“Invisibly spotlit.” As the 100th anniversary of her birth is commemorated today, it’s hard to think of a more splendid description of the woman who can arguably be called the most beautiful to ever light up a movie screen.
I’ve long been entranced by Vivien Leigh on so many levels, and this occasion, a preamble to the 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, coming up next year, is an opportunity to remember why.
Her marriage to the great Laurence Olivier constitutes a large part of the fascination, a union of two acting giants and a love story that is forever captivating. (As glam couples go, they put today’s offerings to shame.) Her Scarlett O’Hara is one for the ages, but for sheer charm, my favorite Leigh performance is in That Hamilton Woman, one of three films in which she appeared with Olivier, and for me the blithest and sweetest of all her portrayals. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that it coincided with the early years of that larger-than-life love affair.
There’s always a poignancy about legends and their vulnerabilities. She was self-conscious about her hands, which she thought too large. And, haunted by debilitating manic-depression, it’s even more remarkable that Leigh managed to enact the part of Blanche DuBois for nine months in the 1949 London staging of A Streetcar Named Desire and lived to tell about it. (Surely harrowing for even the soundest of mind and body.) She was later to say that playing Blanche, a role that won her a second Oscar, “tipped me over into madness.”
The burden of great beauty was one she carried throughout her career. In a lovely accolade, the fabled British actress Gladys Cooper said, “She should be in a museum, for history’s sake, as the famous beauty of the English stage.” Yet Leigh was scathed on this count by more than one critic, most particularly the acerbic Kenneth Tynan, who often ridiculed her stage performances — only to recant his previous opinions after Leigh’s death from tuberculosis, at the untimely age of 53, in 1967. (Ironically, Tynan eventually died at the same age.)
In later years, the fading looks bring a touch of sadness, especially in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, shot during her divorce from Olivier. It was a subdued, withdrawn, almost somnambulistic display, during a time when she was quoted as saying she “would rather have lived a short life with Larry [Olivier] than face a long one without him.” (As a point of trivia, playwright Tennessee Williams actually called the 1961 film the best of any of his works. Of Leigh’s rendition of Blanche in Streetcar, he famously commented that she was “everything that I intended and much that I had never dreamed of.”)
Writer Garson Kanin, author of the marvelous “spotlit” quote, once said of Leigh, “Great beauties are infrequently great actresses — simply because they don’t need to be. Vivien was different; ambitious, persevering, serious, often inspired.”
Her legacy far surpasses the shortness of her years, not the least of which includes two dramatically dissimilar Southern belles who remain eternally resplendent in the annals of both film and theatre.
That’s one spotlight that will never be invisible.