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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

“Vivien Leigh: A Biography”, by Anne Edwards

319 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0671224967

Scarlett O’Hara will live as long as women dream romantic dreams, and Vivien Leigh, the young woman who won the part in the 1939 movie Gone With the Wind – after a long and brilliantly executed campaign (and thereby coming to embody the dream for as long as celluloid lasts) – must be considered one of Hollywood’s timeless beauties…alas, as Vivien Leigh: A Biography by Anne Edwards makes clear, Leigh’s life eventually took on a darker tinge, and for anyone who simply enjoyed her highly-charged scenes with Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler could never imagine the ultimate sadness of her life. Like so many beautiful woman who’s ever been queried on the subject, Leigh did not think herself beautiful; she thought her hands too big, her neck too long (she once spent six hours in a dress-fitting session, insisting the designer hide her “too-long” neck), her legs too fat, and though she gave the world superlative performances on stage as Ophelia and Cleopatra, and onscreen in That Hamilton Woman and A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as Gone With the Wind, she never felt herself to be that good an actress.

She also never thought herself worthy of Laurence Olivier, the Prince of English Players, whom she won, as lover and husband, after another long and brilliant campaign and a notorious love affair. Leigh loved Olivier with a passionate, tremulous intensity, and felt their life together must also be perfect; if he was the King of Players, she must be the Queen. So she deprived herself (and us) of numerous film parts, making movies only when she needed the money. She hid her Oscar for Gone With the Wind until Olivier had one of his own, and so would no longer be jealous. She, in fact, stayed with him regardless, while he thought only of his career (mind you, he repaid her love and loyalty for many years, staying with her even after her serious emotional problems became apparent; she drank too much, smoked too much, worked too hard, and slept too little).

Friends and family learned to chart the terrible manic/depressive cycles; she’d fight the onset of her attacks courageously, then be overwhelmed – screaming obscenities and groundless accusations against her friends, tearing her clothes off and have to be physically restrained, fanaticizing about “guiltless sex” with working class men and making advances to taxi drivers and delivery men (she identified herself so strongly with Blanche du Bois, her part in Streetcar, that she used some of Blanche’s dialogue in her own life without realizing it). The treatments prescribed for her illness were as terrible as the attacks; electroshock, immersion of her body in ice, then in water as hot as she could stand. However, she never lost her courage, even after Olivier left her for Joan Plowright. Her final illness left an important part open for Elizabeth Taylor in Elephant Walk.

Edwards has handled Leigh’s life with remarkable sensitivity and perception. She’s fair to Leigh and to the other people in her life, most especially Olivier. Her language is sometimes lazy – just how many times can you describe Olivier as “manly” or say that Leigh “had never looked more beautiful”, anyway? – but this is that rare book that’s even better than its jacket promises.

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