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Monday, May 18, 2015

“Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh”, by Alexander Walker

342 pages, Grove Press, ISBN-13: 978-0802132598

Well, whaddayaknow: a biography of a beautiful and intelligent but brittle star that is not sensationalistic and tabloidesque. Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker shows this damaged person to have been as hyper as a caged cat walking back and forth back and forth in its cage – the “cage” in question being the manic depression that drove her from the depths of desperation to the heights of exaltation (and the exaltation was not always appropriate). She could not free herself from the cage but, in an attempt to escape, perhaps, she submerged herself in the characters she played on stage and silver screen; she wasnt acting as Scarlett O’Hara or Lady Hamilton or Cleopatra or Blanche DuBois, she WAS Scarlett O’Hara or Lady Hamilton or Cleopatra or Blanche DuBois.

In retrospect, it is unfortunate that Vivien Leigh was not more like Scarlett O’Hara in real life (although her marvelous performance, which won an Oscar, will always be the definitive Scarlett). Scarlett was a survivor and the collapse of the South in the Civil War made her more ruthless, greedier, and more insensitive; you could never feel sorry for Scarlett O’Hara. Rather, Vivien was, sadly, much closer in character to Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire because both Blanche and Vivien collapsed in the face of mental illness (Vivien’s portrayal of Blanche won her a second Oscar). There is one respect, however, in which Vivien was Scarlett to the core: Scarlett was sure that she would one day get Rhett back, and as author Alexander Walker observes: “[T]o her dying day I don’t think Vivien believed [ex-husband Laurence] Olivier was beyond recall”.

Sadly, Vivien placed herself at the mercy of the psychopathic “care” of the era and was thus subjected to many Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments to try and control her violent mood swings. This treatment sometimes (but not always) resulted in some improvement of her moods, but manic depression is a very debilitating disorder. She was on an emotional razor’s edge and husband Laurence Olivier got to the point that he could no longer handle her and the great love that he had felt for her simply eroded because he couldn’t cope with the volatile situation. Olivier was undoubtedly glad (as well as relieved) when Vivien took the actor Peter Finch as her lover, which more or less let Olivier off the hook. Olivier was knighted and Vivien loved being Lady Olivier, but the marriage was not salvageable. They had been a wonderfully glamorous couple, and not much else.

Vivien died not from mental illness but from tuberculosis, which is rather astounding in that day and age. Her lungs filled with fluid and she could not breathe. Horribly, she was alone. Her death was tragically unexpected and millions around the world mourned her. In Walkers book the story of Vivien’s extremely rich life is put before us with great sensitivity, and as you reach the end of this superior biography you may feel that you know Vivien better than she knew herself. The writing is very fine and filled with wonderful descriptions, insights and an incredible amount of detail, a vast tapestry expertly woven together. Vivien was the definitive Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, and Alexander Walker Vivien gives us the definitive Vivien Leigh.

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