Today, on November 5th, the fascinating and tragic Vivien Leigh would have turned 103. Unfortunately, this lady who had the beauty of a goddess left us too soon at the age of 53 in 1967.
But Vivien Leigh will never be forgotten had she had made her proofs as a talented actress, both in movies and on stage.
People continue to honour her such as my friend Joseph from Wolffian Classics Movies Digest who is hosting this week the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Blogathon.
Because we remember, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were married. If I’m not wrong, they starred in three movies together and often appeared on stage alongside each other. If things haven’t always been easy for the Oliviers, they remained one of the most iconic couples in movie history. Oh, and they looked so beautiful together!
So, participants will today talk both about Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier’s movies.
As I chose an Olivier’s movie last year (Spartacus), I’ve decided to go with a Vivien Leigh’s one this time. Of course, I could have chosen one starring both such as Lady Hamilton, for example, but I felt like it was time for me to write about the one she’s most remembered for: Gone With the Wind! Yes, Vivien could never run away from this film, but it’s because she was born to be Scarlett O’Hara. No one could have been better than her! We all know she won the Best Actress Oscar that year and that was highly deserved.
Directed by Victor Flemming, George Cukor and Sam Wood (both uncredited), and released in 1939, Gone With the Wind won no less than 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Hattie McDaniel) and Best Adapted Screenplay, plus two honorary Oscars. The film was a huge commercial success and, if we consider the inflation, it remains at the top the highest-grossing films of all times.
An adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller, this epic fresco tells the story of southern Bell Scarlett O’Hara in the times of the America Civil War; her love for Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who will marry Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland); her troubles in Atlanta while the city is attacked by the Yankees; her hard times in Tara, her hometown after, the war has started but, most of all: her love-hate relationship with the notorious Capt. Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
All this is resumed very briefly, even if it’s a long film, but telling too much would be like not telling enough. Plus, I have no doubt most of you saw the film. Or if you haven’t, you will most certainly do one day.
As I’m honouring Vivien Leigh today, I’m here only to talk about her performance in the film. Yes, there is so much to say about Gone With the Wind: the costumes, the cinematography, the other actors, the script, etc., but that should be for another time.
When she was cast for the role, Vivien Leigh was a stranger to the American audience. She was born in British India from an English mother and father. So, before GWTW, she had only starred in British films such as Fire Over England or Storm in a Teacup. Among the final actresses choices for the role of Scarlett were also Joan Bennett and Paulett Goddard. They could have been great, but Vivien Leigh was a true revelation.
The public and journalists were first no too keen on the idea that a British should play a Sudist, and such an important role, but they soon realized they were wrong to complain. Vivien Leigh, who had a beautiful British Accent, managed to keep her so well articulated voice that makes any languages beautiful, but succeed to use the proper American accent for the role of Scarlett.
It was not an easy thing to do, filming Gone With the Wind. I’m currently ready Kendra Bean’s Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and, of course, I’ve learned a lot about the actress and also about the movie itself. What was first announced to be a dream for Vivien Leigh turned out to be an exhausting and not so enchanting work, resulting her to cross the days on the calendar during the shooting. She was mostly disappointed with Victor Flemming’s chosen dimension for Scarlett, making her much more a like a “bitch” than the courageous women who was portrayed by Margaret Mitchell. The lack of motivation from Vivien can be understandable in this case. However, a true professional and with a baggage of multiple acting talents, Vivien Leigh managed to give everything she had to conceive the best on screen Scarlett O’Hara no one could have possibly dreamt about.
Vivien Leigh surely preferred the directing methods of George Cukor, who first started to direct the picture, but was then replaced by macho Victor Flemming. However, her and Olivia de Havilland kept seeing Cukor to improve their part. He was excellent at directing women and they could probably learn more from him than Victor Flemming.
I’ve always liked the character of Scarlett O’Hara because she makes me think of me. She is coquette, likes beautiful things. She likes to be admired by people. She’s selfish, but despite that, she thinks of others. She creates a carapace around her, but she remains a sensible person. She does that “face” when she’s jealous. Pretty much like me. I hope I don’t sound like a too horrible person… But Scarlett is also one of the bravest story characters.
Even me and Vivien Leigh have common physical features. I’m not her twin, of course, but we both have dark hair and blue-grey eyes (however, hers are paler than mines).
Anyway, I guess that’s why I’ve always liked this character. I remember when I was reading the book, some Scarlett’s moments made me think: “Oh, but that’s so me!”
Vivien Leigh, of course, gave life to this fictional novel character by choosing the right active game. She gave brilliance to Scarlett O’Hara in the way she chose to move, talk, look, etc. All that is expected from an actress.
Vivien Leigh’s acting game for Gone With the Wind can sometimes be said to be theatrical, but it’s not. Yes, her voice tone sometimes gives us this impression, but it’s more a tragic one than a theatrical one. And it’s used in the perfect moments for it: when Ashley denies her at the Twelve Oaks’ ball, when she discovers her mother has died, or when Rhett decides to leave her at the end.
Yes, the voice was one of the elements with whom Vivien Leigh’s played so well to express her character’s nature. When Scarlett is happy or she talks loud she uses a high-pitched voice. I can think of this moment at the beginning when she runs to see her father who is horse riding. She arrives, running like a little girl with her coquette white dress, saying “Pa! Pa!” and laughing. Absolutely adorable.
However, Scarlett’s natural tone of voice is lower and we hear it often when she is with Rhett and especially when she’s angry at him. Vivien chose a “fake” voice of tone for her scenes with Ashley, to prove that Scarlett isn’t acting herself when she’s with him. She pretends too much, in order to please him.
Voice comes out of the mouth and who says “mouth” says “smile”. How can we forget that adorable smile that Vivien Leigh puts on Scarlett’s face? Despite her beautiful eyes, her majestic gowns, I believe her smile is the most enchanting thing about her. She looks younger when she smiles. We love this smiling moment in the second part of the film when she wakes up after her torrid night with Rhett. We like this face of joy when she is about to dance with Rhett. Scarlett O’Hara’s happy moments are rare, as she’s going through a lot in these hard times of war, so they are appreciated.
Vivien Leigh doesn’t make great gestures like people in silent movies or at the theatre, but she uses her look at its full potential to express her emotions. That’s why we often see close-ups of Vivien Leigh, to accentuate Scarlett’s feelings, but also her change of emotions. Because yes, while we’re watching the film, we notice how Vivien Leigh is able to switch from one emotion to another with great easiness. A real chameleon!
We all remember this face with the eyebrow that Vivien Leigh used to express jealousy or concern. One of the most memorable shots of the film:
At the beginning of the movie, when she learns that Ashley is going to marry Melanie, the sad look on her face seems honest.
When Melanie sees Ashley arriving at Tara and runs to him: Scarlett’s happy look that goes quickly to be replaced by a disappointed face when Mammy reminds her that he is her husband.
The fear in her eyes when she is aggressed by this Yankee
The terror in her eyes when both her father and her daughter have a horse accident.
This languorous look when she seduces men.
And there’s a lot to be mentioned. Surely, Scarlett O’Hara wouldn’t have been the same without those iconic facial expressions.
That makes me think. As much as Scarlett O’Hara is a tragic character, she can be a funny girl and makes us laugh. This occurs in the first part of the film. Two moments I can think of are this scene when she refuses to eat before going to the BBQ (Mammy finally convinces her).
Another funny Scarlett O’Hara moments I love are those when she sees Rhett coming out from behind the couch after her fight with Ashley, and also when she sees him arriving at the auction ball. Her traumatized face is simply hilarious. Like “what is he doing here???”
Vivien Leigh also proved to have good on-screen chemistry with her fellow actors. But I think the one with whom she had the best chemistry were Clark Gable, who plays Rhett; Hattie McDaniel, who plays Mammy and Barbara O’Neil who plays Scarlett’s mother. Vivien Leigh’s moments with these actors are some of the most delightful in the film. Of course, she also has beautiful scenes with Olivia de Havilland and both actresses managed to fairly share the screen together without stealing each other’s aura.
GONE WITH THE WIND, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, 1939
It’s too bad there isn’t more moment between Scarlett and her mother because those are full of tenderness and proves us their love for each other.
But Vivien Leigh was also able to choose the right attitude with characters with whom Scarlett has no chemistry at all. Here, I’m mainly thinking of India Wilkes and Suellen O’Hara. They and Scarlett simply cannot stand each other and just acts like hypocrites together.
We’ve talked a lot about Vivien Leigh’s acting talent in Gone With the Wind, but I can’t leave you without honouring her great beauty. I mean, Vivien always looks glorious in Gone with the Wind, even when she’s wearing widow gowns or rags. As I said previously, this beauty resides in her smile, but also in her great big eyes. Vivien Leigh certainly was one of the most beautiful actresses to ever grace the screen.
As for the gown she’s wearing in the film, despite their variety, they all suit her perfectly and simply accentuate her beauty. Those were brilliantly created by Walter Plunkett.
Yes, Vivien Leigh will always be associated to Scarlett O’Hara for the better and the worse, but especially for the better. It is after all with this role that she truly became a star. It’s also because of her magical performance that Scarlett O’Hara is the most iconic female characters in movie history (perhaps alongside Holly Golightly). Well, that’s my opinion. Gone with the Wind has always been one of my favourite movies and Vivien Leigh is one of the major reasons why.
Even if she’s unfortunately not with us anymore, I want to wish a happy heavenly birthday to our dear Vivien Leigh! Wherever you are Vivien…