Vivien Leigh was a fighter. She fought for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and fought to be with the man she loved. But her most vicious battle was with mental illness: Few people realize that Leigh struggled with bipolar disorder. Prepare to give a damn: Here are fierce facts about the unforgettable Vivien Leigh.
Leigh's birthday is suitably explosive. Little "Vivian Mary Hartley" entered the world on Guy Fawkes' day of 1913. Although she'd be known as the ultimate Southern Belle, Leigh was actually born in Darjeeling, India to a Scottish father and an Irish mother. However, some sources say that Leigh's mother may have also been Armenian or Indian. To succeed in Hollywood, Leigh would keep that part of her heritage secret.
When Leigh was six years old, her parents shipped her off to an English boarding school where she didn't see her own mother for two long years. Since Leigh couldn't confide in her parents, she revealed her dreams to her school friends. She said she'd be “a great actress someday". Leigh was right, but she didn't realize the awful toll that Hollywood would take on her.
In the 1930s, Leigh fell head over heels for Herbert Leigh Holman, a lawyer who was a whopping 13 years older than her. Even though Leigh had been studying acting at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she dropped out to be with Holman. The mismatched couple got married on December 20, 1932, and unfortunately, their honeymoon phase wouldn't last long.
Even though their significant age difference would soon tear them apart, Leigh and Holman had a few happy years together. After all, Leigh gave birth to her daughter Suzanne a mere 10 months after she and Holman walked down the aisle. While Leigh was delighted to have a baby, looking back, there was a dicey detail about Suzanne's birth. When Leigh became a mother, she was only 19 years old.
According to Hollywood lore, Leigh was incredibly ambitious and would stop at nothing to book a role. For instance, when she heard that she got a part as an uncredited extra in the movie Things Are Looking Up, she moved heaven and earth to be in the film. When she got the offer, Leigh was on a romantic cruise with her husband. She immediately left the ship for the role...which came with one single line.
As Leigh started to act, her agent told her that "Vivian Holman" simply wouldn't do. After rejecting several cringe-worthy suggestions from her agent, including "April Morn," Leigh took her new last name from her husband’s middle name. She also changed "Vivian" to the much more sultry "Vivien". With her new name, Leigh was ready to claw her way to the top of Hollywood, no matter what it cost her.
In 1935 Leigh finally got her big break. At 22 years old, she booked the role of the risque Henriette in the scandalous play The Mask of Virtue. Her performance received standing ovations and widespread critical acclaim, launching Leigh's whirlwind ascent to Hollywood's top tier. Her star was officially on the rise...right as her personal life got very messy.
When Leigh was in The Mask of Virtue, she attended a play starring England's most exciting new actor: Laurence Olivier. Little did she know, that trip to the theater would change her entire life. As Leigh gazed at Olivier, she told a friend “That’s the man I’m going to marry"...helpfully ignoring the fact that A) Leigh was already married to Holman and B) Olivier was already married to Jill Esmond.
Vivien Leigh was one gutsy lady. After Laurence Oliver bowed to the adoring crowd, Vivien paid him a sneaky visit in his dressing room. After introducing herself and chatting with the up-and-coming thespian, Leigh coyly kissed Olivier on the neck as she sauntered out of the room. Obviously, he was immediately smitten.
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After her star turn in The Mask of Virtue, Leigh immediately signed a huge contract with a producer and made a big-budget movie called Fire Over England. The movie was a major coup for Leigh's career, but the real appeal wasn't the script. It was the co-star: None other than Laurence Olivier. It didn't take long for the actors to strike up a passionate affair.
Olivier and Leigh started out as co-workers, then became friends, then turned into lovers. On paper, they shouldn't have been together—both were married with young children—but the heart wants what it wants. Olivier left his wife and toddler son less than a year after he met Vivien Leigh. Because neither of their spouses would give them a divorce, the new couple had to keep their relationship a secret.
The passion between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh burned hot both on screen and off. In surviving love letters between the two stars, Olivier reveals their fiery relationship, calling Leigh "very naughty" and writing that he woke up "absolutely raging with desire for you my love". In an especially kinky passage, he even reveals that he wore Leigh's undergarments. But the fun times would end soon.
In 1937, Vivien Leigh had the world at her feet. With her career on the upswing and a handsome actor by her side, she seemed unstoppable—until mental illness reared its ugly head. When Leigh played Ophelia on stage in Hamlet, she had a brutal bipolar episode. As Laurence Olivier stepped into her dressing room, Leigh suddenly started screaming at him. The incident rattled Olivier, with him later describing how it was like a switch flipped. Leigh started shouting at him, then immediately stopped as though nothing had happened. Sadly, her illness would only get worse.
When Leigh decided to make her mark in Hollywood, she refused to be shortchanged. Olivier had landed the lead role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, so Leigh set her sights on playing his love interest Cathy. The director, however, wanted Merle Oberon. He refused to give Leigh the role and gently offered her a supporting part instead. Leigh angrily replied, "I'll play Cathy or I’ll play nothing". It was a gutsy move, and it paid off.
In 1937, Leigh broke her ankle and recovered in bed, passing the time by reading Margaret Mitchell's epic romance Gone With the Wind. When she found out David O. Selznick planned to make a movie of the novel, Leigh told her agent to make sure she got an audition. “I’ve cast myself as Scarlett O’Hara,” she told a journalist—and Leigh would do anything to make her wish come true.
Selznick knew that Leigh was an incredible actress, but found her “too British” to play Scarlett. After a soft let-down, he figured he'd never hear from Leigh again. Oh, how wrong he was. Leigh pursued the role with, as Olivier said, "demonic determination". She moved to L.A., half because her main squeeze Olivier was there, but also because she was determined to convince Selznick he was wrong.
Luckily for Leigh, Selznick’s older brother Myron was Olivier’s agent. He took Leigh to meet his little brother David and apparently told him, “Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O'Hara". Myron just knew that Leigh would be perfect for the part. After that, Leigh impressed the director with an "incredibly wild" screen test. With that, Leigh finally won the role.
When Leigh got the part of Scarlett, she beat out established movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn. And that’s not to mention the over 1,400 other women who had auditioned at national casting calls! Leigh was thrilled, but her experiences on set would change her rosy outlook.
The shoot for Gone With The Wind was a complete nightmare. Production dragged on for months on end, with Leigh regularly working gruelling 16-hour days. She became so stressed that she would smoke four packs in a single day. When she was at her wit's end, Leigh even overdosed on sleeping pills. And it gets worse.
Over the course of filming Gone With The Wind, the studio had to hire not one, not two, but three separate directors to helm the cursed project. The second director, Howard Fleming, was so miserable that he thought about driving his car off a cliff. Unsurprisingly, the cast was miserable too. Both Leigh and Gable were sure that the movie was going to be a huge flop. And then David O. Selznick came around and served up yet another humiliation to poor Vivien Leigh.
David O. Selznick thought that Leigh was the perfect girl to play Scarlett. There was just one, well I guess technically two, problems: Her chest. Selznick demanded that Vivien pad her chest to make her assets look larger. In the end, Leigh had to tape them together to achieve Selznick's desired look.
Throughout all the humiliating demands and long days, Leigh also had to contend with this slap in the face. She worked almost twice as long as her co-star Clark Gable...and made about a fifth of his paycheck. Ouch.
After the brutal production of Gone With The Wind, Leigh must have been relieved that all her blood, sweat, and tears paid off. Not only is the movie the highest grossing flick of all time, it also led Leigh to Hollywood's greatest achievement. At just 26 years old, she took home the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Scarlett O’Hara. Sadly, her joyous night would take a chilling turn.
Winning an Oscar is a huge deal for an actor, so it makes sense that Olivier would be a little jealous of Leigh's achievement. However, according to Olivier's son Tarquin, his dad was more than ticked. Apparently, on the couple's way home, Olivier grabbed Leigh's Oscar and could barely keep himself from whacking her with it. In his words, "I was insane with jealousy".
Despite the scary ride home, 1940 was a happy year for Leigh and Olivier. That was the year that Olivier’s wife and Leigh's husband finally agreed to divorce their respective spouses. By August of that same year, Leigh and Olivier were an official couple at last. They had a secretive wedding, with Katharine Hepburn acting as the matron of honor. Tragically, their walk down the aisle came at a heartbreakingly high cost.
Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier made a huge sacrifice to be together. As part of their divorce agreements, they both had to give up primary custody of their children.
Olivier and Leigh's first joint venture was a complete bust. The couple invested over $10,000 into a stage play where Olivier would be Romeo and Leigh would perform as Juliet. Unfortunately for them, the production was a total failure and they lost a tremendous amount of money. After that, their once-unbreakable bond began to show signs of strain—and it didn't help that Leigh was undergoing another brutal bout with her bipolar disorder.
In the 1940s, Vivien Leigh's bipolar disorder plunged her into a world of terror. As her agent said, she'd become furious and her voice would turn “hard, rasping, contemptuous". But her eyes were the worst: They would transform into the cold "eyes of a stranger". After fits like this, Leigh would black out. She’d have no recollection of yelling and would feel incredibly afraid, embarrassed, and sorry.
Leigh really didn't need any more suffering, but life had other plans for her. In 1943, while volunteering for allied troops in North Africa, Leigh fell ill. It wasn’t until 1944 that she was finally diagnosed with brutal case of tuberculosis. She spent some time in the hospital and doctors thought that she’d recovered. They released her but years later, they'd realize that they had made a fatal mistake.
After clawing her way back from the brink of death, Leigh planned to revive her film career in 1944, only to star in flop after flop. Leigh couldn't get a role she desperately wanted in her husband's movie Rebecca, then she unwisely turned down the lead in Pride and Prejudice. She was utterly distraught, and things would only get worse.
On the set of one of Leigh's unsuccessful flicks, she encountered something far worse than commercial failure. When she shot Caesar & Cleopatra in 1945, one scene called for Leigh to run across a freshly polished floor. She did so, only to suffer a brutal fall...while pregnant. The accident caused Leigh to miscarry, which in turn led her to fall into an extreme depression. Leigh would regularly cry on the floor in grief. Film historians now believe this to be the first irreparable crack in her psyche.
It's important to remember that Leigh's life wasn't defined by mental illness. She was also an incredible woman. She could speak at least three languages, adored Siamese cats, and even had a photographic memory. It's said that Leigh could memorize all her lines after reading a play once. If she was having a bad day, she'd have to read the script twice. She's a legend for a reason!
Leigh's bipolar disorder made itself known in more ways than screaming and wailing. It also made Leigh's libido skyrocket, leading the actress to have intense, uncontrollable intimate urges. The actress would regularly cheat on her husband by sleeping with strangers, taxi drivers, and delivery men in an effort to satisfy her desires.
By 1948, Leigh and Olivier's marriage was in shambles. At a show in New Zealand, they aired their dirty laundry for all to see. Leigh freaked out over losing her footwear and wouldn’t go on stage. In return, Olivier yelled at his wife and angrily hit her. Leigh then hit Olivier right back. Stunningly, all this happened in front of the entire company. Looking back, Olivier said this was a sign that their marriage wouldn't last.
While Leigh and Olivier were touring in Australia, Olivier happened to discover a hot new talent: the young actor Peter Finch. Excited, Olivier immediately hired Finch to join him on stage. How did Finch repay Olivier for his big break? Flowers, or a night on the town, perhaps? Not so much. Instead Finch promptly slept with his wife, Vivien Leigh.
Here's an especially sad detail about Leigh's affair with Finch. By the time 1948 rolled around, it's said that Olivier was so exhausted by Leigh's endless mood swings and insatiable bedroom drive that he was "relieved" that she found someone else.
From Leigh's perspective, 1948 was a gruelling year. Her marriage was falling apart, her bipolar disorder was acting up, and she was struggling with other health issues as well. The actress suffered from extreme insomnia and would sometimes struggle with basic impulse control. Around this time, Leigh's unhappiness and stress would manifest in a chilling way. The prim British actress would rant, rave, and swear uncontrollably.
The stereotype of the tormented artist doesn't come out of nowhere. At the same time as Leigh's personal demons were making her miserable, she was also playing the role that would solidify her place in Hollywood history. As a trained stage actress, Leigh jumped at the chance to act in Tennessee Williams' new tragedy A Streetcar Named Desire. Her performance as Blanche Dubois earned rave reviews, but the role took a horrible toll on Leigh's mind.
Few characters are as tragic as desperate, doomed Blanche DuBois. After inhabiting Blanche's fractured psyche for over 300 performances, Leigh admitted that “playing her tipped me into madness".
When Hollywood decided to adapt the play for the screen, Leigh once again had to fight for her seat at the table. Even though the director didn't think she'd be right for the part, Leigh convinced him, as well as audiences around the world. She picked up her second Academy Award for her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. But as with her last Oscar, Leigh would go from victory to complete despair in a painfully short time.
Vivien Leigh used one of her Oscars for a truly majestic purpose: She turned it into a doorstop that would prop her bathroom door open. Throughout all her struggles, you have to give her credit for staying humble.
Even when Vivien Leigh was dealing with debilitating mental illness, she still managed to be irresistible. When she filmed A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando apparently wanted to have an affair with his co-star. According to him, Leigh had an unbeatable derriere, and the only reason he didn't pursue her was because of his friendship with “Larry” Olivier. Even though Brando didn't make his move, another of Leigh's co-stars decided to shoot his shot.
In 1953, Leigh was set to star in a movie called Elephant Walk, only to endure a mental breakdown so bad that Paramount Studios replaced her with Liz Taylor. During Leigh's brief time on set, she became paranoid, her insomnia worsened, and she’d even hallucinate. Olivier hadn't accompanied her to the shoot, so Leigh found comfort in the arms of her co-star, none other than her ex-fling Peter Finch.
After being fired from Elephant Walk, Leigh boarded a flight back to Los Angeles. While in the air, she became so distressed that she tried to end her life by jumping out of the plane.
By this point, Leigh was completely out of her mind. She would scream for hours in her dressing room, until eventually being sedated and sent back to England. Once there, her husband Olivier felt that he only had one option left. He placed Leigh in an asylum for three months, where she endured multiple painful sessions of electroshock therapy.
Leigh's struggles should have been private, but then as now, word of a starlet's breakdown managed to get out. After Leigh left the asylum, she appeared on stage in England. As she performed, audiences were rapt, but not at her acting talents. Instead, they whispered that they could see the burn marks that electroshock paddles had left on Leigh's pale temples.
Leigh and Olivier's marriage had been through the ringer at this point. They managed to weather Leigh's affair with Finch, but their time was coming to an end. Audience members could hear the actors cruelly taunting each other during performances. Off stage, Leigh made matters worse by fixating on scathing reviews. They accused Olivier of underplaying his roles so that he wouldn’t outshine his less talented wife. Olivier tried to convince Leigh that it wasn't true, but the damage was done.
In 1956, 44-year-old Vivien Leigh miraculously became pregnant with Olivier. The unlikely mother hoped that the baby could give her and Olivier a fresh start, but fate had other plans in store for the couple. Leigh had a miscarriage and, like the last time she lost a baby, she fell into a horrible depressive spiral.
Losing her baby while playing another tragic Shakespearean role proved to be a bad combination for Vivien Leigh. While touring Europe for a production of Titus Andronicus, Leigh had a breakdown. At one point, she went into a public park without her clothes on. Later on, she flew into a rage and beat Olivier with a wet towel, leading him to throw her across the room.
After almost 20 years with Leigh, her latest breakdown proved to be more than Olivier could take. He left Leigh and settled down with Joan Plowright. Looking back, Olivier said that he would “never love anybody as much as Vivien” but because of her mood swings, he couldn't stay with her. With that, the once-unbeatable couple went their separate ways.
While Olivier was romancing Joan Plowright, Leigh quickly fell into the arms of the actor Jack Merivale. He was well aware of her bipolar disorder, and assured Olivier that he’d take care of Leigh. With Leigh in safe hands, Olivier officially divorced her in 1960.
After Leigh and Olivier's divorce, Olivier tried to stay amicable with his ex-wife. He wrote Vivien a letter where he thanked her for handling their break up "nobly and bravely and beautifully" even though it must have been horrible for her. Olivier was right. It was around this time that Leigh attempted to end her own life.
After her marriage ended, Leigh's behavior became even stranger than usual. She once rented a car and became so upset by its color that she demanded to have it repainted. She also insisted on taking her Renoir and Picasso paintings with her everywhere she went. When she signed up to act in a play, she hoped the creative outlet would help. Unfortunately, Leigh was wrong.
In 1963, Leigh starred in a stage musical called Tovarich. It was, in a word, a disaster. Leigh had an intense breakdown that made her blank on her lines, sing songs up to three times too fast, and even assault her own co-stars—while they were on stage with a full house watching. Her behavior was so uncontrollable that at one point, she had to be restrained and sedated. Even through immense pain, though, Leigh won a Tony for her performance.
Vivien Leigh had long battled bipolar disorder—but when filming Ship of Fools in 1965, one episode ended in an utterly horrific turn. During an assault scene, Leigh struck fellow actor Lee Marvin so hard with a high heel that it scarred his face. Because of this incident, Ship of Fools would end up being Leigh’s final appearance on film. She didn't have much time left, and unfortunately, what little she had would be deeply sad.
In the summer of 1967, Leigh's tuberculosis came back with a vengeance. As she lay in bed and attempted to recover from the illness, the actress rose to use the washroom. Unfortunately, on her way, she collapsed. By the time Leigh's partner Jack Merivale discovered her, Leigh had already breathed her last. She passed in London on July 8.
Even though Leigh and Olivier had broken up seven years ago, the acclaimed actor rushed to see his ex-wife one last time. He insisted on staying with her body until the authorities removed it. After that, Olivier helped Merivale organize Leigh's funeral and arranged for Leigh to be cremated, with her ashes spread near her beloved home.
When people heard of Vivien Leigh's demise, the London theaters paid her a heartbreaking tribute. Each and every one turned out their lights for an hour to honor Leigh's memory. However, the most touching tribute belongs to Leigh's great love, Laurence Olivier.
In the weeks before Olivier's own demise, he reportedly watched a movie with Leigh. As he began to weep, Olivier simply said, "This, this was love". Even though their relationship didn't last forever, Leigh felt the same way about Olivier. The actress once said, “I would rather have lived a short life with Larry [Olivier] than face a long one without him".
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