The Art of Glamour #9 - Vivien Leigh, The Legendary Beauty
The word legend is liberally sprayed over the classic stars of Hollywood’s golden age, whether the seeds of greatness were present or not. In the case of Vivien Leigh, however, legend status is fully deserved.
A celebrated beauty of her day, she was described by David Niven as:
‘The most beautiful woman I ever saw outside an art gallery’
Leigh made only 19 films throughout her screen career and won the Oscar for best actress in two of them.
She was born Vivian Hartley on 5th November 1913, in Darjeeling, India, during the period of British Rule. It is said that while her mother was waiting to give birth, she would spend fifteen minutes each morning gazing at the Himalayas in the hope their astonishing beauty would be passed to her unborn child.
Vivian was just six when she was sent to a boarding school in England, where she lived for the next eight years. From there her father took her to Europe and she continued her education at various schools in France, Germany, and Italy. It wasn’t until she was 18 that the Hartley family settled in Devon, but the home life did not suit a girl who’d developed acting dreams. Another destination awaited her. RADA.
Halfway through her studies and any theatrical ambitions were put on hold. She’d fallen in love with a barrister named Leigh Holman and they were set to marry. There then followed the birth of a baby daughter Suzanne, the only child she would have. She was 22 when her career finally took off. In the West End play the Mask of Virtue, she played the role of a French courtesan and won the critics over with her stage presence ‘A lightning change (that) came over her face,’ was how one reviewer described her rapidly shifting temper, which in years to come would become her signature acting style. The play’s director suggested that she replace the a in her first name with the less common e, which she combined with her husband's first name to form Vivien Leigh. They had briefly considered the less glamorous, and slightly comical, April Morn, but thankfully abandoned the idea.
The great film producer and director Sir Alexander Korda offered Leigh a headline-making £50,000 film contract. Of those to congratulate her was no less than Laurence Olivier, and soon after they would be cast together as lovers in the 1937 feature Fire Over England. The fictional affair would, however, spill over into real life, resulting in each leaving their families.
During this period, David O. Selznick over in Hollywood was in the midst of a widely publicised and tortuous search to fill a certain role. His upcoming film production of Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-prize winning saga of love and survival during the American Civil War had lured the biggest names in the history of cinema to apply for the lead. Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis had both lobbied heavily for the part of Scarlett O’Hara, the calculating Southern belle. Davis went so far as to demand an appointment with David O. Selznick, saying, ‘I am Scarlett O'Hara! The role is practically written for me.’ Selznick gave a characteristically blunt reply, ‘I can't imagine Rhett Butler chasing you for twelve years’. Ouch.
Scarlett had to be as Margaret Mitchell described her: black hair, with pale green eyes, an arresting face and magnolia-white skin. The movie’s director George Cukor added his own criteria, ‘Possessed of the devil and charged with electricity’. It was a tall order, and it is no wonder the search had taken so long.
Vivien Leigh had read the novel when it first came out and had made her mind up to play the part, famously announcing, ‘I shall play Scarlett O’Hara, wait and see’. She made a request through her American agent Myron Selznick, who conveniently happened to be David’s brother, that she be considered for the part. Unfortunately, she was quickly eliminated for being ‘too British’.
In 1938 Leigh went to Los Angeles to join Laurence Olivier, who was filming Wuthering Heights, and also to convince David O. Selznick that she was right for the role of O’Hara. Leigh, Olivier, and Myron visited the set of Gone with the Wind, where they watched the scene of the burning of Atlanta, which was being filmed without casting having been finalised. David O. Selznick later recalled the moment. 'The flames were lighting up her face and Myron said, ‘I want you to meet Scarlett O’Hara’. I took one look and knew that she was right. I’ll never recover from that first look’.
Finally, after two and a half years, with more than 1,400 interviews behind them, 500 readings and 32 different actresses screen-tested, thousands of dollars spent, Selznick had found his Scarlett O’Hara.
For her first screen test, Leigh was given a dress to wear that was still warm from the previous actress. Leigh used her natural English accent for the reading, but with an intensity of neurotic desperation that made her stand out when compared with tests from other actresses such as Lana Turner.
‘I don’t think she’d ever heard a Southern accent before’
- George Cukor
Experts were hired to coach her on Southern speech, manners, and customs, and special lighting used to make her blue-green eyes to appear only green. She was set.
The epic love story between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, set against the conflagration of the American Civil War, has become movie legend. Critics called Leigh's performance ‘flawless’ and ‘brilliant’. Gone With The Wind was awarded 10 Academy Awards, including the Best Actress Oscar for Vivien Leigh, who was the first British woman to win that accolade. She was also only 26 years old.
With it came immediate international fame, which was further elevated by her marriage in 1940 to Laurence Olivier. The couple became Hollywood royalty.
Harper’s Bazaar columnist and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland once described Vivien Leigh as:
‘The perfect English rose'
Her beauty secret was what we would think of today as having a modern approach to skincare; she was ahead of her time in choosing natural and organic products. Leigh was a regular visitor to legendary skincare expert and facial therapist Madame Lubatti, who since the 1920s had been counting members of the English nobility and high society ladies among her clients. Lubatti’s salon was based at the chic London apartment where she lived. There she hand-mixed bespoke lotions using combinations of homeopathic recipes, flowers, plant extracts, and aromatic oils.
Integral to Lubatti’s philosophy was how her products were applied, and she developed unique massage techniques to help achieve flawless and radiant skin. Lubatti’s exclusive client list, the secret recipes, and facial techniques, have all passed down through three generations of renowned facialists and are still available to this day.
In 1944, following a trip to Africa, Leigh was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease she would never fully recover from. She became increasingly difficult to work with, and the temper flares, by now notorious, were feared by those around her. Bipolar disorder was little understood at the time and she battled with it for the rest of her life.
Leigh achieved her second Oscar in 1951 for her role as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Though a professional triumph, playing such an emotionally charged character took its toll on her fragile mental health. The identification with someone so near to insanity was overwhelming. She would later say:
‘Blanche is a woman with everything stripped away. She is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness’
Her final decades were marred by mental and physical illness, causing her relationship with Olivier to suffer. They divorced in 1960. Vivien Leigh’s life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis and she died in 1967, at the age of only 53.
She once said:
‘I'm not a film star - I'm an actress’
She was a combination of beauty, glamour, and a genuine talent, and her triumphs rank among the acting professions greatest. She is remembered today as a legitimate legend of Hollywood’s golden age.