Fan celebrates actress Leigh in pictures
VIVIEN Leigh was born in India just over a century ago. Forty-six years after her death at age 53 from tuberculosis, she remains indelibly identified as Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 Hollywood classic Gone With the Wind. She is remembered as one of the greatest beauties to work in front of a camera, even though she only appeared in 19 films. Kendra Bean has produced an attractive smaller coffee table book, but the reader should not expect any startling new revelations about Leigh’s dramatic private life that included a romantic affair and subsequent 20-year marriage to Sir Laurence Olivier. Besides TB, which she first contracted in the early 1940s, she also struggled with serious mental issues, primarily manic-depression, which we now know as bipolar disorder. All of that is certainly dealt with at considerable length in the book, but it is really more of a celebration of an artist by one of her most devoted fans. Bean maintains a popular website www.VivAndLarry.com. Many might consider her at least part groupie when it comes to Leigh, but the book is more than that. At least equal in value to the text are the hundreds of photographs. Unlike most biographies, where the photos are collected together in one or two groups of pages, this book includes photos on almost every page. More than half the photos are by Angus MacBean, a Welshman who began taking pictures of Leigh in 1937, and was more or less her official photographer for the rest of her life. He died in 1990 at the age of 86, and Bean tells us precious little about him. It leaves behind the impression his story might also make an interesting coffee table book. In addition to MacBean’s pictures, the book includes many photos from the personal archives of Olivier, who died in 1989. Leigh and Olivier met in 1937 while filming the period drama Fire Over England. Both were married to others at the time and both had young children. The romantic sparks between them were instant. They only appeared together in three movies, but on stage they were Britain’s most celebrated couple. Bean says the romantic passion between them was pretty much done by the end of the Second World War, but most of the world had no inkling there was anything wrong until 1960, when Olivier left the marriage, taking up with Joan Plowright, his younger co-star in The Entertainer. In addition to being named best actress for her Scarlett character, Leigh won a second Oscar in 1951 for her role as Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. One might have expected problems between Leigh, who was classically trained, and Brando, who came from the “method” school, but Bean says they got along very well. Many of Leigh’s screen roles, including Blanche in Streetcar, seemed to mirror her own life in some way. In 1961, a year after the split with Olivier, she played a wealthy widow who hooks up with 24-year-old Warren Beatty in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. That same year she returned to Atlanta with David Selznick and Olivia de Havilland for a major reissue of Gone With the Wind. Bean tells a story from that event that should be something of a cautionary tale about lasting fame. She was introduced to a young Reuters correspondent named Joe Greenridge, who admitted he had never seen the famous movie. He asked Leigh: “What role did you play in the film?” She replied, “This interview is over.”
Roger Currie is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster. He is heard on CJNU, 93.7 FM.
Vivien Leigh An Intimate Portrait By Kendra Bean Running Press, 265 pages, $34.50