Thursday (28/11) saw a very special talk at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, gave a talk to a packed out audience on the life of the wonderful Vivien Leigh.
The biography was put together and written by Bean to mark Leigh’s centenary year. As we’ve mentioned many times on here there are and have been a few events to celebrate Leigh and the National Portrait Gallery have added to this by displaying a wonderful range of photographs of Leigh’s life, especially Gone With The Wind. Some of the photographs and press put together with the help of Terence Pepper the curator of photographs at NPG are rare and really make the collection special. This exhibition opens on the 30th November and will be open until 20th July.
In the talk Kendra gave she explained why she came to have a fascination with Vivien. I loved how honest she was in telling us that it was through a friend she found out about Gone With The Wind and how she found Vivien’s performance to be a “complete assimilation of Scarlett O’Hara.” All the way through the slideshow you could tell by her enthusiasm that she loves the subject of Leigh and everything to do with her. She is fascinated by her that much that Kendra set up vivianandlarry.com and wrote the book to make up for the fact that Vivien never wrote an autobiography. This all shines through in everything she writes.
Surprisingly Bean found it difficult to find a publisher for her book. Many publishers told her “Vivien’s not relevant” or “Vivien was not a safe subject like Monroe.” Think of how many books you see on Monroe and how filled most are with lies and scandal and yet Leigh is not a “safe subject.” This shocked me especially because of Vivien’s fame and her place in the AFI’s top 25 greatest film stars of Hollywood.
The stage was Leigh’s first love and as Bean pointed out: “the theatre was the actor’s medium.” This seems to apply to a lot of British actors around that time. Leigh was fortunate enough to have a fluent move between Hollywood and Britain, the stage and the screen. This may have been down to her relationship with Laurence Olivier but her beauty didn’t hurt her chances. When she was younger (at boarding school, Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton) she was friends with Maureen O’Sulivan who said: “Vivien always wanted to be an actress.” It seems that if Vivien put her mind to it Vivien got it. She saw Olivier on screen once and said to a friend that he’d be her husband someday, even though both she and Olivier were married to other people at the time. She wanted the role of Scarlett O’Hara and against all odds she got it. She was a remarkably strong willed woman.
The first film Leigh starred in with Olivier was Fire Over England (1937.) Bean points out in the talk that when you watch their scenes together you can see the instant attraction between them. At this point in her career she was signed up with the famous film producer Alexander Korda. This is where Kendra’s knowledge on Leigh surpasses what a lot of die hard fans might miss, I certainly didn’t know this- Korda had a specific idea on who Leigh should be and her husband and 3 year old daughter didn’t fit into these ideals so they were rarely mentioned.
Her big foray in Hollywood came with Gone With The Wind. She beat hundreds of other women to gain the role of Scarlett; a role that will be remembered for many years to come. But how did she get this role when she’d never been in a Hollywood produced film before and was still practically unknown on that side of the pond? “Willpower, knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time” is what Bean says. She even hired Angus McBean (who would become her personal photographer) to take photographs of her to send to David O. Selznick. This certainly helped her get the role of Scarlett. For this I admire Vivien, using everything at her disposal to get the role she wanted was a genius move on her part and I thank Kendra for pointing this out.
Gone With The Wind is the film Vivien will always be known for. She didn’t spend very long in Hollywood as she and Olivier returned to the UK during WWII. During this time she starred on stage in Scarlett O’Hara: The Terror Of Tara in Gibraltar for the troops serving there.
A big thing that you tend to forget when thinking about your favourite actresses is the photographer behind the famous photographs. How many photographs of Vivien Leigh do you love but don’t know who the photographer is? Kendra remedies this for us. She lists over 10 photographers who’d worked with Leigh throughout her life. They ran from Angus McBean and Vivienne (Florence Entwhistle) to Louise Dahl-Wolfe who photographed her for Harpers Bazaar and John Rawlings who photographed her for Vogue. Entwhistle summed Leigh up perfectly: “Vivien is an artist photographers dream.” Vivien hated being called beautiful but knew when to use her looks to an advantage.
Bean told us about Leigh’s sitting for Life Magazine with photographer Phillippe Halsman in 1946. Leigh was suffering with TB and was very pale with no make-up on. The prints from the first setting were unusable because she looked too pale and fragile. The second sitting turned out much better showing her “beauty and charm” Bean said. Halsman showed the prints to Leigh on her sick bed and she hated them all, ripping them up and telling him not to print any in Life. Olivier found them beautiful and they were printed in the July 29th 1946 copy of Life, with one being on the front cover.
In 1949 she starred in the stage version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire on the West End. Olivier directed her in this and friends were concerned because the role of Blanche DuBois hit close to home. Soon after Leigh was diagnosed as manic depressive, today known as Bipolar Disorder. Vivien was good friends with Williams which led to her playing the destructive DuBois opposite Marlon Brando in the film in 1950. It’s quite difficult to see Vivien’s acting from her real life in the film.
Bean speaks fondly of Leigh in the struggles she mentions and makes her sound like one of us. She reminds us that even though Leigh was famous she still had to battle against the press for true acceptance of her talent rather than her beauty. This battle made her depression worse along with her divorce from Olivier. It seems for our fragile beauty everything happened at once but she remained strong. Ship of Fools (1965) became her last film and the matureness of the role matched where she was at that stage of her life. Two years later tuberculosis would end her life tragically early at the age of 53 with only 19 films to her name.
Kendra showed this video at the end of her talk. Every time I watch it I get goosebumps, it’s truly beautiful.
Kendra Bean is a fantastic speaker who can hold your attention because she as the same passion as you for Leigh. What I’ve written here is what I summed up from her informative lecture and I feel privileged for being there to see this. I’m glad that there are still people who care enough about classic actresses to tell everyone about them today and remind them.
Here is the information for Vivien Leigh a Centenary Celebration at National Portrait Gallery, London. On 16th January at 7.30pm Kendra will be giving a tour of the Vivien Leigh exhibit.
Kendra’s book: Vivien Leigh: an Intimate Portrait is available at all good booksellers nationwide and is well worth a read.