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March 17, 2019

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The dark side of a shining talent

PLAYING two of the greatest female roles ever offered in film — Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” and Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” — has guaranteed actress Vivien Leigh a place in popular culture. Yet her stage work, often overlooked by her film fans, may have been the true showcase of her talent.

Alan Strachan, a director and a chronicler of the British theater, gives Leigh’s full career a stirring reassessment in an immensely readable biography. He argues there was far more to Leigh than her beauty.

Strachan also pierces the darkness that never left Leigh: mental illness. Bipolar disorder, called manic depression in her day, explains in part her failings as a wife and mother. It certainly seems to have fueled her drinking, extramarital affairs and occasionally odd behavior, allowing comparisons to the faded, shattered Blanche — the performance that put an Oscar next to the one for Scarlett O’Hara.

The surprise of “Dark Star” is that Leigh’s life doesn’t appear as sunk by sadness as described elsewhere. While not downplaying the manic episodes that damaged her career — Elizabeth Taylor took over the film “Elephant Walk” following a Leigh breakdown — Strachan describes the good times, too. By his account she was a loving companion, a loyal friend and a generous, amiable colleague. His evidence comes from Leigh’s diaries and letters and those of relatives, friends and colleagues.

The actress was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling in 1913 and raised in Calcutta. Her mother was also India-born and perhaps in a mixed-race family. Her father, born in Scotland, had moved to India and became wealthy as an exchange broker. An amateur actor, he shared his pastime with his daughter and theater became her passion.

The Hartleys sent 6-year-old Vivian to England for a Catholic education. Her education continued in her teens with schools in France, Italy and Germany. She was at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London when she met lawyer Leigh Holman. They married in 1932. Soon a mother, she went on to seek work on stage and in film under the name Vivien Leigh.

Upending her personal and professional life was Laurence Olivier, a charismatic actor who, like Leigh, was married with a child. Their passionate love affair, begun in 1936 as they made the film “Fire Over England,” led to divorces and marriage in 1940.

The Oliviers would become the first couple of the British stage, appearing in classical productions together — “Romeo and Juliet” and “The School for Scandal” were two — and separately. He directed her in productions of “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 1945 and “Streetcar” in 1949, both triumphs for Leigh.

Selfishness, a trait that brought them together despite obligations, probably doomed their relationship.

The passion cooled, at least for Olivier, as Leigh’s illness became more pronounced and led to shock therapy. He engaged in affairs with relish, and she abandoned her marital vows, too, flaunting an affair with a young Peter Finch.

Nevertheless, the Oliviers continued to play their public roles until he decided Joan Plowright would make a better partner. Divorced in 1960, Leigh continued acting and even found a companion. Her life ended at 53 with a fatal hemorrhage in 1967.

Was Leigh more like the vivacious and beautiful Scarlett O’Hara or the fading, delusional Blanche DuBois? Strachan doesn’t bother with such musings, instead focusing on the evolution of an artist who overcame personal struggles to master her craft.


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