Today is special. No. It’s more than special. It’s a day for celebrating Vivien’s life, achievements, loves and losses. Born in India while it still belonged to Great Britain she was our original Golden Girl if you like. Her and Laurence Olivier became one of the world’s most recognisable couples. Today though I’m going to show you Vivien. How she stole the limelight from who she starred with and how, even at the end of her career, she battled her demons so she could act as a true British star should do. With grace, poise and dignity.
Here I’ve picked my 5 top Vivien films. 2 you will most definitely have heard of even if you’ve never watched them. The others maybe an education for you. She starred in quite a few films with Olivier (her ex-husband) but I’ve decided to only put one of these films in. And it’s not the most obvious of films… It’s the one she acted quite superbly in.
Waterloo Bridge (1940)
Waterloo Bridge is a bitter sweet love story with tragedy running all the way through it. Starring in this film was a brave choice for Leigh as it was her first film after the success of Gone With the Wind. In Waterloo Bridge Leigh stars opposite Robert Taylor and their chemistry is perfect though out. They love each other, they both show and feel the right emotions. Leigh plays Myra Lester a ballerina who looses her job after starting up a relationship with Roy Cronin who’s about to go to war. The pair did originally meet during WWI on Waterloo Bridge.
It’s hard to describe this film because of how dark it is. You really need to watch it to see Leigh’s perfect performance. She becomes Lester. Prostitution runs through the film as well as suicide, lost love and reminiscing. This clip is a fantastic scene where Lester finds out Cronin isn’t actually dead like was previously reported.
That Hamilton Woman (1941)
In this film Leigh and Olivier are newly weds in real life making them the ‘it’ couple of the time. Leigh’s performance in this film showed her prowess in period drama films and that she had the attitude, looks and skills required to be at the top of the acting list. That Hamilton Woman is set during the Napoleonic Wars and sees Leigh play Emma Hamilton, a woman who was once a dance hall girl and courtesan, who is now a very powerful woman after her marriage to Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), the British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples. The film ultimately tells the tale of Emma’s rise and fall in society and life especially after her becoming the mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson (Olivier)
The costumes are superb and match the film brilliantly. This film shows Leigh and Olivier’s passion for acting and each other to a great advantage even though a production code meant they had to show the “adulterous relationship” to be a sin rather than a romance. Look at Leigh’s expressions and her eyes when she acts scenes with Olivier. It’s expression at it’s best. In this scene pay close attention to Leigh’s imitations of other people and how quickly and easily she slips into their personas.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A Streetcar named Desire is a beautiful but twisted story. When you watch you subconsciously see people you know in the characters. The main cast itself had played the characters on Broadway while Leigh had played Blanche DuBois on the West End, London. Blanche in the play is a fragile person who needs her personal items to have some worth and as had a life that has damaged her irreversibly. Leigh portrays this to perfection and plays against Brando’s tough guy Stanley Kowalski brilliantly. Again in this film there are scenes of abuse, especially between Stanley and Stella (Kim Hunter), tragedy and hardship.
This film strikes a chord with Vivien Leigh fans because at the end DuBois gets taken away to a mental institute. In real life Leigh was suffering with depression and later on some people called her mad. Compared to many of her other roles this one was a big change and she makes the film her own like she did on the stage, well deserving the Best Actress Oscar she won. Here she meets Stanley for the first time. If you can keep your eyes off Brando’s arms and torso watch Leigh carefully. She herself looks fragile and her attitude and speech as she talks and interacts with Stanley are fantastic.
Ship of Fools (1965)
This would become Vivien’s last ever film movie, she died 2 years later. If you watch it with this in mind it makes Leigh’s performance that much more stronger and fun. Ship of Fools is almost a lot of stories in one film. Each passenger featured as a different reason why they’re on the ship. The ship itself is headed to Germany in 1933… A very sensitive and troubling time. Leigh plays divorcee Mary Treadwell who is basically reliving her wasted youth by drinking, flirting and dancing while on her way to Paris. The film appears light but Leigh’s performance shows her demons more than should be. She herself was going through a tough time and so Treadwell appears this way too underneath the fun mask.
This clip says it all. Vivien, aged 51, dancing the Charleston. It’s a must watch.
Gone With the Wind (1939)
When she auditioned for the part of Scarlett O’Hara it is said that she knew she would get the role. By Gods was she perfect for it. She was also the first British actress to win an Oscar. It’s been said in several interviews that Vivien WAS Scarlett in that she could be stubborn and selfish.
I feel I shouldn’t actually write ABOUT the film. We all know the outline… Civil War, Plantation, Big Dresses, Curtain Dresses, Dancing, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, Vivien as Scarlett O’Hara, Forbidden Love, Selfishness, Tragedy, “Frankly My Dear I Don’t Give A Damn” etc. You get the picture.
In the film Leigh plays quite a hatable young woman. She’s selfish, a man stealer and all together spoilt woman. During the film this starts to change. Rhett makes her a better person but not by much. Then at the end when Rhett leaves you find yourself siding with her. Her performance is believable throughout and she really is a southern belle. Compared to Clark she appears very young and gives the idea that she would be timid, almost scared against his role of Rhett Butler. Seeing her in action throughout the film shows that this couldn’t be any more wrong. She rises up to the occasion and becomes level with Clark and through that makes Scarlett level with Rhett, something another actress might not have achieved. Yes there’s points where you’ll hate her but that’s because she’s a good actress.
Rhett and Scarlett were made for each other as much as they were bad for each other. Sometimes love prevails. In there case it was a little too late.
Vivien Leigh’s story isn’t all fun and fortune like you may assume from watching one of her films. She like many of us battled dark and twisty times. This in itself deserves our recognition and applause. So please take a moment to find a film she starred in or read a review of one of her stage performances. And if you have 4 hours free sit and watch Gone With The Wind. I mean why the hell shouldn’t you?
Remember all these films and more are available to watch at BFI in London! Visit here Vivien Leigh at BFI for more details.