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  • Charles Drazin

Vivien Leigh: From Scarlett O’Hara to Blanche DuBois – Perfect Casting


The other day, out of the blue, my website platform suggested that I might write – or rather it would write for me – an article on the “Vivien Leigh Legacy”. Curious to see what its beta “AI Post Creator” might come up with, I invited it to go ahead. The AI creator whirred away, told me it was optimising the content and finalising the layout, before spitting out 500 words of nonsense.


It began with the following paragraph: “When we think of classic Hollywood glamour and timeless beauty, one name that immediately comes to mind is Vivien Leigh. The legacy she left behind is not just one of stunning performances on screen but also of grace, talent, and enduring appeal that have captivated audiences for generations.”

 

I assumed that this vapid generalizing and tendency to cliché were due to AI’s dependence on the world wide web. Under the heading, “An Icon of the Silver Screen”, it went on: “Vivien Leigh’s presence on the silver screen was nothing short of mesmerizing. From her iconic portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind to her captivating performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, Leigh’s talent shone brightly in every role she undertook. Her ability to embody complex characters with depth and authenticity made her a true star of the golden age of cinema.”

Six more paragraphs of unusable vacuity followed. So I thought now was as good a time as any to write my own piece on Vivien Leigh. It was obvious where I had to start. Many years ago I recorded a series of interviews with Anthony Havelock-Allan. A notably perceptive commentator on the British film industry, it was Tony who “discovered” Leigh. Or at least he was the first film producer to put her in a leading role.


Perhaps best known today for producing the early David Lean films, Tony had started out as a casting director at the film studio British & Dominions. He went on in 1935 to oversee the production of “quota quickies” that the studio made for Paramount. These cheaply made films were regarded as a way of using up bits of old set and keeping the place ticking over. No one at British & Dominions took them seriously. But much to their surprise, Tony managed to make a profit out of them.


One reason why was his knack for finding interesting new faces. Vivien Leigh might have been by far the most famous, but Tony also gave a start to many other actors and actresses that went on to become well-known film stars, including Rex Harrison, George Sanders, Wendy Hiller and Margaret Rutherford. The two films that Vivien Leigh made for Tony were Village Squire and Gentlemen’s Agreement – the only ones that she starred in under her original name, “Vivian”.

They were calling cards that brought her to the attention of the powerful movie mogul Alexander Korda. “Alex was in a position to put her in a play,” remembered Tony, to see what sort of audience reaction she got, The Mask of Virtue, which he financed to put on at the Ambassadors Theatre.” In the makeover, “Vivian” became “Vivien”.


The excellent notices she received and the accompanying deluge of publicity – no doubt orchestrated by Korda behind the scenes – made her new name. The day after the play opened, on 15 May 1935, the Daily Mirror ran a story under the headline, “Fame in a Night for 19-Year-Old Wife” (actually she was 21). Many other newspapers feted the occasion although such headlines as the News Chronicle's “New Star to Win All London” came nowhere close to reflecting the scale of success she would eventually achieve. Within days of the first night, which Korda had attended, it was announced that he had signed her up to a £50,000 movie deal.


It amused Tony when people asked what he and Korda had seen in Vivien Leigh that made them want to put her in films. He thought it was obvious. She had some acting talent, but much more important, she was immensely pretty in a way that he knew would register on film.  She had a perfect photogenic face with no irregularities that a camera might find out. The only oddity was a long neck that, if she was not  filmed with care, could make her head look like – as Tony put it – a pea on a stick. But it was a feature that critics would later comment on favourably, writing how the fragile neck gave her the grace of a swan or a tulip.


Tony felt that Vivien Leigh’s overriding desire was to be successful, whether it was at acting or something else. When he hired her, she was still married to her first husband, Leigh Holman, a lawyer. “She saw herself, without knowing how, in a bigger ambience, with a bigger field, as a woman of more importance than she was. She wasn’t going to go through the rest of her life as the dutiful wife of a nice but not monstrously successful barrister, and bringing up children. It wasn’t her. It wasn’t her ambition. Her ambition was to be somebody. And it occurred to her that she might become somebody by means of films.”


He thought her a little bit too “kittenish” to be a great movie actress like Garbo or Katharine Hepburn, who both had a natural flair for their craft. Vivien Leigh was a manufactured actress, but manufactured by one of the greatest natural actors there had ever been. When in 1936 she appeared in Fire Over England opposite Laurence Olivier, he became not only her lover – off-screen as well as on – but also the best teacher an aspiring actress could hope to have.


She worked hard and learned her lessons well. “Being very bright, she understood ever skill and every nuance that Larry had told her,” commented Tony, “but there was something to me that stopped her giving as really great actresses do – giving, opening up themselves in the part ... She was always in command somehow.” He admired her technique, her control. “But I was never moved.”


It was meeting Olivier that set her firmly on the road to that bigger life. It fuelled her love that here was a man who could help her become as successful an actress as it was possible to be. But even more striking was her command – the determination, willpower and courage with which she took huge risks to get to the top.


When in 1938 Sam Goldwyn wanted Olivier to star as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Olivier insisted that a part should be found for Vivien. So Goldwyn offered to cast her as Isabella Linton. But Isabella was not a character than anyone was ever going to sing a song about. Vivien refused the role. She was only prepared to play Cathy, even although it would have meant Goldwyn taking the part away from his star actress Merle Oberon.


Goldwyn instructed the director William Wyler, who had gone to England to cast the film, to try to talk her into changing her mind, but his efforts – over dinner at the Chelsea cottage Leigh shared with Olivier – were to no avail. Her stubbornness meant that she lost what most British film actresses at the time would have considered a huge break. Geraldine Fitzgerald, who stepped into her shoes, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the role.


Being a supporting actress was not something that Vivien  was any longer willing to accept. It would have been as ridiculous for her to play the part of Isabella as it would have been to play Melanie Hamilton. When she travelled out to Hollywood in November 1938, it was to grab the biggest starring part in motion picture history. On 10 December, so the legend goes, she turned up with Olivier and their agent Myron Selznick at the “40 Acres” backlot of Selznick International Pictures, where Myron’s brother David was watching the first sequence to be filmed in Gone with the Wind: the Burning of Atlanta. The flames were lighting up her face in the dark as Myron made the introduction: “David,” he said, “I want you to meet Scarlett O’Hara.”

 

It was perfect casting. “What fitted,” commented Tony, “was that Scarlett had exactly her problem, was exactly the character. It was a girl who was discontented with what she’d got, who wanted the moon, who wanted a thousand things, and was prepared to take big risks to get them, with an immense personal drive towards what she wanted, and this was what Vivien had: a tremendous drive to get out of where she was and into a bigger world … to be somebody.”


A Streetcar Named Desire was a much sadder match. It was about a woman who had lost control. Blanche DuBois’s descent into mental illness mirrored Vivien Leigh’s own. “She is a tragic figure and I understand her,” she would later comment. “But playing her tipped me into madness.” It’s impossible not to admire her bravery in taking on a part that compelled her to confront her own demons. Here, I think, it really was much more than simply wanting to be “somebody” – which, after all, when she first took on the role in the West End production of 1949, she had unquestionably been for a decade. She wanted to achieve excellence, even if actually doing so was once again a case of perfect casting.






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