Vivien Leigh: 55 years later, a new look at her legacy

Vivien Leigh brought together some attributes that rarely come together: stunning beauty and an undeniable talent, whether on stage or screen alike. Therefore, she was legendary in her lifetime, leaving at least two iconic performances immortalized in film (Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone with the Wind” and Blanche Dubois, from “A Streetcar Named Desire”), while in her personal life she dealt with a psychiatric illness. still unknown in its time, bipolarity. I wrote about his sad trajectory a few years ago here at CLAUDIA, and, as a fan, I always come back to his memory. On July 8, 2022, 55 years since her death, she is still a mystery.

Vivien Leigh had had attributes that rarely come together: stunning beauty and undeniable talent, whether on stage or on screen alike. Therefore, she was legendary in her lifetime, leaving at least two iconic performances immortalized: Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire. All the while, in her personal life, she dealt with a psychiatric illness still unknown in its time, bipolarity. I wrote about his sad trajectory a few years ago here at CLAUDIA, and, as a fan, I always come back to his memory. On July 8, 2022, 55 years since her death, she is still a mystery.

Called in her obituary “the greatest beauty of her time”, “the star of theater and cinema” and “one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century”, the adjectives varied little as she left us under the shadow of the role that made her an international star in the movie Gone with the Wind: Scarlett O’Hara. It was for this role that Vivien received the first of her two Oscars for Best Actress, but even fame did not bring comfort. She died at home, at age 53, alone. Interestingly, in times of so many biopics, this one, which addresses mental health in its essence, never got off the ground. Game of ThronesNatalie Dormer‘s Vivling project has been “in development” since 2018.

Fragile, petite, and with unparalleled beauty, Vivien always wanted to be an actress and defied conservative society to make her dream come true. As a typical girl from a wealthy family at the time, she was brought up to marry and be a mother, and she did what was expected of her. Her first marriage, aged 19, to attorney Herbert Leigh Holman, produced her only child, Suzanne. Her husband “allowed” her to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art only because he thought it would be a hobby. She made her professional stage debut in 1935 and within a year was a London stage sensation. No hobbyist, Vivien Leigh (she adopted her husband’s name as her artistic persona) was a star.

Vivien was only 26 years old when she starred in Gone with the Wind, but even famously she only followed her heart and it blindly belonged to Laurence Olivier and the Theater. With him, he starred in several plays and films, while behind the scenes the real tragedy was unfolding. Her “bouts” and “crises”, where she yelled at people hysterically and then didn’t remember anything else, were identified as a kind of “hysteria” and later, as a “manic depression”. Today it is believed that it was bipolar.

The process accelerated when Vivien was just 31, after suffering a miscarriage and falling into a deep depression. At this point, the relationship with Laurence Olivier also suffered from the jealousy and envy he had of his wife’s success, so much so that he began to treat her in a passive-aggressive way, undoing her successes and challenging Vivien to surpass him on stage, where he had the advantage.

The crises gained frequency and violence and the only treatment available as electroshock, which traumatized her even more. Her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire was for many “Vivien being herself, not Blanche DuBois”. She even fueled the legend, claiming that “playing her drove me crazy,” in an interview. This is unfair because the impact of the lack of mental health knowledge makes us look at the actress’s entire trajectory with different eyes, especially 55 years after her death.

The suffering she went through due to lack of information and medical alternatives, contributed to her career being harmed and she lacked empathy. While Laurence was described as “suffering”, she was described as “crazy”. Her psychological condition came to be used against her, both to diminish her talent (as in saying that Blanche required no artistic effort) when, in fact, her brilliant performances were even more meaningful and victorious in front of her painting.

In 1967, Vivien was rehearsing to premiere the play A Delicate Balance in London, when she apparently fell ill and fell into bed in her room at night when she was alone. The cause of death, cardiac arrest, would have been a consequence of tuberculosis that had afflicted her for years. One of the obituaries of the time described her as an actress “of considerable skill and courage”, rightly anticipating her face would never be forgotten. Apart from the “considerable” part, which was actually “giant”, the mention of courage was the most accurate. Talented, beautiful, and brave is perhaps the best way to describe the legend that was Vivien Leigh.



Both Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire are available on HBO Max. My favorite movie by the actress, Waterloo Bridge, is on Looke. I recommend!

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