BWW Reviews: VIVIEN LEIGH: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT Sharpens the Outline, Deepens the Enigma
"Some force within myself would not be denied expression." Vivien Leigh
I have a framed copy of Life magazine's issue from July 29, 1946, hanging in my den. The cover blurb reads simply, "Vivien Leigh: Star of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra."
I have at least one friend who claims the eyes in the hauntingly beautiful black and white photograph that accompanies that simple text follow him around when he's in the room.
I've tested his claim. He happens to be right.
One of the many fascinating details I gleaned from Kendra Bean's fine new tribute, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, is that when Leigh herself was first shown the stills from that particular shoot--the photographer having taken the rare step of showing them to the subject only because he thought they were exceptionally good and because she had been so extremely charming during the photo-shoot itself--she tore them up in his face.
It's a small but telling anecdote.
Start there and a lot of the themes of Leigh's life and art--themes Bean, who had access to much material that has been made newly available in the quarter-century since Leigh's last major biography, does an excellent job of limning within the necessary limits of a bio which is doubling as a coffee table photo-book--are soon engaged.
There's the ability to win the allegiance of powerful, skeptical men:
George Bernard Shaw, who needed only a visit from Leigh to set aside his objections to her playing Cleopatra in the film version of his play, was actually an exception to the rule in one sense. Virtually everyone else she worked her magic on--a list that included gargantuan personalities as diverse as Alex Korda (her original English film producer), David Selznick, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward and, of course, the love of her life (as she was of his) Laurence Olivier--was rewarded beyond measure or reason.
Her Cleopatra may not be--or deserve to be--the stuff of legend, but her Scarlett O'Hara, her Blanche DuBois, her Emma Hamilton and her on and off-stage love affair with Olivier certainly, and deservedly, are.
There's the flair for the dramatic--not confined to stages or film-sets:
This might be best exemplified by the decision she and Olivier made to tell their respective spouses about their by then white-hot affair only after they had returned from a triumphant engagement of their first Shakespeare collaboration.
Hamlet. In Denmark, of course.
Romeo and Juliet at the Vic would have been too pat, and left no proper psychic space for their near-epic failure of a U.S. tour featuring the teen tragedy that followed in the immediate, "whatever-we-do-it-can't-miss" euphoria of Leigh's breakout in Gone With the Wind and culminated in them having to check out of their swank New York hotel when the dreary, profit-killing notices for the show's Broadway debut made it obvious they weren't going to be able to afford the bill.
There's the variability-- sometimes volatile, sometimes calculating, sometimes petty, sometimes epic:
This is a woman after all, who, speaking of her contract with Selznick, said she "only signed that because I had to, to get Scarlett."
Said contract was for seven years at two pictures a year. She ended up making a grand total of two.
Of course--and this is the epic part--they were Waterloo Bridge (reportedly her own favorite) and That Hamilton Woman, performances that would have put anyone who wasn't playing them in the shadow of Scarlett O'Hara on the permanent Oscar treadmill, (as would many of her later performances--Bean is particularly good on Leigh's much underappreciated turn as Anna Karenina).
The world, I guess, got Selznick's money back in art.
And her subsequent move back to England and beyond his immediate control, was, incidentally, inspired by equally epic loyalties to the "legitimate" theater and war-torn England. The loyalties were sincere, though the intricacies of the first--that is, how much of her devotion was to the stage and how much to Olivier, who dominated there but was going to need to run very fast to ever catch up with her on a movie screen--is one of the mysteries Bean unfortunately doesn't have the space to get into.
There's the fierce, indominatible will, next to which even her larger-than-life mental and physical frailties--and, yes, she was the sort who easily and consistently bridged contradictions in terms--were bound to pale in comparison:
Thankfully, for me and my den, Olivier--a man who knew a thing or two about obsession and ferocity of will--convinced the photographer referenced above to re-develop his mercifully spared contact sheets and the brilliant photos were submitted for publication, not to mention the heart-felt appreciation of generations yet unborn.
Thankfully, for all of us, Leigh got her way more often than not when it really counted.
Here, a sampling Bean's aptly-chosen quotes tell the tale:
"She was single-minded. She was the only girl in school to take ballet, for instance. She took it alone, the only one. I thought it was rather brave of her," (Maureen O'Sullivan, Leigh's childhood convent school chum who went on to play Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan).
"In a light-hearted way, Olivier remarked that he had been thinking of putting in for the part of Rhett Butler. I can see Vivien now, rising to her feet.... 'Larry,' she said, with the rain whipping against her face 'you couldn't play Rhett, but I'm going to play Scarlett O'Hara.' He laughed at her; I laughed at her; everyone within hearing laughed at her. But she went to Hollywood and played Scarlett just the same." (C. A. LeJeune, film critic)
"Everyone said I was mad to try for Gone With the Wind but I wanted it and I knew I'd get it." (Leigh herself)
And yet again....chasing a very different role...
"Everyone said I was mad to try it. They are often saying I am mad to try things...But Blanche (DuBois) is such a real part, the truth about a woman with everything stripped away. She is a tragic figure and I understand her."
This last coming, incidentally, at a moment when Bean's lucid narrative--especially good at keeping the furiously tangled weave-and-warp of Leigh's oft-tormented private life and gleaming, stratospheric public celebrity straight in the reader's mind--makes it quite clear that Leigh herself was, at least to all appearances, far from being the "woman with everything stripped away" or "tragic figure" she would soon become.
The luminous beauty skipping down the path from exotic Indian childhood to convent school to the Royal Theater (where everyone seemed to think she had something even if they weren't quite sure it should be called "talent") to Hollywood superstardom to rejection of same to "Lady Olivier" to being the only woman Tennessee Williams could imagine playing his Blanche in the West End, may not have known what was coming--in the form of manic-depression, electro-shock treatments and being carried back to England from her next, never-completed, film on a private plane under sedation (Bean's account does not mention a straight-jacket, though others have)--but evidently the clear-eyed, hellishly demanding artist did.
Hence, referring back to the anecdote above--and all that it suggests--we also see the ever-lurking specter of mental illness, showing up now as self-negating tetchiness:
"Any ass who can't do anything else becomes an actor." (Leigh)
And again as the weight of the world:
"Several times I thought she really was going mad. She warned me once that someday she would and I was beginning to believe her." (Studio secretary Sunny Lash, in a letter to Olivier during the filming of GWTW, June 8, 1939)
All finally culminating in her truly defining trait--one which An Intimate Portrait catches very nicely--the inability to parcel herself:
"It wasn't a performance" Hedda Hopper, initially another skeptic, wrote of Leigh's Scarlett "it was a career."
And there you have it. All that can be known, from the outside, about a life where the greatest work was done with the candle burning furiously at both ends, but which, unlike most such lives, contained no trace of nihilism. A life well-rendered here and one any Leigh fan will likely devour in one or two sittings (as I did).
Of course, the book has another key element, which is its collection of photographs--many previously unavailable--unparalleled in scope (Leigh has not inspired collector's mania so there are no pure "photo" volumes after the manner of Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn) and, evidently, the main reason for the book's existence.
And they would suffice. Intriguingly, they probably say more about Leigh's interior life than she herself would have ever imagined.
Given all those juicy quotes and anecdotes above, it would be logical to assume that leafing through the photos without referencing the text--a habit of mine in any case for any book where the photos are meant to count--would reveal the presence of a free-wheeling, even anarchic spirit.
Nothing could be further from the case.
The overall impression is of guarded and powerful constraint. Even after Gone With the Wind and the attendant major stardom transformed her, her face remained one that kept its secrets until there was a stage or film character to express them through. When the camera moved, she lived in front of it. When the camera was still, she posed. Carefully.
My favorite picture in the volume has her standing between Shaw (him again!) and Caesar and Cleopatra director Gabriel Pascal. She seems--I stress the word "seems"--utterly relaxed. Handsome, for once, rather than ethereally, intimidatingly, beautiful.
And, even in relaxation, her eyes say she will get what she wants, or that she already has. Her folded hands say she's not quite sure--that she worries she will get (or keep) what she wants (or has) only by playing the supplicant.
It's not as if she's giving anything away, even in the picture's self-contained contradiction. But it's a rare moment when she might be.
If I could get it sized and framed, I'd hang it in my den.
Bean's text and picture selection speak then, albeit indirectly, to a life of carefully constructed obsessions which Leigh--drawn again and again to women on the path to suicide, madness, pariah status, existential despair--was careful not to call "plans" since "Planning means that the chance opportunity, the unexpected challenge, cannot be seized."
The pictures here reinforce this world-view completely. The discipline required, in life and in art, to put oneself constantly in position to seize the "the unexpected challenge," shows in every posed shot and nearly every candid one.
Elia Kazan, Leigh's director for the film version of Streetcar, famously said she "was not a great actress, but..." and, of course, it really doesn't matter what he said after, since "but" never really cancels "not."
Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward said versions of the same thing.
Thanks to An Intimate Portrait, I now know that Coward also said, "She should develop her own lines and become a witty, light comedienne, which she could do better than anyone I can think of..." and that when Williams was considering who would play Karen Stone in his The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone--a part as far removed from "light comedienne" as one can get--he simply said, "Vivien must play it."
I don't know. Sounds like a great actress to me. Maybe even the actress of the century. It would sound that way even if we somehow left Scarlett O'Hara--a fair contender for the greatest performance ever captured on screen--to one side.
This perhaps deceptively modest volume doesn't pretend to make such grandiose claims, but it certainly doesn't discount them either. It gives a clear-sighted, compelling and nicely updated glimpse of a life that surely needs to be studied more, not less, as the years go by. And, even if Leigh does eventually get the definitive biography that is her due, I'm confident it will hold its value.
(NOTE: I'm not acquainted with the author, but she runs a delightful, informative blog at www.vivandlarry.com which I highly recommend for anyone interested in any aspect of Leigh, Olivier or both)