Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Vivien Leigh

Episode Summary

Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) was a British actress of stage and screen who achieved legendary status by portraying two of the most iconic roles in Hollywood history.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

We are offering free ad space on Wonder Media Network shows to organizations working towards social justice. For more information, please email Jenny at jenny@wondermedianetwork.com.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Leading Lady is a British actress of stage and screen who achieved legendary status by portraying two of the most iconic roles in Hollywood history. During an illustrious, though all too short, career, she was also a member of one of Hollywood’s most beloved power couples, which put her in the constant glare of public opinion even as she struggled with an increasingly debilitating mental illness. Please welcome Vivien Leigh.   

Vivien Mary Hartley was born on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, India to Ernest and Gertrude Hartley. Her father was an officer in the Indian Cavalry and later worked as a stockbroker. Vivien was the couple’s only child. 

In 1919, the family moved back to England. At just seven years old, Vivien told a fellow classmate that she wanted to be a famous actress one day. 

During her high school years, Vivien was pulled out of her London school to travel with her parents around Europe. She attended various schools in France, Italy and Germany throughout the period and became fluent in both French and Italian. 

In 1931, the Hartley family moved back to England and Vivien enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. During her freshman year however, Vivien met and fell in love with a barrister over a decade her senior named Leigh Holman. After they married in 1932, Vivien dropped out of the Royal Academy. Her interest had diminished now that she was in a new relationship. In 1933, Vivien gave birth to a daughter named Suzanne.

Two years after her daughter’s birth, Vivien decided to get back into acting. In 1935, she took a small role in the film “Things Are Looking Up” and made her stage debut in the play “The Bash.” Vivien also hired an agent who suggested she change her name from Vivian Holman to a more suitable stage name-Vivien Leigh. 

Vivien then began doing Shakespearean plays at the Old Vic in London, along with acting in a number of British films. It was there that she apparently first encountered the renowned actor Lawrence Olivier. The two would go on to enjoy both a highly beneficial collaborative acting relationship and a surprisingly public affair given the moral standards of the day and the fact that both were married. It was during this period that Vivien first began exhibiting symptoms of Bipolar disorder, though they were not then recognized as such.

Around the same time, Vivien read Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel Gone With The Wind. She decided that she absolutely had to play the part of Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s upcoming film adaptation. There was a widely publicized search to find the right actress to play the role. Hollywood icons like Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn were in the running. Vivien was a comparatively unknown actress from across the pond who had yet to work on a single Hollywood film. 

David O. Selznick watched her performances in two British films sent to him by her agent, and was highly impressed with her acting. Still, he felt that she was way too British for the role of an American southerner. But Vivien wasn’t about to give up. She travelled to Los Angeles for a two week vacation to meet with Selznick in person and ended up reading a scene for a screen test that was so good, she secured the role of Scarlett.

Casting an essentially unknown actress as the lead in one of the largest Hollywood films of the decade was a serious risk. Even before shooting began, the movie was the most highly anticipated film in Hollywood history. The novel on which the movie was based was extraordinarily popular.

The risk proved worth it. Vivien received wild acclaim for her performance. The film itself, which premiered in 1939, smashed box office records and won 8 Academy Awards, including one for Vivien for Best Actress. 

We need to note here that Gone With The Wind, which tells the story of a wealthy white Southern woman living during and directly after the American Civil War, is considered by many- including us- to be a highly problematic film due to its rosy depictions of American slavery, Southern culture, the relationship between white landowners and the Black people who they enslaved, and a strong centering of white victimhood as the primary plight of the Civil War. The popularity of the film only served to increase a national sense of white nostalgia for the antebellum period, an era which was functionally and fundamentally dependent upon the blood, sweat and tears of an enslaved people. That unfounded and highly insidious nostalgia is something that we’re still fighting to this day. 

In 1940, after having finally secured divorces from their respective spouses, Vivien and Olivier finally got married. Not only was Vivien now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but the two of them together made for quite the power couple. They starred in films together and were followed everywhere by the paparazzi, though they took great pains to try to maintain their privacy. 

One of their reasons for wanting to stay out of the limelight was the increased deterioration of Vivien’s mental health due to the mounting severity of both manic and depressive episodes. This put a significant strain on the couple’s marriage. 

In 1944, things took a turn for the worse when Vivien fell during rehearsal for “Antony and Cleopatra” and suffered a miscarriage. The tragic event increased the severity and frequency of Vivien’s bipolar symptoms, which became progressively more difficult to manage and gave her terrible insomnia. She also suffered from a respiratory infection that was eventually diagnosed as chronic tuberculosis. 

In an attempt to find relief, Vivien underwent electroconvulsive therapy or ECT, which was one of the only treatments at the time for mental illness. The methods were so rudimentary compared to techniques used today. She began self-medicating with alcohol. 

While Vivien continued to act in major roles throughout the 1940s while in treatment, she didn’t do anything that matched her success with “Gone With The Wind.” 

Then in 1949, Vivien was cast as the iconic Blanche Du Bois in the London production of Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire. After performing the role on stage for nearly a year, Vivien agreed to star in the film adaptation, in which she starred opposite famed actor Marlon Brando. 

Vivien’s performance in the film version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” was revelatory. For her efforts, Vivien won a second Oscar, a New York Film Critics Award, and a BAFTA award. 

It’s believed that Vivien drew heavily on her own struggles with mental illness to give texture to her portrayal of Blanche Du Bois, who herself is a woman suffering deeply from mental illness while hiding behind a cracking façade of Southern gentility. Vivien later said that the role may have actually contributed to her own mental illness, stating that the year she spent playing Du Bois tipped her “into madness.”

In the aftermath of this success, Vivien and Olivier made history by starring together in simultaneous theater productions of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Both were put on in London, and both were massive critical and commercial successes.

These successes were often overshadowed in Vivien’s personal life by her continued struggle with Bipolar disorder. In 1953 her condition was exacerbated by the tragedy of a second miscarriage, which caused a breakdown and forced her to withdraw from the film she was working on. This episode bolstered her reputation for being hard to work with. It seems that her struggles with mental illness were often misunderstood by those around her. 

The episode also increased the strain on Vivien’s marriage to Olivier, which had become more and more tumultuous. The marriage ended in divorce in 1960, and soon after both parties started new relationships. Vivien moved in with actor Jack Merivale, and her condition seemed to improve for a time. During this period she starred in a Broadway play for which she won her first Tony award, and also starred in the Oscar winning film “Ship of Fools.”

In 1967, just before beginning rehearsal for a new play in London, Vivien fell seriously ill from a recurrence of Tuberculosis. After a month in the hospital, she passed away on July 8, 1967. She was 53 years old. 

All month we’re talking about Leading Ladies. Tune in tomorrow for a special bonus episode brought to you by Care/of. 

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!