In preparation for the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier weekend in London this coming weekend that I have been looking forward to for months, I am dedicating this week’s Star of the Week honors to that talented and beautiful couple of the stage and screen. Though they were both tremendously gifted actors on both the stage and screen and made 3 very quality films together, it is their tumultuous, difficult, yet immensely loving 20 year marriage that make them truly one of the great romantic couples of the last century.
Each having left their respective spouses due to their love for each other (Olivier had been married to actress Jill Esmond and Leigh had been married to a barrister named Leigh Holman), their marriage was an examination of extreme emotion and volatility. Their devotion to each other was incredibly strong, strong enough to survive Vivien’s very severe case of bipolar disorder, untreatable with medication at the time, which left Olivier horrendously abused by manic episodes of which Vivien would later have no recollection. Often risking his life, Olivier stayed with her for 20 long years, trying desperately to help this woman with whom he was so in love, until concern for his own sanity forced him to leave. Their love continued even after their divorce, staying strong right up until Vivien’s death from tuberculosis in 1967.
Vivien Leigh is undoubtedly best remembered for her role in Gone With the Wind, that won her the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1939. Born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, on November 5, 1913 to British parents, she was educated in England and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1931, beginning her formal career as an actress. She married Leigh Holman the next year, and this was followed by her first film role, in a small project called Things are Looking Up. Her daughter Suzanne was born in 1933, and she embarked on a play entitled The Mask of Virtue in 1935. It was during the run of this play that Laurence Olivier first noticed her, and they began to fall in love. After playing opposite each other in Fire Over England in 1937, the deal was sealed, and they began conducting an affair that was, much to the chagrin of both their spouses, not quite secretive. By the time Vivien made Gone With the Wind in 1939 and became the first British actress to win an Academy Award, thus establishing her reputation in Hollywood, she and Olivier were already seeking divorces from their spouses in order to marry.
One of the most famous scenes in Gone With the Wind.
Vivien Leigh accepts her Oscar for Best Actress.
Upon Vivien’s winning an Academy Award, Laurence Olivier was also a great stage star, having acted to great acclaim in plays by Shakespeare and Noel Coward, and had already garnered much respect for his acting style. Born in Dorking, Surrey, on May 22, 1907, Olivier spent his early career in minor theatrical roles before expanding his career to the point where he was playing the great characters such as Hamlet and Macbeth. He married Jill Esmond in 1930, and his son Tarquin was born in 1936. His affair with Vivien was especially felt by Jill, who was a friend of Vivien’s, and though she had legitimate reservations about granting Olivier the divorce he sought, she knew that she couldn’t keep him away from Vivien, so she conceded.
Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, 1939.
The Oliviers married on August 31, 1940, and a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet was followed by That Hamilton Woman, their first film as a married couple. In 1943, after a trip to North Africa, Vivien came down with what ended up being tuberculosis, a disease that would stay with her throughout the rest of her life. It was also during the mid-1940’s that Vivien began to show signs of serious mental illness–exploding at her husband with no provocation at all, then falling into a deep depression. This affected her career tremendously, limiting the roles she could perform and how often, and as the seriousness of the condition worsened, it took a terrible toll on their married life. Olivier won an Oscar in 1948 for Hamlet, and Vivien won another for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, but their personal life was a struggle, and after a nightmarish manic breakdown on the set of Elephant Walk in 1953 (in which she was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor), Vivien’s disorder began to control their life. In varying states of cognizance, she lashed out at Olivier and told of relationships with other actors, notably Peter Finch. According to Olivier, she never remembered these episodes, but would feel very guilty afterward and not know why. Though they officially divorced in 1960, Vivien felt that the marriage was over as early as 1958, when she began an affair with Jack Merivale. Olivier began a relationship with Joan Plowright, and married her soon after his divorce from Vivien. He was married to her until his death in 1989, and Vivien stayed with Jack Merivale until hers from the tuberculosis that had plagued her life since the mid-1940’s, in 1967. Even after their divorce, Vivien and Larry stayed very close and very much in love. Vivien wouldn’t hear of anyone speaking badly about Larry, and he was always the love of her life, and vice-versa.
It is worthwhile to note that Laurence Olivier gets a lot of hate within the Vivien Leigh community due to many of his reactions to Vivien’s episodes. One incident in particular gets a lot of attention, one in which Vivien refused to go onstage at a performance and Olivier slapped her face. However, Vivien slapped him right back, cussed at him, and did indeed go onstage. Vivien was no helpless creature, and Olivier knew that. What is also often overlooked is that through everything, all the lashing out, the sleeping around (part of bipolar disorder), the embarrassments in front of friends and guests, Olivier never left her for nearly 20 long years. That is a true testament to his character, and to his devotion to Vivien. I get upset whenever I hear people hating on Laurence Olivier, because truly, I can’t think of many other people who would do what he did for as long as he did. THAT is love.
At the end of this video, from about 6:43 to the end, he describes what it was like for him, before finally saying he can’t talk about it anymore:
Here are a few gems:
That Hamilton Woman, 1941. Their third film together, and I think it’s their best. Not only do we see these two beautiful people together at the height of their love, but we also get to hear Vivien speak French and Italian, two languages she spoke fluently in real life. Not bad.
Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” 1941, for which he won an Oscar. I consider this to be one of the finest performances ever recorded onscreen. If you see one Olivier film, this is it. Brilliance.
Waterloo Bridge, 1940. I think this is my number 1 favorite Vivien Leigh film (Gone With the Wind is automatically disqualified). One thing I didn’t focus on in this post is Vivien Leigh’s absolutely stunning looks. In fact, I officially consider her the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. And this movie shows it. Playing a young ballet dancer who falls in love with a soldier during World War I, she is perfectly comfortable in the part and there are great performances all around. A must-see.
Wuthering Heights, 1939. In the glorious year that was 1939, this is one of the top contenders for the best of the best. Olivier too was at the height of his attractiveness here, and Merle Oberon is perfect as Cathy (even though Olivier wanted Vivien in the part). I know I showed a clip earlier in this post, but it’s worth showing another because it’s just so darn good.
Sidewalks of London, 1938. This is a total B-movie, but I had to add it in here because it’s so funny to hear prim and proper Vivien try to speak in a cockney accent. And there’s also one scene where Vivien tap dances across the floor, which is classic. If you can find this (it’s not easy…) it’s worth a look. Very funny stuff.
I hope you enjoyed! I will be spending this weekend in London for the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier weekend, and I will be checking in as often as I can with updates about the stars of the week! Thank you Kendra, at vivandlarry.com!