London production, which her husband, Laurence Olivier had directed. She had a very different take on the play.
I recall the moment when Mitch lifts Blanche to see if he can guess how much she weighs. I had always raised Jessica straight into the air like a ballerina and then brough her down, vertically, close to my body. That worked for me, because the next moment Mitch is trying to kiss her. That move helped to make a smooth transition from a playful impulse to a sexual one. Vivien wanted me to pick her up as though I were lifting her over a threshold. That’s the way Olivier had directed that action in London, but it made the moment awkward for me because I had to put her down on the ground, then bend down to try to kiss her. It didn’t seem to flow as well, but we did it her way. Kazan made a point of wanting us to try to accommodate Vivien since she was the outsider.
Unlike Jessica who was a gracious and well-grounded a human being as you could hope to meet, Vivien was more like Blanche herself. She had a more tenuous relationship with reality.
I remember that when we had finished shooting, Vivien and Olivier invited Mona and me to a party. Although Mona and I are chronically early, we happened to arrive late because we were unfamiliar with Los Angeles and had gotten lost. Everyone was already seated around their tables. I was called over to a table and left Mona stranded for a moment. She finally ended up sitting on a swing by the pool all by herself. Who should come along but John Buckmaster, an English actor, and Vivien Leigh. They sat down on either side of Mona. Mona told me later about how they literally, and figuratively, talked over her head. Vivien and Buckmaster traded bizarre non sequiturs as Mona sat there, utterly baffled. Never once did they acknowledge that another person was even there, let alone sitting between them. Vivien didn’t have to be polite, or even civil; after all, she was Scarlett O’Hara.
Several months later, we read in the paper that Buckmaster had been spotted running down Fifth Avenue stark naked, brandishing a knife. Mona was actually relieved by the news; it assured her she had not been the crazy one sitting on that swing after all.
Interesting, huh? Perhaps Vivien was experiencing symptoms of her manic phase? Maybe they were intoxicated or playing a joke on Malden’s wife? John Merivale told Hugo Vickers that John Buckmaster was the first man Vivien had an affair with after her marriage to Leigh Holman in the 1930s– so I can only guess what the ex-lovers were discussing. We’ll never know. I’d love to hear your comments.