“I started to rehearse Streetcar on 29 August 1949. I think I can say that I was helpful to Vivien’s performance of Blanche; I hit on the practical notion that as by changing one feature one can create a whole new face, so by the alteration of one major characteristic, not hitherto associated with you, you can become another person with a different personality. I noticed at the first rehearsals, by the reactions among the company, that Vivien's unexpected, much deeper, much rougher voice had impressed them. I watched, fascinated, the strange new person that grew from this one dominant change of key. I thought, if her critics had one grain of fairness, they will give her credit for being an actress and not go on forever letting their judgment be distorted by her great beauty and Hollywood stardom. As it turned out, they were not so bad as usual, but clearly reluctant in their approval. Her colleagues and the public were unanimously eulogistic in their praises.”—Laurence Olivier, describing directing wife Vivien Leigh in a London production of A Streetcar Named Desire, in Confessions of an Actor: An Autobiography (1982)
This passage speaks volumes about the relationship between Sir Laurence Olivier and the second and most famous of his three wives, Vivien Leigh, born on this date 100 years ago in India. You see the loving protectiveness that sustained him through two decades of marriage to a woman he correctly described to later lover Sarah Miles as “a manic depressive, schizophrenic, nymphomaniac”; admiration for a fellow actor’s skill; an emphasis on how external characteristics, rather than the dredging up of personal experience, informs a role; and, perhaps, at least some competiveness between the two (he was “helpful” to the performance of an actress who, he also told Miles, “wasn’t good enough in the theatre [to be designated by the queen as ‘Dame’]. She would never even bother turning up for her voice production classes.”).
Streetcar came halfway through one of the most storied—and sad—marriages in film history. (For the denouement, see my prior post on the making of The Prince and the Showgirl, set against the background of their crumbling relationship.)
The “Hollywood stardom” to which Olivier referred came to Leigh as a result, of course, of Gone With the Wind. She wasn’t exactly right for the role of the Southern belle to beat all Southern belles (the novel’s first sentence, after all, is, “Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were"). But with her kind of looks onscreen (in the words of friend Jesse L. Lasky Jr., “hair stirred by the breeze, eyes like fire opals beneath the circle of her wide-brimmed black hat”), who would dare quibble? So she won the role, after the most publicized talent search in movie history, along with her first Oscar.
The dominant characteristic of Scarlett is her indomitability in the face of catastrophes that crush nearly everyone else near and dear to her. Leigh made only nine more feature films after Gone With the Wind and, with the exception of the younger, spirited half of Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), none of the roles reflect Scarlett’s strength.
Her London triumph as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, along with her central part in the greatest Hollywood blockbuster of them all in GWTW, gave her the leverage to win the role in the film adaptation from the actress who originated Blanche on Broadway, Jessica Tandy, and to take home her second Oscar in 1951.
But this film, like others in these years, mirrored her offscreen stormy love life and fragile mental condition. (Like Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning stint as the Joker in The Dark Knight, it raises the issue of how far an actor with mental-health issues can go in exploring a dark role.)
The role of Blanche--fearful of losing youth and beauty--has to be among the most harrowing an actress can play. Ten years later, another Tennessee Williams property would expose, even more pitilessly, Leigh’s insecurity: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, about an aging actress who takes up with a young Italian gigolo.(Again, art seemed to mirror life: Leigh had an affair with her miscast co-star: Warren Beatty, already establishing a reputation as a lothario.)
A couple of years later, Miles, who had some unhappy experiences with Leigh during the shooting of the film, met the actress again. It soon became apparent that Leigh did not have a clue about her misbehavior to the younger woman, and she apologized. At that point, Miles notes with pity, in a recent article in The Daily Mail, she glimpsed a “ravishing beauty now ravaged by life.”