TFE's Vivien Leigh Centennial Celebration (November 2-6)
Here's David with an interview and book giveaway
Vivien Leigh was only nominated for two Oscars, but she won both of them. More impressively, both of her winning performances are still frequently said to be among the finest of all-time. If she’d done nothing else in her career, that would be a legacy to be proud of. It’s even more extraordinary when you consider the personal struggles that the actress went through: constantly striving to feel worthy of acting alongside the love of her life, Sir Laurence Olivier, and an undiagnosed and mistreated bipolar disorder that increasingly overtook her. In Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, Leigh scholar Kendra Bean digs into the actress’ dramatic life story, using a myriad of photographs both legendary and rare to imbue Vivien’s life with the vulnerability of her delicate beauty.
book contest and interview after the jump
“I think she would love to know that people still care about her, that she hasn’t faded away her - I think she would really appreciate that people still love her,” Kendra says, late in our chat in her London apartment, her silver feline Lulu hissing at a mangy pigeon resting on the balcony. [Full disclosure: I’ve been a friend of Kendra’s for a few years, having met her when we began our Master’s degree at King’s College London in 2010.]
“When I started off with the book, it was supposed to be about her and Laurence Olivier and their relationship, but then after grad school and doing my dissertation on Vivien, I decided it would be better to focus on her,” Kendra remembers, referencing her status as founder of vivandlarry.com, a website that has a devoted following both there and through Facebook.
It was a five-year journey from conception to publication, with this centenary being a very obvious deadline – “it was like now or never,” she admits. “I’ve always had the idea that she is important, so I always thought ‘who wouldn’t want to publish this?!’. But the prevailing attitude in the business is that, because she’s not Monroe or Audrey Hepburn or James Dean or Grace Kelly, who are everywhere, that Vivien’s not really that relevant anymore. So I had to get all these statistics and tell them why she’s relevant and prove how many people like her.” Kendra’s adamant that An Intimate Portrait is first and foremost a coffee-table book, primarily a pictorial celebration of Vivien, thanks to all the photographs she’s gathered through the years thanks to her website and her extensive research in both America and the UK. “At the beginning, I had this idea that I only wanted to use rare pictures, pictures that the everyday person hadn’t seen before, and there are quite a few of them that haven’t been published in a book before. You have to have a good mix of familiarity and new things - that was something that I learned, and something that I agreed with. I think there’s a good balance in here.”
Another spur for the book was the availability of material that had yet to be used in a Vivien biography, of which there hasn’t been a prominent one in over a quarter of a century. “I learned that Terry Coleman, who wrote an authorised Laurence Olivier biography back in 2005, had access to the Laurence Olivier archive,” explains Kendra, “which was then new at the British Library, no one else had used it. What I found really interesting was that Olivier refused interviews with all of Vivien’s previous biographers – he didn’t want to talk about it, he didn’t want to give his opinion because he’d already written his own book – so really, no one had access to that material until Coleman. Going through all of that, I got clarity for a lot of things, like how things were dealt with in Vivien and Olivier’s relationship, what kind of dynamic they had, what his feelings were about her through a lot of it.
“The most over-arching theme through the whole archive was how worried he always was about her, and I found that really interesting because he’s always depicted as someone who’s jealous a lot and how horrible he was to her.” Kendra teases one incident, detailed in the book, which took place during the filming of Elephant Walk (on which Vivien was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor). “She had this psychotic break, had to be hospitalised and taken off the film, and that’s really when she was diagnosed as manic-depressive or bipolar.” The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that Olivier had broken down and sobbed in David Niven’s arms as Vivien was taken away in an ambulance, but the paper had no idea of the depth of Vivien’s problems. “That information had been kept under lock-and-key, and it was really revealing about how Olivier handled that situation, and how Vivien was treated in hospital, and how that went on to affect her life and career.”
An Intimate Portrait paints a picture of a woman whose commitment to her career seemed often to be detrimental to her mental health. It’s a difficult issue, Kendra insists. “Someone asked me recently, if she had the help for her bipolar disorder that we have today, would her life have been easier? Probably in some senses, but would she still have been that really ambitious and headstrong kind of person, would she have been able to pull off some of the things she did, would she have been able to keep going at that sort of crushing pace? Because she really threw herself into her work and strived to be the best that she could and then better.”
Interviews with living figures who knew Vivien during both her highs and lows were very useful in giving Kendra further clarity of how the actress behaved and presented herself both publically and privately. Claire Bloom, who acted with both Vivien and Olivier at different points, and had a brief affair with Olivier at the time, provided the forward for the book and graciously attended the book launch a few weeks ago. “I spoke with Claire Bloom on the phone,” recalls Kendra, “which was interesting, because she was actually my first interview, and when I rang her up, I was expecting to schedule an interview with her. But she said ‘can we do it now?’, and I kind of had to scramble. She had nothing but good things to say about Vivien, and that’s what I found from a lot of people: that they remember her as this courageous, kind person, who gave a lot to other people and kept little for herself.”
Olivier’s niece Louise and her mother Hester, who both lived with the Oliviers at the summer home Notley Abbey for several years, were able to offer a valuable insight into Vivien’s most intimate moments. “They were very honest about their opinions about Olivier, and they both said that when Olivier divorced Vivien, they were unequivocally 'Team Vivien', even though they were related to Olivier! Because Vivien’s a very sympathetic, vulnerable, tragic figure, and people were drawn into her – she really had what John Osborne called ‘magic alchemy’.”
What An Intimate Portrait offers is a fresh perspective on an actress often shrouded in myth, and a timely reminder of the overlooked extent of her artistry. “Really this book, as much as it’s for diehard fans, it’s also for the everyday fan, or the people who are just learning about her. It’s not a rigorous academic story, it’s an overview, but I wanted to bring in things that people hadn’t read before in regards to her relationship with Olivier, her mental illness, and bring in some of my own analysis – it’s like Vivien Leigh for the 21st century.” It’s an affectionate but measured tribute to a woman whose artistry thankfully remains captured in celluloid. The BFI are celebrating Vivien throughout November, showing prints of 14 of her 19 films – a brief but electrifying filmography. For Kendra, Vivien’s face is the purest demonstration of her talents. “Sometimes I think she would’ve made a great silent screen actress, because she was very expressive with her face, especially with her eyes. There’s this scene in Waterloo Bridge where she’s prowling Waterloo Station, trying to pick up a good time, and she sees Roy, and the camera focuses on her face, and these emotions that go over her face, from recognition to horror – it definitely could’ve been a silent film, I think.”
The lasting power of Vivien’s face is demonstrated in an anecdote Kendra shares about selecting the cover image. Unsure about the design posited by her publishers, she did a speculative search on Google. “All these pictures of Vivien came up, and this was the one that your eye kept going back to and back to and back to. This is straight on, this draws you in.” For Kendra, it connects intimately to the performance style that still pops on-screen. “She seems modern, even if she’s playing a historic character; she’s very present, she had that star quality. She brought vulnerability to her roles, tragedy. I think she brought truth to her roles, which is something that not a lot of people can manage.”
Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is available from all good booksellers in the UK, USA and Canada, and can be ordered online.
We have two copies of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait to give away to readers of The Film Experience. To enter...
• email us with "VIVIEN" as subject line by Tuesday November 5th
• include one sentence as to why you love Vivien Leigh
• include your Name and Shipping Address (contest is open to all readers)