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Character and Performance Analysis: Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara

Updated on January 3, 2015

British Actress in an All American Role

Vivien Leigh is a British actress born Vivien Mary Hartley, on Nov. 5, 1913. At the time of the casting of Gone With the Wind, she was relatively unheard of in the United States. Upon hearing that several English actors were being considered for lead roles in the movie, Leigh asked her agent, Myron Selznick, to suggest her as a contender for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Although there was a great deal of protest from the public that the role was too American for a British actress, after the completion of a series of screen tests, Vivien Leigh was cast the part.

Leigh's Exceptionally Versatile Performance

During the four-hour-long film, the actress, being very versatile, plays out the full range of transformations Scarlett goes through following the Civil War. As the movie begins, the setting is the Antebellum South, with its picturesque plantations and Scarlett, a bit spoiled and self-absorbed, is primarily concerned with winning the affections of Ashley Wilkes. It was at a party at the Wilkes’ plantation that Scarlett first meets Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable, when he overhears her confessing her feelings for Ashley. Vivien Leigh’s performance during this scene displays the charm of the southern belle as well as the temperamental nature of Scarlett O’Hara.

After being rejected by Ashley, who intends to marry Melanie, Scarlett marries Melanie’s brother Charles. Charles died during the war. Following the war, Scarlett faces losing her home and is burdened with a great many family responsibilities which lend to her becoming much shrewder and at times callous. Viewers watch as Leigh changes to encompass the expanding character as she participates in unscrupulous business activities and indulges in scandalous behavior.

Leigh Evolves with Scarlett's Changing Character

Subsequent to the death of her second husband, Scarlett marries Rhett Butler, who has pursued her since their first meeting. Yet she continues to cling to her feelings for Ashley. Vivien Leigh runs the entire gamut of emotions and becomes the unwilling caretaker of Melanie Wilkes when she becomes ill and bedridden. It isn’t until the end of the movie that Scarlett realizes her mistake in pursuing Ashley and finally recognizes that it is Rhett that she has loved all along. Leaving Melanie’s deathbed, she arrives home to find Rhett leaving her. Returning to Tara, Scarlett begins to devise a plan to win Rhett back. Here, Vivien Leigh exhibits the obstinacy of her character as well as an attribute of dedication to her homeland.

An Award Winning Performance

Vivien Leigh’s role in Gone with the Wind brought her immediate success. She was very dedicated to the part and often worked seven days a week and late into the night. She and Olivia de Havilland often consulted Cukor on their roles late at night and on weekends. In addition, she took voice lessons in order to perfect the southern accent that so many found charismatic in Scarlett. Gone with the Wind won ten Academy Awards, including one for best actress for Vivien Leigh. She also won a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.

Gone with the Wind Scarlett Meets Rhett (1939)


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