Vivien Leigh

Active - 1934 - 2009  |   Born - Nov 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India  |   Died - Jul 7, 1967   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Born in India to a British stockbroker and his Irish wife, Vivien Leigh first appeared on stage in convent-school amateur theatricals. Completing her education in England, France, Italy, and Germany, she studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; not a particularly impressive pupil, Leigh continued her training with private tutors. In 1932, she briefly interrupted her pursuit of a theatrical career to marry London barrister Herbert Leigh Holman.

Leigh made her professional stage bow three years later in The Sash, which never made it to London's West End; still, her bewitching performance caught the eye of producer Sydney Carroll, who cast Leigh in her first London play, The Mask of Virtue. She alternated between stage and film work, usually in flighty, kittenish roles, until being introduced to Shakespeare at The Old Vic. It was there that she met Laurence Oliver, appearing with him on-stage as Ophelia in Hamlet and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and later together onscreen in 1937's Fire Over England. It was this picture which brought Leigh to the attention of American producer David O. Selznick, who brought his well-publicized search for the "perfect" Scarlett O'Hara to a sudden conclusion when he cast Leigh as the resourceful Southern belle in 1939's Gone With the Wind. The role won Leigh her first Oscar, after which she kept her screen appearances to a minimum, preferring to devote her time to Olivier, who would become her second husband in 1940.

Refusing to submit to the Hollywood publicity machine, Leigh and Olivier all but disappeared from view for months at a time. The stage would also forever remain foremost in her heart, and there were often gaps of two to three years between Leigh's films. One of her rare movie appearances during the '50s was as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), a performance for which she received a second Oscar. In her private life, however, Leigh began developing severe emotional and health problems that would eventually damage her marriage to Olivier (whom she divorced in 1960) and seriously impede her ability to perform on-stage or before the camera. Despite her struggles with manic depression, she managed to turn in first-rate performances in such films as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and Ship of Fools (1965), and maintained a busy theatrical schedule, including a 1963 musical version of Tovarich and a 1966 Broadway appearance opposite John Gielgud in Ivanov. Leigh was preparing to star in the London production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance when she was found dead from tuberculosis in her London apartment in 1967. In tribute to the actress, the lights in London's theater district were blacked out for an hour.

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  • Attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, England, until the age of 13 before embarking on a tour of Europe with her parents; the rest of her education consisted of brief stints in finishing schools.
  • Met future husband Laurence Olivier playing Ophelia to his Hamlet in 1937.
  • Was said to have predicted (referring to herself and Olivier), "Larry won't play Rhett Butler, but I shall play Scarlett O'Hara. Wait and see."
  • Katharine Hepburn was her maid of honor at her small 1940 wedding to Olivier. 
  • The British beauty ironically found her greatest fame and acclaim playing two belles of the American South: Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • Struggled for decades with bipolar disorder, which affected her both professionally and personally, and with the chronic tuberculosis that eventually ended her life.
  • In 1993, her Best Actress Oscar for Gone With the Wind was sold at auction for more than a half million dollars.