Vivien Leigh, also known as Vivian Mary Harley, was a British actress best known for her roles in the films “Gone with the Wind” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” For these films, she received two Academy Awards for Best Actress and two New York Film Critics Circle Awards. She was not just a great movie actor, but also a fantastic stage performer, winning a Tony Award for her role in the musical ‘Tovarich’ on Broadway. Leigh’s dream of becoming an actor began when she was very young, and her father encouraged her by enrolling her in a London acting school. She starred in a number of British and Hollywood films and was known for her portrayals of Shakespearean roles such as ‘Cleopatra,’ ‘Juliet,’ and ‘Ophelia,’ among others. She was regarded as the most attractive actress of her era. Leigh had a tumultuous personal life, as she had struggled with manic depression and bipolar disorder for the most of her adult life, which had a significant impact on her personal relationships.
Childhood and Adolescence
Earnest Hartley and Gertrude May Frances gave birth to Vivien Leigh on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, Bengal Presidency, British India. Her father worked as a clerk at Piggott Chapman and Company, a brokerage firm in Bengal. Leigh’s father was sent to Bangalore in 1917, leaving her and her mother in Ootacamund (Ooty). She made her first appearance on stage for her mother’s amateur theatre group, performing “Little Bo Peep.”
At the age of six, Leigh was sent back to England and assigned to Woldingham School in Roehampton. She went on a trip of Europe with her father and completed her education at several schools throughout the continent.
The family moved to England in 1931, and it was then that Leigh declared her wish to become an actor. Her father enrolled her at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
Career of Vivien
Leigh engaged an agent, John Gliddon, to help her break into the industry, and he connected her to film director Alexander Korda, who sadly turned her down. She was cast in the drama ‘Mask of Virtue’ in 1935. After seeing the play, Korda admitted his error and agreed to work with her on a film. He moved her play to a larger theater, but Leigh’s performance in the larger space and in front of a larger audience fell flat. In 1937, Leigh starred alongside Laurence Olivier in the film ‘Fire Over England.’ It was directed by William K. Howard and was based on a novel of the same name. The affair between Leigh and Olivier began with this film.
Around the same time, she was cast as ‘Ophelia’ in the Old Vic Theatre’s production of ‘Hamlet,’ which was played in Denmark, opposing Olivier’s ‘Hamlet.’ She and Olivier had begun to live together at this time. Her picture ‘A Yank at Oxford,’ in which she co-starred alongside Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, and Maureen O’Sullivan, drew recognition in the United States in 1938. In the same year, she also starred in ‘St. Martin’s Lane.’ She was cast as ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ in George Cukor’s film ‘Gone with the Wind’ in 1939. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for it. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards.
Selznick cast Leigh in the lead role in the 1940 film ‘Waterloo Bridge,’ in which she starred opposite Robert Taylor. The film was planned to star Leigh and Olivier, but Olivier was substituted by Taylor at the last minute.
Around the same period, Leigh and Olivier put their whole savings into a stage production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The project was a flop since the media questioned the nature of their relationship and their acting was ridiculed.
In 1941, the two starred in another war film, ‘That Hamilton Woman.’ The film was widely distributed in the United States in order to elicit pro-British war feelings among Americans. Winston Churchill’s personal favorite, it was a big hit.
In the late 1940s, Leigh starred in films such as “Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)” and “Anna Karenina (1948),” both of which were box office flops. However, her Thorton Wilder play ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ was a hit. In 1948, Leigh and Olivier embarked on a fundraising tour of Australia and New Zealand to benefit the Old Vic Theatre. ‘Richard III’ and ‘The School for Scandal’ were among the plays they played. In 1949, Leigh was cast in the West End production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ as ‘Blanche DuBois.’ She performed 326 times and was eventually cast in the film adaptation of the play, for which she earned her second Academy Award.
In 1951, the pair appeared in two plays, ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘Caesar and Cleopatra,’ both in London and New York. In both cities, the plays got positive feedback. In 1953, she was cast opposite Peter Finch in the film “Elephant Walk” by Paramount Pictures. She was replaced by actress Elizabeth Taylor owing to her mental collapse. In 1953, she recovered and starred alongside Olivier in ‘The Sleeping Price,’ and in 1955, they reunited in Stratford-upon-Avon for ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Macbeth,’ and ‘Titus Andronicus.’ She also appeared in the film ‘The Deep Blue Sea.’
During the 1960s, Leigh starred in the Broadway musical ‘Tovarich (1961),’ for which she won a Tony Award for Best Actress. ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)’ and ‘Ship of Fools (1965)’ are two of her other films.
Achievements & Awards
For ‘Gone with the Wind (1939)’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire (1949),’ Leigh earned two Academy Awards for Best Actress. She also received a BAFTA for ‘Street,’ as well as two New York Film Critics Circle Awards for both films.
Personal History and Legacy
In 1932, Leigh married barrister Herbert Leigh Holman, who was 13 years her senior. He was against her acting ambitions, which is why she dropped out of RADA in the midst. Suzanne, their daughter, was born to them.
In 1937, she began an affair with Laurence Olivier. They were unable to marry because both of their spouses refused to grant them divorces, so they were forced to live together instead.
Leigh and Olivier married in Santa Barbara, California, in 1940, after finally getting divorces from their respective relationships. Their marriage, however, was fraught with issues. In 1960, they separated, and she began an affair with actor Jack Merivale, who was well aware of her mental state. They never married but remained together until she passed away. On the night of July 7, 1967, Leigh collapsed on the floor of her room and was discovered dead by Merivale. Her ashes were strewn in a lake in Sussex after she was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium.
Since the late 1930s, Leigh has been suffering from manic depression and showing signs of bipolarity. For the first time, Olivier witnessed it as she yelled at him for no apparent reason, then fell silent and stared blankly into space. She had no recollection of it when questioned later. She had two miscarriages in her life, both with Olivier, and each time she sank into a severe depression for days and eventually became a recluse. Laurence Olivier’s papers were purchased from his estate in 1999 by the British Library in London. The ‘Laurence Olivier Archive,’ which includes many of Vivien Leigh’s personal files, including numerous letters she wrote to Olivier, is known as ‘The Laurence Olivier Archive.’
Estimated Net Worth
Vivien Leigh was a British actress with a $10 million net worth. Vivien Leigh was born in November 1913 in Darjeeling, Bengal Presidency, British India, and died in July 1967. In 1935, Leigh entered theatre school and made her acting debut in four films with modest roles.