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Vivien Leigh, English Southern Belle

Updated on November 3, 2014


She struggled with alcoholism and mental illness most of her life, was a heavy smoker, and died of tuberculosis at the young age of 53.

She only made 20 films. Yet she won 2 Best Actress Awards playing American Southern Belles and immortalized two of the greatest women's roles the silver screen has ever seen- Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Along the way she married, and divorced, one of the greatest actors of the century - Sir Laurence Olivier.

A Rare Beauty

Formative Years

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5th, 1913 in Darjeeling, India. Enjoying elements of fantasy and drama as a child, she was encouraged to read early on and became fond of authors such as Rudyard Kipling, Hans Christian Anderson, and Lewis Carroll. She moved to England with her family at the age of 6 in 1920, returning to India only briefly in the 1960s. Vivien was placed in the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Roehampton, and did not see her parents again for almost a year and a half. She was educated at the Convent for the subsequent 8 years, and 'from early on she showed poised, self -containment, and the ability to sustain a private existence.' Her first stage appearances at school were in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (playing the fairy), and in The Tempest (as Miranda). She studied ballet, played the cello in the school orchestra, and excelled at piano - taking her music exam at the Royal Academy of Music when she was a teenager. Vivien was also fascinated early on in different languages, Egyptian history, and learned to speak French fluently. At the age of 15, she went to Paris to spend a term at a finishing school in Auteuil. She was the youngest student in the school. At Christmas of that year, 1929, Vivien was chosen to be the heroine of the school play. Encouraged by her schoolmistress, she was inspired to work on her diction and acting abilities. This early help pushed her further towards an interest in a career on stage. Her final two years of education were at yet another finishing school, this time in the Bavarian Alps, which concluded her schooling in June of 1931 - halfway towards her 17th birthday. During this time, she developed an interest in the visual arts and continued to study languages - notably French and German.

In January of 1932 Vivien met Leigh Holman while staying at her aunt's in Teignmouth, England. Although he was 13 years her senior, an attachment quickly developed between the two and they spent several months courting and corresponding and on December 20th 1932 they were married. Shortly after they returned from their honeymoon in Austria, Vivien began her acting studies at RADA She gave birth to a daughter on October 10th 1933, naming her Suzanne.

A Budding Career

However she felt stifled by her domestic life. Her friends suggested her for a small part in the film Things Are Looking Up, which marked her film debut. She engaged an agent, John Gliddon, who believed that the name "Vivian Holman" was not suitable for an actress, and after rejecting his suggestion, "April Morn", she took first "Vivian" and then the more conventionally spelt "Vivien Leigh" as her professional name.

Cast in the play The Mask of Virtue in 1935, Leigh received excellent reviews, the play was a great success and Vivien became an overnight sensation. Alexander Korda came to see the opening night and he placed the twenty-two-year-old actress under contract to his company London Films.

She alternated between stage and film work, usually in flighty, kittenish roles, until being introduced to Shakespeare at The Old Vic. It was there that she met Laurence Oliver, appearing with him on-stage as Ophelia in Hamlet and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and later together on screen in 1937's Fire Over England.

Olivier and Leigh developed a strong attraction, and after filming was completed, they began an affair. At the time, both were married (Olivier to actress Jill Esmond). But young Vivien was a very determined woman, and said from the moment she set eyes on Laurence Olivier she was determined to have him.

Fire Over England

Their Spelling Improved Later
Their Spelling Improved Later
Scarlett and Rhett
Scarlett and Rhett

Scarlett and Superstardom

It was Fire Over England which had first brought Leigh to the attention of American producer David O. Selznick. She went to Hollywood with Olivier in 1938 and they visited the set of 'Gone with the wind' which had started filming without a lead actress. Quite how meticulously arranged this visit was is a matter of dispute but her appearance on set while Atlanta burned secured her the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara.

On the night of December 10, 1938, shooting began on Gone With The Wind with "The Burning of Atlanta" scene. As yet no one had been chosen for the role. David Selznick's brother Myron, the man who had defined the role of the Hollywood agent, came onto the set that night escorted by a strikingly beautiful, mysterious woman, unknown to the American press and public. That woman was Vivien Leigh.

Her entrance was no accident. She had come to Hollywood from England ostensibly to be with Laurence Olivier, one of Myron's clients, but she had also come to Hollywood to pursue the part of Scarlett.

Both Selznicks already knew of Leigh. But it wasn't until that night that David O. Selznick and Vivien Leigh met face to face.

Leigh reportedly auditioned for George Cukor, the Director, that very night. A week and a half later, on December 21 and December 22, her screentests were made. Legend has it that George Cukor called her three days later on Christmas Day to tell her she had the part. She signed her contract on January 16, 1939. Principal photography began on January 26.

The casting choice was controversial. There was at first widespread protest that someone other than a Southern woman had been chosen and letters of protest poured in, all to no avail. Vivien gave a masterly peformance, won the Best Actress award and created a movie legend. She had also made herself world-famous.

Vivien and David Selznick with her Best Actress Award
Vivien and David Selznick with her Best Actress Award

Your One-Stop Classic Hollywood Site

The Golden Couple in a Golden Age
The Golden Couple in a Golden Age
Waterloo Bridge, 1940
Waterloo Bridge, 1940 | Source

Hapiness and Fulfillment

In February 1940, Jill Esmond agreed to divorce Olivier, and Holman also agreed to divorce Leigh, although they maintained a strong friendship for the rest of Leigh's life. On August 30 Olivier and Leigh were married in Santa Barbara, California, in a ceremony attended only by their witnesses, Katharine Hepburn and Garson Kanin.

After "Gone With The Wind", Vivien went on to make a number of successful films and stage performances. She played a number of Shakespeare's ladies including Juliet, Lady Macbeth, and Ophelia, many of them played opposite Laurence Olivier. They filmed That Hamilton Woman (1941) with Olivier as Horatio Nelson and Leigh as Emma Hamilton. With Britain engaged in World War II, it was one of several Hollywood films made with the aim of arousing a pro-British sentiment among American audiences. The film was popular in the United States, was an outstanding success in the Soviet Union.

During the midst of World War II, Vivien and Olivier toured all throughout North Africa giving shows for the troops before she fell ill with a persistent cough and fevers. In 1944 she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in her left lung, but after spending several weeks in hospital, she appeared to be cured.

She was well enough to resume acting in 1946 in a successful London production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, but her films of this period, Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and Anna Karenina (1948), were not great successes.

In 1947 Olivier was knighted, and Leigh accompanied him to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. She became Lady Olivier, a title she continued to use after their divorce, until she died.

In 1948, the couple embarked on a six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand to raise money for the Old Vic Theater. They performed "The School for Scandal" and "The Skin of Our Teeth". The great success of the tour encouraged the Oliviers to make their first West End appearance together, performing the same works with one addition, Antigone, included at Leigh's insistence because she wished to play a role in a tragedy.

With Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire
With Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire

Leigh next sought the role of Blanche DuBois in the West End stage production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. The play was both controversial and successful. After 326 performances, Leigh finished her run; however, she was soon engaged for the film version. Her irreverent and often bawdy sense of humour allowed her to establish a rapport with her co-star Marlon Brando.

The film won glowing reviews for her, and she won a second Academy Award for Best Actress, a BAFTA Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Tennessee Williams commented that Leigh brought to the role "everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of," but in later years, Leigh would say that playing Blanche DuBois "tipped me over into madness." Indeed, after 1951, a year of great achievements, her life began an inexorable downhill spiral.

Health Problems

Lauded for her beauty, Leigh felt that it sometimes prevented her from being taken seriously as an actress, a viewpoint shared by some of her contemporaries, but it was ill health which proved to be her greatest obstacle.

In the spring of 1945, whilst filming Caesar and Cleopatra Vivien had discovered she was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. She fell into a deep depression which reached its nadir when she turned on Olivier, verbally and physically attacking him until she fell to the floor sobbing. This was the first of many major breakdowns related to manic-depression, or bipolar mood disorder. Olivier came to recognise the symptoms of an impending episode - several days of hyperactivity followed by a period of depression and an explosive breakdown, after which Leigh would have no memory of the event, but would be acutely embarrassed and remorseful.

Affected by bipolar disorder for most of her adult life, Leigh's extreme moods were often misunderstood, and as she gained a reputation for being difficult, her career went through periods of decline. She was further weakened by recurrent bouts of tuberculosis, which was first diagnosed in the mid-1940s. In her private life, however, Leigh began developing severe emotional and health problems that would eventually damage her marriage to Olivier (whom she divorced in 1960) and seriously impede her ability to perform on-stage or before the camera.

Despite her struggles with manic depression, she managed to turn in first-rate performances in such films as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and Ship of Fools (1965), and maintained a busy theatrical schedule, including a 1963 musical version of Tovarich and a 1966 Broadway appearance opposite John Gielgud in Ivanov. Leigh was preparing to star in the London production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance when she was found dead from tuberculosis in her London apartment in 1967.

In tribute to the actress, the lights in London's theater district were blacked out for an hour.

Series of Clips and Stills


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    • GJones100 profile image


      3 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      One of the most beautiful actresses to ever graced the screen.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      best actress in the ever.

    • yenajeon profile image

      Yena Williams 

      8 years ago from California

      Amazing actress. Yes, she was good as Blanche but Gone With the Wind is my absolute favorite movie of all time!

    • Glimmer515 profile image


      9 years ago from Never Never Land

      One of the most gorgeous women to ever live! Very sad that she struggled with so many things mentally

    • mhuze profile image


      9 years ago from USA

      Such a tragic end to a wonderful actress.

    • gunsock profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from South Coast of England

      Thanks for your comments Kosmo. I agree with you about using italics , or maybe inverted commas, for titles and I'll be doing that in future. I love your Hedy Lamarr hub, she's an actress I knew nothing about.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley Marks 

      10 years ago from California

      This hub is very well arranged! I haven't seen a better one. I'm just starting to stack my capsules the way you have. The only thing I would do with this is make sure you put your titles of books, movies and plays in italics. At any rate, Vivian Leigh was certainly one of the great actresses of the Silver Screen. I wrote a hub about Hedy Lamarr that you might want to check out. Later!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      She was a beautiful and talented actress. One of my favorites....

    • profile image

      Carole Heath mrs 

      10 years ago

      Vivien Leigh was a much better actor than she was ever given credit for, her performance as Blanche in a Streetcar named Desire was one of her best roles I think, She also played many classical parts on the stage alongside her then husband the great actor Laurence Olivier also a great favourite of mine. Her life was always difficult her health wasn't good but she seemed a real trooper and tried never to give in, Her early death was very tragic her love for Olivier never stopped but she did find happiness with Jack Merrivale who helped her best he could. Vivien was beautiful but also talented her legacy lives on in her great films.


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