Vivien Leigh is famous for beating 1400 other actresses to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. But Leigh’s own life, which was filled with dramatic highs and lows, was as colorful and tumultuous as Scarlett herself. Here are 18 things you might not have known about the iconic actress.
1. SHE ALWAYS KNEW SHE WANTED TO BE AN ACTOR.
At age three, Vivian Mary Hartley recited "Little Bo Peep" for her mother’s theater group and was hooked. Her friend Maureen O’Sullivan—who went on to play Jane in the Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller—said of her childhood friend, “Vivien always wanted to be an actress. She was single-minded. She was the only girl in the school to take ballet, for instance. She took it alone, the only one. I thought it was rather brave of her.”
2. SHE HAD A GREAT MEMORY.
When Leigh was just a child, her mother played a game from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim to help develop her memory. She would put objects on a tray, let Leigh study them, and then clear the tray so the child could recreate the tableau. As an adult, Leigh had a near-photographic memory. She knew all her lines after only one or two readings of a play.
3. SHE NARROWLY AVOIDED BEING CALLED APRIL MORN.
When Leigh was 19, she married a wealthy barrister named Leigh Holman. Her new position as wife didn’t deter her acting ambition one bit, not even when she got pregnant with her daughter, Suzanne. Her agent wanted her to pick a stage name and made several suggestions, including “April Morn.” Instead, she settled on Leigh, her husband’s name, and changed the spelling of her first name from Vivian to the more feminine Vivien.
4. LEIGH'S FIRST MOVIE WAS THINGS ARE LOOKING UP.
In 1935, Leigh was cast as an extra in Things Are Looking Up. She only had one line.
5. SHE BEGAN A PASSIONATE AFFAIR WITH LAURENCE OLIVIER.
In 1936, Leigh saw Olivier in a play and whispered to her friend, “That’s the man I’m going to marry.” Her friend pointed out that she was already married—and so was he. That didn’t stop Leigh from visiting Olivier in the dressing room, where, as she was leaving, she kissed the back of his neck.
They were cast in Fire Over England together and a long, guilt-ridden affair began. In 1940, they finally divorced their spouses and got married. (Check out this steamy love letter Olivier wrote Leigh around this time.)
6. SHE TURNED DOWN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN WUTHERING HEIGHTS.
When Olivier was cast as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Leigh campaigned to play opposite him as Cathy. Instead, director William Wyler offered her the supporting role of Isabella. Leigh, who was perhaps already focusing on Scarlett O’Hara, said, “I’ll play Cathy or I’ll play nothing.” Wyler thought she was crazy and later recalled saying, “"For a first part [in Hollywood], you’ll never get anything better than Isabella.' I made this deathless prediction. She sure showed me.”
7. FILMING GONE WITH THE WIND WAS EXHAUSTING.
Famously, Leigh won the role of Scarlett O’Hara over hundreds of actresses, including heavyweights like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and Paulette Goddard. During filming, Leigh worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, for 125 days. Cammie Conlon, who played Bonnie Blue Butler, said, “I have candids of her taken on set. She is exhausted. She is exhausted. She was in every scene, almost.” To deal with the stress, Leigh chain-smoked, burning through four packs of cigarettes a day.
Incidentally, Leigh was paid $25,000 for Gone With The Wind. Clark Gable, who worked 71 days, was paid $120,000.
8. DESERVEDLY, LEIGH WON AN OSCAR FOR HER PERFORMANCE IN GONE WITH THE WIND.
Leigh took home the trophy for Best Actress in 1939.
9. DESPITE HER SUCCESS, LEIGH WAS REJECTED FOR A PART IN REBECCA.
When Olivier was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Leigh set her heart on playing Mrs. de Winter. But no one—not even Olivier—thought she was right for the character, who is supposed to be timid and weak. Leigh was thought too fiery and confident, and the part went to Joan Fontaine. (You can watch her screen test for Rebecca above.)
10. A FALL DURING FILMING LED TO A MISCARRIAGE—AND A BREAKDOWN.
During the filming of Caesar and Cleopatra, Leigh discovered she was pregnant with Olivier’s child. One day, while filming a scene where she had to run across a polished floor, she slipped and fell, causing a miscarriage. Some believe this trauma led to a mental breakdown. Leigh became deeply depressed and started lashing out at people over nothing, or she became hyperactive, staying up all night long. She was showing signs of what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
11. SHE WON A SECOND OSCAR FOR PLAYING A SOUTHERN BELLE.
In 1949, Leigh starred in the London production of Tennessee Williams’s new play A Streetcar Named Desire, playing Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle on the verge of psychosis. Olivier directed the play. Soon after, Leigh was hired to star in the movie version opposite Marlon Brando. The performance won her a second Oscar.
12. LEIGH BELIEVED PLAYING BLANCHE “TIPPED” HER INTO MENTAL ILLNESS.
While A Streetcar Named Desire was a professional triumph, playing Blanche took a toll on Leigh’s mental health. Identifying with someone so near insanity was overwhelming for Leigh and she absorbed Blanche’s psychology in a way that was hard for her to let go of. Later, when she was ill, she would often recite lines from the play. As she put it, “Blanche is a woman with everything stripped away. She is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”
13. SHE WAS REPLACED BY ELIZABETH TAYLOR IN ELEPHANT WALK.
The final mental break came for Leigh during filming of what would have been her next movie, Elephant Walk. On the set, she was erratic and paranoid, and then she began to hallucinate. She was sent back to Los Angeles, where she was hospitalized and given electroshock therapy—the only treatment for bipolar disorder at the time. Elizabeth Taylor took over the role.
14. THE MOVIE THE V.I.P.S WAS BASED ON LEIGH’S AFFAIR WITH PETER FINCH.
Speaking of Elizabeth Taylor: Part of Leigh’s illness manifested in increased libido, which led to several extramarital affairs, including one with Australian actor Peter Finch. This, along with the strain of her illness and other factors, led to the breakdown of her marriage. The Oliviers divorced in 1960, after 20 years of marriage.
In 1961, Leigh told screenwriter Terence Rattigan that she and Finch almost ran away together. They got to the VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport when they learned that fog had grounded all the flights. While waiting for the fog to lift, Leigh decided to stay with Olivier. Intrigued by this idea, Rattigan wrote The V.I.P.s, starring another famous couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
15. SHE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED STAGE ACTRESS.
While we think of Leigh as a movie star, she worked as much—if not more—in the theater. Despite mental and physical illnesses, she was constantly rehearsing or performing. She played major Shakespearean roles, from Ophelia to Viola to Lady Macbeth, and starred in works by contemporaries like Thornton Wilder and Noël Coward. She also won a Tony for the Broadway musical adaptation of Tovarich in 1963.
16. SHE HAD NO PATIENCE FOR CONDESCENDING CRITICS.
Here she is putting one in his place:
This clip is from the TV show Small World, hosted by Edward R. Murrow, where Leigh discusses film with critic Ken Tynan and producer Samuel Goldwyn. It speaks for itself.
17. SHE WAS ONLY 53 WHEN SHE DIED.
In 1944, Leigh was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and continued to battle it throughout her life. In the spring of 1967, she suffered a recurrent bout of the disease, but seemed to get better after convalescing. Then in July, she was trying to make her way to the bathroom when her lung filled with liquid and she collapsed and died. She was only 53 years old. The West End theater marquees were kept dark for an hour in her honor.
18. SHE WAS A FINE DANCER.
Here she is dancing the Charleston in her last fim, Ship Of Fools.