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Vivien Leigh Turns 100: Centenary of One of the Greatest Movie Stars

Vivien Leigh: Legendary ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ star would have turned 100 today

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Vivien Leigh was perhaps the greatest film star that hardly ever was. What I mean is that following her starring role in the 1939 Civil War blockbuster Gone with the Wind, Leigh was featured in a mere eight* movies over the course of the next 25 years. The theater world’s gain – she was kept busy on the London stage – was the film world’s loss. But even if Leigh had starred in only two movies – Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire – that would have been enough to make her a screen legend; one who would have turned 100 years old on Nov. 5.

Vivien Leigh (born Vivian Mary Hartley to British parents in Darjeeling, India) began her film career in the mid-1930s, playing bit roles in British programmers such as Things Are Looking Up, The Village Squire, and Gentlemen’s Agreement (no connection to Elia Kazan’s slightly differently spelled Oscar winner Gentleman’s Agreement). Leads and second leads followed later in the decade, but it’s hard to believe that the pretty and likable – and hardly extraordinary – Vivien Leigh of Dark Journey (1937), Storm in a Teacup (1937), and St. Martin’s Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938) would become a world-renowned film star in a mere couple of years and a well-respected stage actress less than a decade later.

Anyhow, Gone with the Wind, the biggest domestic blockbuster in film history (in ticket sales), is evidence that it’s not necessarily hard work that counts, but being in the right place at the right time – and having the right connections. After all, Vivien Leigh was then Laurence Olivier’s lover; Olivier’s agent was Myron Selznick, who happened to be Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick’s brother. The little-known English actress thus landed the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara – the Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen, and Anastasia Steele of the ’30s (sorry, I couldn’ resist) – beating the likes of Miriam Hopkins, Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Paulette Goddard, Tallulah Bankhead, Frances Dee, and a number of other Hollywood stars and star-wannabes (Susan Hayward, Ellen Drew, Lana Turner) of that time.

Vivien Leigh: Outstanding actress

I think Vivien Leigh – vivacious, beautiful, determined, humorous, passionate, and gifted with large, expressive green eyes – is a perfect Scarlett O’Hara. Yet, I’d say her mentally “delicate” Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is an even more impressive characterization; in fact, I find Leigh’s Blanche one of greatest screen performances ever. And just about as outstanding is her work as two other fading beauties: first, getting mixed up with Italian gigolo Warren Beatty (no kidding) in José Quintero’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and then giving Lee Marvin a beating in Stanley Kramer’s Best Picture Academy Award nominee Ship of Fools (1965).

Leigh won Best Actress Oscars and New York Film Critics Circle Awards for both Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire. For the latter, she also took home the 1951 Best British Actress BAFTA and that year’s Best Actress Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival.

Absurdly, there were no other film acting wins or nominations. Not for her two movies of the ’60s (though fellow players Lotte Lenya, Simone Signoret, Oskar Werner, and Michael Dunn were all shortlisted for the Oscars), or for her remarkable work in Mervyn LeRoy’s romantic melodrama Waterloo Bridge (1940), as Robert Taylor’s ballerina girlfriend-turned-streetwalker; Alexander Korda’s British-morale-boosting That Hamilton Woman (1941), with Leigh stealing the show as Emma Hamilton opposite Laurence Olivier’s Lord Nelson (their third and final movie pairing); and Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina (1948), in my view the most effective – and most underrated – English-language film version of Tolstoy’s literary classic.

Though quite theatrical, Vivien Leigh is also fine as Cleopatra in Gabriel Pascal’s 1945 film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. However, that particular effort belongs to Claude Rain’s masterful Caesar.

Vivien Leigh movies on TCM

In honor of Vivien Leigh’s centenary, Turner Classic Movies is showing 11 Leigh movies today. That’s the good news; the bad news is that TCM has yet to present Leigh in the rarely shown Anatole Litvak-directed, Terence Rattigan-written The Deep Blue Sea, a 1955 romantic drama (based on Rattigan’s play) co-starring Kenneth More.

Directed by Elia Kazan, adapted by Tennessee Williams from his own play (which starred Leigh on the London stage), and co-starring Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire is on TCM right now. Check it out and you’ll see that it has “informed” Cate Blanchett’s character in Woody Allen’s potential 2014 Oscar contender Blue Jasmine.

Next on TCM is Victor Fleming’s multiple Oscar winner Gone with the Wind, co-starring Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland, in addition to scene-stealers Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in smaller roles. Wrapping up Vivien Leigh Day will be Ian Dalrymple and Victor Saville’s light comedy Storm in a Teacup, with Rex Harrison and Cecil Parker; The Roman Springs of Mrs. Stone; and Saville’s Dark Journey, with Conrad Veidt. (See also: “On TCM: Vivien Leigh Movies” and “Vivien Leigh British Films.”)

* Though released in 1940 in the U.S., Basil Dean’s British-made 21 Days Together / 21 Days, Vivien Leigh’s second pairing with Laurence Olivier, was actually filmed before Gone with the Wind. Leigh and Olivier had previously appeared together in William K. Howard’s Fire Over England (1937).

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