She was one of the beauties of the age, and though she was British, she's seen as one of the great Hollywood stars. Yet almost three quarters of her 19 films were made in Britain and she was half of the most glamorous couple Britain ever produced.
She was born in Darjeeling (Vivien Hartley) and was educated in various boarding schools. One of her (older) school friends was Maureen O'Sullivan whose success in Hollywood helped inspire Leigh. She decided to be an actress and, though she married a solicitor (Leigh Holman) shortly after leaving school, she studied at RADA. She got a few bit parts in cinema but it was her appearance in the play "The Mask of Virtue" that got her noticed and got her a contract with Korda.
She was a very determined woman, and from the moment she set eyes on Laurence Olivier she was determined to have him. They were soon lovers. After a couple of years of furtive romance, she dumped her solicitor and he dumped Jill Esmond.
By now she was building a reputation for herself as a competent actress. She popped over to Hollywood with Olivier in 1938 and they visited the set of Gone With The Wind which had started filming without a lead actress. Quite how meticulously arranged this visit was is a matter of dispute but her appearance on set while Atlanta burned secured her the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara.
This role made her a world star, got her an Oscar and dominated her subsequent career. She made another couple of films in Hollywood before returning to Britain with Olivier, who insisted on joining in the war effort. She began to succumb to ill-health and developed TB.
She continued to act on stage with Olivier at the Old Vic, though her biggest success of the period was without him in the London production of A Streetcar named Desire. She got the film version and it gave her her second Oscar. But it was all downhill from there.
The fifties were a difficult period. He was by now Sir Laurence and critics began to feel that she wasn't worthy of him. She could act him off screen, but the stage was a different matter. Audiences were still appreciative, but her health, both physical and mental, suffered and the marriage began to fall apart. They divorced in 1960. After that it was only a matter of time before she left us.
There are those who reckon she was never much of an actress, yet she was never less than adequate in any of her roles. In a handful of her films she was utterly astounding which is not a bad average. Even when she wasn't trying she was breathtakingly beautiful and brought much-needed glamour to British cinema.
|1934||Things are Looking Up|
|1935||The Village Squire|
|1935||Look Up and Laugh|
|1936||Fire over England|
|1937||Storm in a Teacup|
|1938||St. Martin's Lane|
|1938||A Yank at Oxford|
|1939||Gone with the Wind (U.S.)|
|1940||Waterloo Bridge (U.S.)|
|1941||Lady Hamilton (U.S.)|
|1945||Caesar and Cleopatra|
|1951||A Streetcar named Desire (U.S.)|
|1955||The Deep Blue Sky|
|1961||The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone|
|1965||Ship of Fools (U.S.)|
Vivien Leigh at Amazon UK
Vivien Leigh at Amazon US