Monday, 9 June 2014

Whatever Happened To...Scarlett O'Hara

OK, I'm taking a liberty or two here. I don't actually mean the fictional heroine, I mean the lady who most famously portrayed her. British actress, Vivien Leigh.

She would slightly amend the spelling of her name in years to come, but she was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India on November 5th 1913, daughter of a successful British businessman. These were the days of the Raj, when well to do British families lived like lords, in a country often referred to as the Jewel In The Crown of the British Empire. Vivien's mother decided that her little girl should have a proper British upbringing, so her parents brought her to England when she was six years old and installed her in a convent boarding school, where she was two years younger than any of the girls there. Vivien was a lonely, solitary child, whose main companion was a cat who was allowed to share her dormitory.

In time, Vivien made friends with another little girl - Maureen O'Sullivan - who, like her would also make her name in films.

Eighteen months into her convent education, her mother arrived from India to visit her and took her to the theatre. Vivien fell in love with the play she was taken to see and saw it sixteen times. Now she became hooked on the theatre and began to act in school plays - taking the male role whenever possible as she found them much more challenging than the female parts. 

Her favourite actor was Leslie Howard, which may have influenced her decision to marry her first husband - a barrister called Herbert Leigh Holman, who held more than a passing resemblance to the actor. The couple remained married for eight years and had one daughter, Suzanne.

At the time of her marriage to Holman, it was 1932 and Vivien was 19. Her best friend from school was 21 and already in Hollywood, making movies, but Vivien would have to wait another three years before she got her own first break, in a small role in a British film called Things Are Looking Up. She had just one line, but the camera returned time and again to her face. 

Vivien continued to act on stage and the leading actor of the time was Laurence Olivier. It was inevitable that their paths would cross. In the historical film, Fire Over England, Olivier played a young favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, who is sent to Spain. Vivien's role was that of a lady in waiting who falls in love with Olivier's character. Life imitated art when the pair of actors fell in love for real and began one of cinema's most famous,passionate and volatile relationships, rivalling that of Burton and Taylor decades later.

Then along came the famous search for the actress who would play Scarlett O'Hara. Vivien read the book and set her sights on it. She believed it would be the most exciting female cinematic role ever filmed. Laurence Olivier was already over in Hollywood to play Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and he and Vivien had dinner with Myron Selznick - brother of David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With The Wind. The search for Scarlett was over.

Vivian Leigh won Best Actress Oscars for that role and, twelve years later, for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. The camera never stopped loving her, right up until her last major film role, opposite Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone in 1961.

While Vivian shone on screen her private life was anything but settled. She suffered tuberculosis, two miscarriages and was diagnosed with manic depression. She and Olivier had affairs - in Vivien's case, most notably, with actor Peter Finch, a protege of Olivier's. This too was a stormy relationship, resulting in Vivien having a nervous breakdown.  By 1960, as her behaviour became increasingly unpredictable, her marriage to Olivier was over and he left her for actress Joan Plowright. Vivien sued for divorce on the grounds of Olivier's adultery with Plowright. There was a touch of bitter irony here since Olivier's first wife, Jill Esmond, had cited Vivien in their divorce. The divorce was granted in 1940 but, by then, Vivien was already living with Canadian actor, John Merivale, with whom she would spend the remaining years of her life.

Olivier had been knighted in 1947 and, even though they were divorced, Vivien was always referred to as Lady Olivier for the rest of her life. 

In May 1967, her old battles with tuberculosis returned. This time, though, she would not triumph. Her lifelong chronic heavy smoking hadn't helped either and, on the evening of July 7th, John Merivale found her collapsed, dead, on the floor of her bedroom. Her lungs had filled with fluid, so that she could no longer breathe. She was just 53 years old.

Olivier assisted Merivale with the funeral arrangements, and Vivien was cremated, following a service at Golders Green crematorium. Her ashes were scattered on the lake at her home in East Sussex. At the ceremony, many notable figures paid tribute to her, including George Cukor who had directed her in Gone With The Wind. He described her as,  "a consummate actress, hampered by her beauty."