Vivien Leigh


Vivian Mary Hartley was born November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, India to an English stockbroker and his Irish wife. She studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art but put her career temporarily on hold at age 19, when she married a lawyer named Leigh Holman and had his daughter. Replacing the "a" in her first name with the less commonly used "e," Hartley used her husband's name to craft a more glamorous stage name, Vivien Leigh. She met and fell in love with Laurence Olivier, a respected actor who, like Leigh, already happened to be married. The two soon embarked on a highly collaborative and inspired acting relationship — not to mention a very public love affair. Around the same time, American director George Cukor was hunting for the perfect actress to play the lead role of Scarlett O'Hara in his film adaptation of Gone with the Wind. "The girl I select must be possessed of the devil," he insisted, "and charged with electricity." An impressive list of Hollywood's top actresses, including Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, had long been vying for the part by the time Leigh, who was on a two-week vacation in California, took and passed the screen test. The film smashed box office records and garnered thirteen Academy Award nominations and eight wins — including one for Leigh as best actress.

Finally having secured divorces from their respective spouses, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier married in 1940, cementing their status as a powerhouse couple in the world of show business.

Tragedy struck in 1944, when Leigh fell during a rehearsal for "Anthony and Cleopatra" and suffered a miscarriage. Her health took a turn for the worse; becoming increasingly unstable, she simultaneously battled insomnia, bipolar disorder, and a respiratory ailment eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis. Hoping for relief, Leigh underwent electroshock therapy, which was very rudimentary at the time and sometimes left her with burn marks on her temples. It wasn't long before she began to drink heavily.

Her increasingly troubled personal life forced Leigh to take occasional breaks from work throughout the 1940s, but she did continue to take on many high-profile roles, both on stage and screen. None could match the critical or commercial success she had won for playing Scarlett O'Hara, though.

That changed in 1949 when Leigh won the part of Blanche Du Bois in a London production of Tennessee Williams' play "A Streetcar Named Desire." After a successful run that lasted nearly a year, Leigh was cast in the same demanding role (opposite Marlon Brando) in the 1951 Hollywood film adaptation, directed by Elia Kazan. Leigh's portrayal of Blanche Du Bois, a character struggling to hide a shattered psyche behind a facade of gentility, may have drawn on Leigh's real-life struggles with mental illness, and perhaps even contributed to them. (The actress later said that the year she spent inside the tortured soul of Blanche Du Bois "tipped me into madness.") In the judgment of many critics, Leigh's acting in "Streetcar" surpassed even her star turn in "Gone with the Wind"; she won not only a second Best Actress Oscar but also a New York Film Critics Award and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for the part.

Bipolar disorder continued to take a heavy toll on Vivien Leigh. After another miscarriage, she had a breakdown in 1953, forcing her to withdraw from the filming of Elephant Walk and earning her a reputation for being difficult to work with. Her relationship with Olivier became more and more tumultuous; in 1960, their troubled marriage ended in divorce.

Just before she began rehearsing for a London production of "A Delicate Balance" in 1967, Leigh fell seriously ill. A month passed before she finally succumbed to her tuberculosis at the age of 53. Marking a sad and premature end to a career that was both tumultuous and triumphant, the London theater district blacked out its lights for a full hour in her honor.

“Gone with the Wind,” 1939

“A Streetcar Named Desire,” 1951