|Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean.
At the center of this immortal film is the performance of Vivien Leigh as the scheming Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara. While it may be possible to imagine another actress as Scarlett, it is difficult to see Gone with the Wind achieving such tremendous success if Leigh had not been cast. Leigh's remarkable ability to convey steely determination underscored with trembling fragility is an essential element. Even in the capable hands of Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, both of whom were among the many actresses who wanted to play Scarlett, Selznick's grandiose production may have come down to us as an overblown, dated melodrama.
There have been major biographies of Leigh by Anne Edwards (1977), Alexander Walker (1987), and Hugo Vickers (1989). Bean, a young American film historian based in London, represents a new generation of film scholars. She told TCR that she was drawn to write about Leigh, who died from a badly treated case of tuberculosis at age fifty-three in 1967, "because she’s interesting, often misunderstood, and nothing I’d read about her before seemed to satisfy my curiosity about her life or her work."
Bean is the first major Leigh biographer to have access to the papers of the actor Laurence Olivier, acquired by the British Library in 2000. Leigh and Olivier were married for twenty years before divorcing in 1960.
|The recently wed Oliviers as Lord Nelson and
Emma Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman, 1941.
| Leigh as Cleopatra in the screen version of
Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, 1945.
|The Oliviers in Shakespeare's
Titus Andronicus, 1957.
Bean points to Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, and Jennifer Jones, all under contract to Selznick, as the main career beneficiaries of Leigh's departure from the Hollywood scene.
Leigh and Olivier were "the golden couple of British theater in the 1940s and 1950s," says Bean. Often partnered with her husband as co-star or director, Leigh tackled classic roles from Shakespeare, Sheridan, and Shaw and appeared in new works by top playwrights of the time, including Thornton Wilder, Noel Coward, and Terrence Rattigan. She kept her hand in the movie world by starring in the British films Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Anna Karenina (1948).
|Leigh (left) with Claire Bloom in Giraudoux's
Duel of Angels, 1958.
(photo/Victoria & Albert Museum)
Nearly fifty years after Leigh's death there are not many people left who knew the actress well. "All of her close friends are long dead, sadly," says Bean. "But there are still a few people who acted with her or knew her briefly." Bean corresponded with actress Olivia DeHavilland, a top Hollywood star of the 1940s, who played the supporting role of Melanie Wilkes, a docile counterpoint to Leigh's tempestuous Scarlett, in Gone with the Wind. DeHavilland, who is nearly a hundred years old, is one of the few people involved with the making of the classic film who are still around.
|Film historian and biographer
Leigh's only child, a daughter from her first marriage (to London barrister Leigh Holman), is now in her early eighties. Bean says that Leigh's daughter "gave me permission to quote from some of Vivien’s letters and was aware of the project from early on, but that was the extent of the connection."
|Leigh with a youthful Warren Beatty in her next
to last film The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, 1961.
"If she hadn’t struggled with mental illness, something else may have gotten in the way — or not. It’s impossible to answer," says Bean. "I do know that leaving was a difficult decision for Olivier to make. It wasn’t like he just woke up one day and decided he was done with things; it was a drawn out and painful process."
|Tovarich, original Broadway cast album, 1963.
"Some critics argued that her stage career lacked depth, but there’s certainly no denying the breadth of her accomplishments," says Bean.
In 1963, Leigh took on the enormous challenge of starring in a Broadway musical. Based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, Tovarich offered Leigh and co-star Jean-Pierre Aumont as exiled Russian aristocrats working as a maid and butler for an American family in Paris. Tovarich ran for several months but folded soon after Leigh withdrew from the production due to a flare up of her mental problems.
|Poster from the British Film Institute's Vivien
Leigh retrospective, 2013.
Considering all this recent hoopla, it is surprising that greatest challenge Bean faced when initially putting together Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Biography a few years ago was finding a publisher. "A lot of people thought that Vivien was no longer relevant enough to sell, or that they couldn’t make the coffee table book format work for their publishing house," says Bean, adding that after getting the go ahead from Running Press the biggest problem was "making sure everything was turned in on time (it was, I’m happy to say)."
Bean also runs a website dedicated to Leigh, Olivier, and classic cinema.