When I was aged 12, I read Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, “Gone With The Wind”, with the kind of fervor you can expect from a future English major and insecure preteen. What captivated me the most was the protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara; a beautiful, selfish, pragmatic, intelligent, and chameleon like woman who not only survives the Civil War in Georgia, but flourishes. Much like the book, the movie quickly became a favorite, predominately due to the actress who played her.
Vivien Leigh snagged the role of Scarlett against the odds. Hundreds of women were screen tested, including much more established actresses, like Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard. Vivien was also English, which didn’t necessarily lend itself as easily to the Southern Belle characterization in comparison with her American competition. Ultimately, she won not only the role, but the Oscar for Best Leading Actress in 1939. Vivien played the role exceptionally well with her natural tenacity, acting ability, energy and unbelievable beauty.
So began my interest in Vivien, that increased substantially once I’d seen “A Streetcar Named Desire”, a feature film directed by Elia Kazan, based on the play by Tennessee Williams (also, the only DVD I kept/stole from Blockbuster!) She won the Oscar for Best Leading Actress again in 1951 for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois, an emotionally fragile woman with a checkered, mysterious past. She slips into total madness after being raped by her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, after a prolonged cat and mouse game. Vivien told the Los Angeles Times, “I had nine months in the theatre of Blanche DuBois. Now she’s in command of me.”. She also is quoted as saying that the role, “tipped me over into madness”.
Beginning in the mid 1940s, Vivien had begun showing signs of mental illness, namely bipolar disorder. Her famous and highly publicized marriage to English theatre darling, Laurence Olivier was on the rocks due to her emotional volatility and extramarital affairs as a result of hypersexuality. She had violent mood swings as well as periods of despondency. She experienced nervous breakdowns that were highly publicized and forced her to withdraw from projects.
In 1967, she passed away at the young age of 53 due to complications from tuberculosis. She was still working on stage projects at this time, but sadly had divorced from Olivier and was being cared for by a younger actor, Jack Merivale. In spite of her enduring beauty, you can see that the years of mental and physical illness had taken its toll.
One of the reasons I’ve found Vivien so fascinating is because her story is arguably one of tragedy. She was one of the most beautiful and successful women to grace stage and film. She and her husband, Lord and Lady Olivier, were practically royalty. She had a positive relationship with her only child with ex-husband, Leigh Holman. She won two Oscars and adulation from peers and fans, alike.
In spite of her talent and drive, Vivien spent much of her adult life struggling with mental illness that was not treated properly. Laurence Olivier said in his 1982 autobiography, “Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness – an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble.”.
Vivien Leigh was certainly not alone in her struggles. Other famous, talented and beautiful actresses, such as Gene Tierney and Frances Farmer, also dealt with mental illness. SO many people do. Perhaps it made Vivien a better actress. Perhaps not. The point is that mental illness can afflict anyone, take them down and destroy their lives, in spite of their will and intention.
When I was 12, reading “Gone With The Wind” for the first time, I myself was struggling with an eating disorder, major depression disorder and OCD tendencies. Luckily, I was able to get the resources I needed in order to overcome these “demons” that have never defined me, but have certainly made me stronger, more resilient and more empathetic to others’ pain. If Vivien could struggle with mental illness, then not only was I not alone, but I was still able to offer something of value, as she did many times over. So much time has passed since then, but I’ll never forget the impact of her story.
The point is, no one is alone in the struggle. Even if you have never experienced mental illness first-hand, you probably know someone who has. Understand that while it can shape a person it doesn’t define them. Offer a hug, a safe space, a listening ear, help finding medical assistance. Think of what more Vivien could have done if she was treated properly. The same holds true to everyone else. There is so much potential in the world.