I think it’s fair to say we harp on about women in history a lot here at Honey HQ, but sometimes a woman comes along that you just need to give a shout out to.
Today that woman is Vivien Leigh.
If you know something about this fine lady, great, but let’s pretend for a moment that you don’t and we can take a stroll together down the road I like to call ‘Great balls of fire, I will play Scarlett!’.
Now, for you to truly understand what I’m talking on about you will need to have watched David O.Selznick’s production of ‘Gone With the Wind‘ (1939) aka. the greatest love story epic ever. It’s a 3 1/2 hour movie and I’m sure you’ve got a life, so here’s a quick round-up:
On reflection, that was very difficult for me to let you watch that. You need to at LEAST commit to the actual trailer:
Right, so now you are up to speed, let me tell you how this convent gal, born in Darjeeling and raised up in Europe, became a superstar of the big screen.
The year was 1938 and Vivien had just left her first husband, Leigh Holman, for the well-known actor Laurence Olivier (who she eventually married in 1940). Vivien idolised Olivier and their love affair began whilst filming ‘Fire Over England’ (1937) when he was still married to actress Jill Esmond.
It was during this time that Vivien read Margaret Mitchell’s novel ‘Gone with the Wind’. She remarked to a journalist;
“I’ve cast myself as Scarlett O’Hara”; and reportedly said ‘…I shall play Scarlett O’Hara. Wait and see.”
Margaret Mitchell with her novel, Gone With the Wind.
Source: William F. Warnecke/Newscom
Hollywood was going wild for the ‘Search for Scarlett’, which had cost Selznick $50,000 and lasted two and a half years. 1,400 women were interviewed for the part but still Selznick was no closer. He had watched Vivien’s performances on the stage and had thought her excellent but not right to play the legendary Scarlett as she was just “too British”. Vivien wouldn’t give up without a fight and travelled with Olivier to Los Angeles to try a change Selznick’s mind.
She did however manage to convince someone else, Selznick’s brother, Myron.
Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in “Fire Over England” (1937 – London Film Productions)
Despite having no leading lady filming couldn’t wait and the scene was set for the ‘burning of Atlanta’ on the back-lot of Selznick’s studio with seven Technicolor cameras on standby, ready to roll. Doubles for Scarlett hung around waiting for their cues.
Selznick knew he was about to take a huge gamble. Over these past two and half years he had sent talent scouts out across the country. He had done everything he could but there was still no Scarlett. It began to look like Margaret Mitchell’s world-famous heroine with her tiny 17 inch waist would never be found!
Scarlett’s introduction: The ‘Burning of Atlanta’ Scene
With his investors on his tail he knew he could not wait so he must begin work, or abandon the project. Never had he felt so excited at the start of a film. David paced back and forth on his observation platform waiting for his brother, Myron, before he gave the signal to start filming. Furious with Myron for being late he gave the go-ahead. Finally after filming began he spotted his brother elbowing his way through the crowd, with a man and woman following closely behind. The man was Olivier, one of Myrons clients, but who was the women?
Selznick fixed his gaze on her as Myron took her hand and helped her up the precarious steps of the platform. Dressed head-to-toe in black, she held tightly onto a wide-brimmed black hat that framed her face…
“Here, genius,” Myron said in greeting to his furious sibling, “meet your Scarlett O’Hara.”
The woman tilted her head back and swiftly removed her hat so that her dark chestnut hair blew wildly behind her. The reflection of the flames lit up her face and made her green cat eyes dance. She extended her hand. Selznick stared with stunned disbelief, Vivien was, indeed, Scarlett O’Hara just as Margaret Mitchell described her –
“the green eyes in the carefully sweet face turbulent, lusty for life, distinctly at variance with her decorous manner”.
Vivien nailed it and the search was over.
It was exactly this elusive split personality which he had been looking for in every girl he had interviewed and failed to find. The following day, Vivien read a scene for Selznick, who organised a screen test and wrote to his wife,
“She’s the Scarlett dark horse and looks damn good. Not for anyone’s ear but your own: it’s narrowed down to Paulette Goddard, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennet and Vivien Leigh”.
The director, George Cukor, agreed and praised Leigh’s “incredible wildness“; she secured her role as Scarlett soon after.
Selznick had found his star – and the world was about to see one of the most famous fictional heroines of all time come alive.
“You need kissing badly”: Clarke Gable & Vivien leigh in a famous scene from GWTW.
Now Vivien was face to face with the role of her life. Her determination paid off and she defied the odds to get exactly what she wanted. Her only concerns were doing a great job and being separated from Olivier who was in New York. She reportedly said to him over a long-distance call,
“Puss, my puss, how I hate film acting! Hate, hate, and never want to do another film again!”
So, the moral of the story is folks: follow your dreams. Don’t give up and if in doubt ‘Do a Vivien‘.
More About Vivien:
Gone with the Wind brought Leigh immediate attention and fame; but she was quoted as saying, “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 marvellous parts to play.” The film won 10 Academy Awards including an Best Actress for Leigh.
For much of her adult life she suffered from bipolar disease. She earned a reputation for being difficult to work with, and her career suffered periods of inactivity. She suffered recurrent bouts of chronic tuberculosis, first diagnosed in the mid-1940s, which ultimately claimed her life at the age of 53. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Leigh as the 16th greatest female movie star of all time.
This Biography by Anne Edwards is fantastic and gives a great insight into the turbulent and tempestuous life of Vivien, warts and all. It also lifts the lid on her great love with Laurence Olivier and the deep loss she felt when it eventually went away.
Recommended for the uber fans only: A great blog I stumbled across whilst writing this piece: