Friday, November 05, 2010

In Memoriam: Vivien Leigh

For all that actors decry being type-cast, there may be something to it; in Vivien Leigh's case, it gave her a deep well from which to draw... Whether playing Ophelia in Hamlet on the West End stage or Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) - which was neither her first role nor even her first notable role but nonetheless the one that made her a star - Vivien Leigh's chillingly honest portrayal of moody women made her so much more than just a pretty face, which otherwise might have been her fate.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketEven when cast against type - as, say, a prostitute in Waterloo Bridge (1940), or a higher class of prostitute now called a socialite, Emma Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman (1941) - she brought hidden depths to these roles that the general public could scarcely fathom. Those who worked with her, though... They knew. They knew that she could be happy and smiling one moment and then turn on a dime into a shrieking harpy. Temperament, they called it in those days; today we call it bipolar disorder.

Even though manic-depression occasionally affected her career, she continued to act through the Fifties and Sixties, in such classic films as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and the oft-overlooked classic Ship of Fools (1965); in all three (but as Blanche DuBois in Streetcar especially) she brought equal parts fury and frailty to her portrayals which make them simultaneously difficult to watch and impossible to ignore.

In another time, our own for instance, she could have served as a great role model for people who are similarly afflicted; her second husband, Laurence Olivier, gave her credit for how hard she struggled to control and conceal her condition. As it was, the stigma attached to mental illness would have surely ended her career before it had begun, had she not had the good fortune to be born one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. The standard wisdom is that her looks hampered her career, while it is my opinion that they allowed her any career she did have at all, possibly even sparing her a lobotomy and life in an institution.

Born on this day in 1913, Leigh died of tuberculosis in July 1967, aged only 53.

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