Perhaps the most beloved symbol of southern defiance against northern aggression and one of the most recognized actresses in American cinema, thanks to her role in the immortal classic GONE WITH THE WIND, Vivian Leigh was actually a daughter of England, born in India, to Irish and French parents. This mishmash of a start would ultimately end up setting the tone for the rest of her life - a life filled with fame, fortune, love, restlessness, betrayal and loss.
Vivien was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India in 1913. The daughter of a fortune-seeking father who also spent time in the theater, she was exposed to the arts from an early age. While very much a subject of British royalty, her life as a true Englishwoman would have to wait until the turmoil of WWI had settled. Once the war was over and the family could return to Old Blighty, young Vivien's mother quickly enrolled her at a convent school, determined that her young daughter be raised under the strict supervision of the church. Being the youngest at her school, she would have a tough time of it there. Her only consolation was fellow student and best friend Maureen O'Sullivan, who herself would grow up to become a famous actress and a co-star of Vivien's. Their brief time spent performing for one another on the playground would become an early inspiration for the acting career Vivien would eventually embark upon.
She was still a schoolgirl when she took a trip to London with her mother to see a play. This experience would be the deciding factor in her decision to pursue an acting career. Strangely, Vivien would soon detour from her choice and at the young age of 19, would marry barrister Herbert Leigh in 1932. By 1933, she would be a mother. Her husband, being relatively ambivalent toward his young wife's acting ambitions, initially discouraged her pursuit of the stage. However, Vivien was determined to shine. Her first film appearance would happen a few years after the birth of her first child. Soon she would become a fixture in British cinema. This situation quickly became a point of contention in her marriage, as did an affair with fellow co-star and fellow married person Lawrence Olivier. These choices would be the killing blow for her marriage to Leigh, although it would be 3 years before the two would officially divorce. On the other hand, her relationship with Olivier would go on to be of huge significance for the success she would enjoy in years to come.
By 1938, both Vivien and Olivier had left their spouses to consummate the growing passion between them. Vivien would join her lover in the US, where he was filming a Hollywood adaptation of the Bronte classic WUTHERING HEIGHTS. By this time, Hollywood was electrified by the goings on behind the scenes of a little film called GONE WITH THE WIND. Produced by Hollywood legends Myron and David O. Selznick, the film had yet to cast its female lead at the time of Vivien's arrival in Hollywood. Being the darkest of dark horses among those in the running for the role, it was her relationship with Olivier that ultimately got her the attention of the film's producers. Convinced to dine with Vivien, literally as the two producer brothers were setting light to the remnants of classic Hollywood sets to create the epic Burning of Atlanta scene, Vivien used every ounce of her charm and remarkable beauty to convince the two brothers to let her do a screen test for the role. It was all Hollywood history from there. Vivien would achieve worldwide fame as the immortal Scarlett O'Hara, a performance which earned her the Oscar the following year.
However, like many Oscar winners, Vivien would follow up her Oscar-winning performance with movies of limited success and acclaim. While her performances in movies like WATERLOO BRIDGE, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA and ANNA KARENINA were accomplished, they simply couldn't match the scene-devouring power of her fiery southern belle alter-ego. A general disliking of Hollywood culture and her commitment to do her part for the war effort during WWII, meant that it wasn't until 1951, 12 years after GONE WITH THE WIND, that Vivien would have a role to match the intensity of her biggest claim to fame. This was the role of Blanche DuBois in the Tennessee Williams story of lust and betrayal in New Orleans, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Her tit for tat performance along side fellow icon of the screen, Marlon Brando, would garner her yet another Oscar win and cement her reputation as a true Hollywood legend. Dismissive of Hollywood acclaim, it was said Vivien used one of her two Oscars as a door stop.
This role was not the last movie role Vivien would have, but it would mark the height of her career. Being famous and beloved in cinema was only one part of her life. Her private life was often plagued with heartache, sickness, and emotional turmoil. A manic depressive, prone to unexpected outbursts and rampages that she often channeled into her intense performances, Vivien found such unpredictable behavior not as beneficial to her relationship with husband Lawrence Olivier. Nervous breakdowns and psychiatric treatments would follow. This, along with two miscarriages, would create unbearable tension between the two stars, eventually spelling doom for their marriage. Vivien was also a life long smoker, known to consume at least 4 packs a day. This would have devastating effects on her health relatively early in life. She would be diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1945, still in her early 30s. All these issues would contribute to sporadic appearances on movie screens throughout the remainder of her career.
By the mid 1950s, Vivien's gradual decline would begin to intensify. Numerous bouts with mental illness, alcoholism and nervous exhaustion would take their toll. By the end of that decade, she would see her marriage to Olivier, the man she considered the love of her life, dissolved. Much of her time would now be spent struggling to manage both her inner demons and a teetering film career. Yet even as her personal life disintegrated, Vivien clung to her love of the stage, remaining a fixture of British theater throughout the rest of her life. She would manage to do the occasional movie role during this time, though several times the effort required of these roles would send her into crippling bouts of mania and nervous breakdowns, forcing the implementation of repeated shock treatments and hospital care. A brief resurgence in vitality as the 1960s arrived would see her perform a few roles on stage and screen, though these would ultimately prove to be her undoing.
By the closing years of the 1960s, the end would be near for Vivien. Her final screen performance would be a small part in the 1965 film SHIP OF FOOLS. Two years later, she would be diagnosed with a recurrence of tuberculosis. After a long course of treatment and rest, Vivien appeared to be recovering. Sadly, this proved not to be the case. She was discovered in early July 1967, collapsed on the floor, dead from complications due to her tuberculosis. Visited shortly thereafter by former husband Olivier, himself receiving treatment for prostate cancer, he and her then companion John Merivale would pray over her body, both distraught at her loss. Soon the world would share their sadness. Vivien would be created and her ashes scattered over a lake in her home of East Essex England. She was 53.
One of Hollywood's true beauties and remarkable acting talents, Vivien Leigh would spend much of her career eschewing the former while attempting to gain respect for the latter. Never comfortable being the pretty face, she was known to strive her whole life for achievement in her craft, even if it meant alienating herself from the biggest names in Hollywood. Despite having a relatively small collection of barely 20 movies to her name, Vivien nonetheless endures as a beloved, desired and emulated legend of stage and screen.