Vivien Leigh
Career: 1949-1954

Vivien Leigh in a big green dress.


Antigone on stage

Always looking to grow as an actress, around 1948 Vivien started asking Olivier to make Old Vic introduce Sophocles' Antigone, so she could play the main part. It was a challenging role, and especially for her because up until that point she had not played a tragic role before.

Laurence was happy to see her enthusiasm and was very curious how well she will perform too. On top of that, Antigone seemed like a great cultural addition to the Old Vic repertoire, so he agreed and soon began preparations.

Vivien worked extremely hard towards making a great performance and took everyone by surprise.

The fact that she was a Hollywood star automatically meant for many that she's probably not an actress of highest caliber. Because she was very pretty, it was even easier to pigeonhole her.

Miss Olivier brought enormous depth to the table and made a positive lasting impression even on critics who knew how ambitious and talented she is. The play marked a new high point in her professional career.

Because it was theatre, it didn't necessarily contribute to her popularity nor bank account balance, but as an actress Viv certainly reached a new level at that point.

A Streetcar Named Desire

The moment Vivien first set her eyes on A Streetcar Named Desire, she knew she absolutely MUST play in it! For the first time since Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, she fell such an enormous pull to a character.

During the Australian tour, she had the play's script with her and whenever she had free time, even if it was just a moment, she would space out with her nose deep in it.

The play's author Tennessee Williams was almost as enthusiastic about Leigh playing in his latest creation as she was, but he didn't want to make any rushed decisions and went three times to witness her live in Antigone.

Ironically, he caught her in some of her weaker performances and the actress didn't make as strong impressions on him as much as she did on most. What's more, the overall style of adaptation of Sophocles' classic he did not like at all.

Despite all that, she still seemed like someone who would fit perfectly and after those three performances was even more confident that hiring her is the right decision.

Original The Streetcar Named Desire was produced by David O. Selznick's wife Irene Mayer and had Jessica Tandy playing the main part. Its huge success convinced Williams to put together its second incarnation.

I tried in Streetcar to let people see what Blanche was like when she was in love with her young husband when she was seventeen or eighteen. That was awfully important, because . . . you should have been able to see what she was like, and how this gradually had happened to her . . . you have to evoke this whole creature when she was young and when she was tender and trusting, as opposed to what she had become—cynical and hard, mad, and distressed and distraught.
Vivien Leigh

In 1949, under the direction of her husband, she started playing Blanche on Broadway. Williams did not like working with Olivier one bit.

Even more so was Irene Selznick, who had had much to say about the shape of the play's first incarnation and was now cut off by Laurence, who wasn't willing to make even the slightest of compromises her way.

The end result was not pretty. Reviews were mostly negative and people didn't like it either. The big problem was that it was darker, grittier and more depressing. Behind all this was substance, but first impression was that the play is primitive and vulgar. And it was a strong impression.

Not all was gloomy though. Most people agreed that Vivien Leigh was giving wonderful performances. As much as people complained, they were still buying tickets - the second incarnation was performed 326 times.

Soon, Warner Bros bought rights for the big screen adaptation and Leigh, given that she was both theatre and Hollywood actress, was pointed out as a no-brainer choice to sign contract with as soon as possible.

The job was even simpler for the casting panel: they came out with the idea of just taking as many actors as they could from the better first incarnation of the play.

This sort of put Vivien on the outskirts - everyone knew each other, as they had performed so many times together. The only stranger in the team was there right in the middle. Vivien could make friends even it she'd be sleepwalking though, so she quickly became part of the clique.

More problematic for her was the director Elia Kazan. Both personally and at work they didn't get along well. They were both professionals though, so any dissatisfaction with each other would be very hard to spot on set.

The film adaptation had its critics, but the general reaction was very positive. So positive, in fact, that Leigh got an Oscar for her performance, and so did Karl Malden, Kim Hunter (both for supporting roles), Richard Day and George James Hopkins (both for art direction).

Caesar and Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra

In 1951, Roger Furse came up with an interesting idea. Wouldn't it be nice to perform two plays: Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra, and perform them simultaneously in one theatre?

Laurence Olivier certainly thought so, because soon his Laurence Olivier Productions began organizing just that in St. James Theatre, which had recently been bought by him.

To make things more interesting, Vivien Leigh decided to play Cleopatra in both. Even though she had mostly negative memories related to the big screen version of Caesar and Cleopatra in which she played the main part, she was still interested.

An extra incentive for her was that this is going to be a real challenge and a test of character. Those two stories are 20 years apart from each other, which means that in one she will play a young Cleopatra and in the other much older one.

This of course requires a very intense effort to not let a character an actor develops slip by accident into the performance of another, to make a clear distinction between these two people but still link them into one and to make this distinction realistic and interesting for people who decide to see both Cleopatras.

An even bigger challenge awaited Olivier, who both played AND directed.

The plays were received warmly by the audience, but not so much by the critics. After giving performances at St. James Theatre, the whole gang went to the United States for a tournee and there both critics and the audience were very enthusiastic about the plays.

Elephant Walk

Dana Andrews, Viv and Peter Finch

In 1953, producer Irving Asher approached Laurence Olivier with an offer to give both him and his wife main roles in the upcoming movie Elephant Walk. Olivier informed him that his calendar is filled with work for an entire year, but perhaps his wife will be interested anyway.

Asher was happy with just Viv playing and she was interested, but mostly due to financial reasons. The script she did not find that charming.

The money she and Laurence needed badly, because he had been investing heavily to make the most out of his theatre career, and usually he broke even at best.

Unfortunately for Vivien, this forced participation proved to be the biggest fiasco in her entire career.

On paper, traveling to Ceylon to shoot scenes in open air could work wonders for the actress, as those are beautiful sceneries that could serve as the reminder of Viv's spoiled careless pre-convent childhood. Her reaction was the opposite.

Every day of filming, she acted more and more unpredictable and obsessive. During the flight back it got so bad that she wanted to tear off her clothes and jump off the plain. After quick consultations, the decision came to try and give the actress another shot and hope for the best.

They quickly started to regret this decision after Viv's another mental breakdown shortly before the beginning of shooting in the studio. As a result, she was put to another airplane, this time to London and with a help of a powerful dose of tranquilizers.

There, she got submitted to a three-week psychiatric treatment in Netherne Hospital.