Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Vivien Leigh's 100th Birthday

Anyone who has ever seen Vivien Leigh in a movie — and that must mean just about everyone — would agree.

She was stunningly beautiful.

And, to these Southern ears, she sounded legitimately Southern in "Gone With the Wind" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," but, in fact, she was the daughter of an English military officer stationed in India at the time of her birth.

Leigh was born 100 years ago today, and she looked upon her beauty as more of a curse than a blessing. She felt it kept her from being taken seriously.

That may have been true with some filmmakers, but the American Film Institute certainly takes her seriously. AFI rated her 16th on its list of the 25 greatest actresses of all time.

And the Academy Awards took her seriously. She was named Best Actress twice — for her performances in "Gone With the Wind" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Of all the movies she made, those are almost certainly the two for which she is most remembered.

My guess is that was the kind of attention she craved — recognition for her ability to act, not for her beautiful features. She was a lot like Elizabeth Taylor, I guess. Taylor gained weight and did everything she could think of to make her portrayal of Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" as realistic as possible — and was rewarded with an Oscar.

Leigh, who was nearly 20 years older than Taylor, didn't go to such physical extremes, but, as I say, it was her acting ability that she wanted people to remember.

(Taylor, in fact, was an admirer of Leigh's. I have heard that Taylor, who regarded Leigh as a "tragic heroine," saw her role in "Virginia Woolf" as an opportunity "to really act.")

Largely known for her stage roles before being cast as Scarlett O'Hara, Leigh gained virtually instant fame when she emerged from a well–publicized quest that included many better–known performers. But she insisted that she was an actress, not a film star.

"I'm not a film star — I'm an actress. Being a film star — just a film star — is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity. Actresses go on for a long time, and there are always marvelous parts to play."

Even if you don't consider the two roles for which she was rewarded with Oscars, it would be hard to dismiss Leigh as merely a "film star."

Sure, she was beautiful, and that is about the only requirement these days for a woman to be a movie star, but Leigh had talent that she brought to every project, be it on stage or the big screen.

I suppose you can't separate Leigh's career from that of her second husband, Laurence Olivier. They often worked together during their 20–year marriage.

Leigh and Olivier met before Leigh was cast in "Gone With the Wind." They were co–stars in "Fire Over England," young lovers on screen — and off, as it turned out. Both were married to other people, but they would be married to each other three years later.

And Leigh's relationship with Olivier played its own role in the two most noteworthy parts she ever had.

It was during their affair that Leigh read "Gone With the Wind" and decided she would play Scarlett.

And it was during their marriage that Leigh played the role of Blanche DuBois, first in a London stage production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1949, then as Marlon Brando's co–star in the big–screen version two years later.

"Streetcar" director Elia Kazan was unimpressed with Leigh initially, but she proved her "determination to excel" to him during the production of the film.

"She'd have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance," he said.

Following her marriage to Olivier, Leigh had a tendency to drop out of public sight for months, even years, and the stage was always her preference to the silver screen. What fans saw in public was a woman who seemed to be in control of herself and her career, but privately, Leigh battled emotional and health issues that eventually took their toll on both her marriage and her career.

She died in July 1967 of the tuberculosis with which she had struggled for years.

(By the way, Turner Classic Movies will be showing 11 of Leigh's movies today, including the two for which she won Oscars.)