On May 10, 1951, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier opened their first performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, part of their effort to perform that play and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra simultaneously, on alternating nights, at the St. James Theatre in London. Vivien had long wanted to play Cleopatra, and the plays were well-covered in the press, including a spread in LIFE magazine on December 17, 1951. By that time, the plays had closed in London and Leigh and Olivier had taken it to New York for a Broadway run at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Performances were just about to begin when the spread was issued.
And for the purposes of the blogathon, I am repeating an article I posted a few months ago following the Weekend With the Oliviers event. The article appeared in the March 29-April 5 issue of Paris Match magazine in 1952, and I have translated it from the French.
IN HER BROADWAY DRESSING ROOM, VIVIEN LEIGH RECEIVES HER SECOND OSCAR
By our special New York correspondent, Georges Pernoud
When reporters from the American press were admitted into Vivien Leigh’s dressing room at the Ziegfeld Theatre, an extraordinary event occurred: silence.
Where the press (specifically the American press) go, she usually expresses an energetic cooperative mood that would shock criminals and enchant politicians. This evening, though, in her small dressing room with mirrors covered in face powder, it was a different story. It was the usual tabloid braggarts, with their cigarette butts flattened on their lips, their felt pens and their hand-painted neckties, who seemed sheepish in front of their hosts. And it was the usual victims, Sir Laurence Olivier and Mrs. Olivier in this case, who had the upper hand. Dressed in dark gray with faint stripes, his coat halfway open to reveal a golden chain, impeccable from head to toe, Olivier stepped aside with the rigidity of an obelisk before the queen of Egypt, dressed in a black satin gown with a mischievous smile on a slightly weary face, a bit too human without the effects of stage makeup and less striking than her two sets of three-string pearls , one set on her neck, the other on her wrist.
It was midnight. The curtain had long since fallen on the giant sphinx (5 m. 50 high and 4 wide), to the feet where Vivien Leigh dies of love three times a week, in the last scene of Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare. And at which, the other three nights of the week, she expresses her love for Caesar in the first scene of Caesar and Cleopatra by Bernard Shaw.
This evening, upon returning to her dressing room, Vivien learned that she had just won the 1952 Best Actress Oscar for her role of Blanche, the fallen coquette in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Journalists had been waiting for an hour in the wings of the Ziegfeld Theatre–the doors to Vivien’s dressing room were not opened until Vivien and her husband, Laurence Olivier, had finished washing the stage makeup off their faces and were ready to greet them properly attired.
“Maybe these gentlemen would like to drink something?” Vivien asked her publicity agent, Richard Maney, who agreed. This provoked a hustle and bustle among the reporters.
The glass having been broken, the photographers began their duties. “Would you like to kiss your wife?” one cameraman asked Olivier. Silently acquiescing, Olivier wrapped his arm around Vivien’s shoulders and gave her a peck on the cheek. “A big one!” protested the unauthorized photographers. Ever docile, Sir Laurence repeated the gesture, and considering his duty to the image-hunters done, he turned toward the reporters. Vivien served the drinks.
-”What effect does your second Oscar have on you, Miss Leigh?”
-”Exactly the same as the first one.”
-”What does that mean?”
-”I am humbled and honored.”
Apart from being rather a world unto itself, it is impossible to distinguish from her smile what her genuine mood is, and what is simply glamor.
-”And you, Mr. Olivier?”
-”He has three.”
Sir Laurence played with his golden chain.
-”And what do you do with them?”
-”We use them as table lamps,” said Laurence Olivier. “You see, we are very conventional people.”
Vivian approves absent-mindedly–”That’s right, they’re used as bookends.”
-”May I drive my wife home?” Olivier says abruptly, with a weary smile.
The camera flashes illuminated in the London couple a light of tragedy.
-”Bookends or lamps?”
-”May I drive my wife home?” repeated Sir Laurence, seriously. “You see, we are very conventional people.”
Outside the Ziegfeld, a taxi was waiting.While the journalists finished their drinks inside, Laurence and Vivien embraced each other as lovers. Behind the windows, at each entrance of the theatre, two large photographs shone in the lights of 6th Avenue. To the left, a sixteen-year-old Cleopatra, resembling Scarlett O’Hara, smiled at Caesar, while on the right, a forty-something Cleopatra gazed at Antony with a sad expression, recalling that of Blanche.
This couple is more difficult to approach than the royal family and even slight intimacies necessitate a retreat on horseback to their old abbey between Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire, Yet they are near slaves to the public, both of them having been born for the theatre. She came to the theatre through a longer route than he, but Vivien herself has said that ever since childhood, she has had no greater ambition than to become an actress. They apparently met by the merest of chances: waiting for a taxi at the door of the Savoy on a rainy day.
HOLLYWOOD PAYS FOR SHAKESPEARE
But Vivien’s destiny seemed to advance in zigzags. Nothing would suggest her status as a future movie star when she married barrister Herbert Leigh Holman in 1931–Vivien was 18, and had attended a few courses at the Dramatic Academy in London. But her strict education in an English convent between the ages of 5 and 14, then in a boarding house run by an austere Bavarian baron near Munich, had prepared her more than anything for the role of tender bourgeoise housewife. The end result was her leaving the marriage after 5 years, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Suzanne.
It was then that the theatre began to swirl in this Irish head, that came into existence under the Indian sun (her father was a senior officer in a cavalry regiment, stationed in Darjeeling in 1913). Vivien, in the calm of her London home, began to recall her childhood dreams.
When Mrs. Leigh Holman secretly met with a theatre director one day, he cast her right on the spot. The success of her first play, The Mask of Virtue,transformed the life of Mrs. Leigh Holman (who took her husband’s second first name as her stage name)–a nurse began to replace her duties in the care of little Suzanne, and at this point the two spouses were speaking only through correspondence. Each evening, Vivien left a ticket on her husband’s desk. She found another upon her return from the theatre, as the lawyer rose early and went to bed early. And when Alexander Korda signed Vivien to a contract of 50,000 pounds per year, Mrs. Holman was effectively just Vivien. The divorce was finalized in 1939.
Within months, David Selznick, having embarked upon the most expensive production in Hollywood’s history, was searching in vain for a Scarlett, for that to which we now refer in cinematic capitals: GWTW (Gone With the Wind). Vivien went to California. Shooting had already begun on Gone with the Wind(they refer to it here by its French title, Autant en emporte le vent)and Vivien was invited to attend what would be the key scene in the film–the burning of Atlanta. As she was watching this tremendous scene, that of a city on fire, an assistant director named Fleming silently went over to Selznick and pulled on his sleeve. He pointed at Vivien’s anguished and radiant face, a face that was the living image of Scarlett O’Hara…
It was then that Selznick decided to cast Miss Leigh on the spot, for the best woman’s role in the history of cinema.
Between Gone With the Wind and Streetcar (her two Oscars) there was Shakespeare. Vivien’s career, like that of Laurence Olivier, is one of nearly all superstar roles, and Vivien always accepted popular roles to offset the costs of the difficult plays she wanted to perform. When Laurence Olivier brought her to Denmark to play in Hamlet on the desolate terraces of Elsinore, for a privileged audience of 500 people, she signed to play in Waterloo Bridge upon her return, opposite Robert Taylor. Anna Karenina paved the way for Romeo and Juliet. And Cleopatra, with the veritable Caesar of a producer/director Gilbert Miller, only brought in the $75,000 that Cleopatra cost, that the years of performances at the tiny St. James Theatre in London, would barely cover.
The St. James Theatre is closed, in its own way, like the Oliviers’ country house Notley Abbey. It is at this theater that Olivier cut his teeth as a director and to which the list of those invited included Anouilh, Menotti, and soon Marivaux and Claudel introduced by Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, and was the permanent home of Shakespeare.
The daily life of the number 1 couple of the English stage? It is that of all the heros of the theatre. A friend of the Oliviers, the critic Alan Dant, told me of a few times, upon coming to spend the weekend at Notley Abbey, seeing one or the other of them gesticulating with a sublime furor, hurling invectives against an invisible enemy. In other moments, you would see Sir Laurence doing imitations, telling stories of the theatre. He made Churchill laugh hysterically one day by telling him a story of Lucien Guitry and Sacha, when he was little–”They saw a blind beggar, and Lucien gave a sou to his son to put in the beggar’s collection bowl. ‘You should have tipped your hat,’ said Lucien. ‘We must be polite to beggars.’ ‘But papa, he is blind.’ ‘And what if he were an imposter?’”
NECK TOO LONG, HANDS TOO BIG, VOICE TOO SMALL
The Oliviers have few intimate friends: Danny Kaye, Orson Welles, and Noel Coward (at whose Santa Barbara home they married in 1940) are the only ones with famous names.
If their passion for the theatre is exclusive, their tastes are diverse. For Vivien: gardening, canasta, Charles Dickens, and Siamese cats. For Laurence: Handel, and Bourgogne wine.
Vivien is 37. She fiercely guards her beauty secrets, and only one person knows her secret number 1: her mother, Gertrude Hartley, who had a beauty salon in Knightsbridge that she closed to devote herself to one client, Vivien.
-My neck is too long, my hands are too big, and my voice is too small,” Vivien said one day. Her dresser, Audrey Cruddas, is responsible for the neck. For hours, Vivien lets her dress her neck until her head and her shoulders are proportioned correctly. Her voice demanded, and still demands, patient exercises and causes her constant worries about her vocal cords. In regard to her hands: “I have learned,” she says, ” from a great actress, Ellen Terry, that one should never cover large hands. People notice much more when you try to cover them, than they do if you leave them bare.”
The public, although much more fabulous and more in charge of the prestige of superstars, who are not superstars in their own eyes, Vivien is sometimes “fed up,” she says disgustedly. Despite a weak constitution, she always chooses exhausting roles. The hysterical Blanche of Streetcar that she played for months in London, seriously affected her health.
Sometimes, when the audience is not enthusiastic, the actors close to her hear Vivien grumble curse words that are anything but classical.
To an admirer who saw her die on stage the other evening and said to her “You are the most beautiful Antony and Cleopatra that we have seen since Antony and Cleopatra themselves,” she replied: “Yes, darling, and we are almost as tired.”