Salute to Vivien Leigh is a movie fan's treat


October 22, 1990|By Steve McKerrow

On screen, she played "perhaps the greatest women's role ever" and earned two Academy Awards. Off screen, despite a real-life romance of legendary proportions, she struggled much of her life against the emotional illness of manic depression.

She was Vivien Leigh, whose role as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind" is merely the most remembered of parts in 20 films and numerous stage plays. And her initially illicit love for and eventual marriage to Lawrence Olivier was romantic theater come to life.

There was a kind of haunted elegance hovering about this actress, as cable viewers may see in "Vivien Leigh: Scarlett & Beyond," a nice documentary premiering at 8 tonight on the TNT basic service, followed by the screening of her 1940 "Waterloo Bridge." Leigh is captured well by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. when he says an intense energy seemed to suggest "she had to get it all in" early in life.

Hosted by actress Jessica Lange, this is a must-see for movie buffs, full of well-chosen clips from Leigh's films, which tend to parallel her off-screen life.

Born in India (as Vivien Mary Hartley) of an English colonial stockbroker, Leigh attended English boarding schools beginning at the age of 6 and excelled in theater. By 19, she had married a barrister many years her senior, given birth to a daughter and been hailed as a future star for her role in the stage play "The Mask of Virtue."

Enter Olivier. Leigh moved into film under the direction of Alexander Korda and, in 1937, co-starred with Olivier in "Fire Over England." Fire was kindled on the set, too, and the Leigh/Olivier romance became the talk of the film business. Yet both performers were married, and Leigh's husband, Leigh Holman (whose first name she had adopted as a stage name), refused a divorce.

A clip in tonight's documentary from "A Yank at Oxford," the 1938 film in which she starred with Robert Taylor, sharply captures Leigh's real-life dilemma, as she tells Taylor her husband is much older and doesn't understand she needs a younger, more active life.

"Gone With the Wind," in 1939, is handled with relative dispatch here. It's well known that Leigh was the 244th actress to test for the role -- and the last -- but Lange also reveals that "Waterloo Bridge" was Leigh's personal favorite performance.

It was in 1940 that both Olivier and Leigh finally divorced their spouses to marry. Some years of apparent happiness followed, living and entertaining in a mansion once owned by Henry VIII. But in 1945, during filming of "Caesar and Cleopatra," "ominous signs of emotional illness" began to appear.

Yet Leigh, who died in 1967 at 53, won a second Academy Award (after the first for Scarlett) in 1951 for "A Streetcar Named Desire," and made her last performance in 1965's "Ship of Fools."

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