Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond (Turner Pictures, 1990)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond was one of the vest-pocket (47 minutes, designed for an hour-long time slot less commercials) Turner Pictures produced when the TNT channel was still their flagship movie channel (and showed some of the same obscurities TCM would specialize in later — I remember recording the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon from TNT, editing out the commercials and using that as my reference for the film until the recent DVD reissue of the 1941 Maltese Falcon, which included the two earlier versions as bonuses) and a pretty good short biography that could have been even better if it had been longer. It begins with her birth in India to British civil servants, her years in boarding school in Britain from the time her parents sent her there at age 6 until they relocated to the mother country themselves when Vivien was 15, her decision to make the stage her career and her sweeping success in Britain in 1935 at age 19 in a play called The Mask of Virtue.

By then she had been engaged to a German student (her parents broke it up) and then married a doctor 13 years her senior, Leigh Holman — she took her stage name from her husband’s first name (she was born Vivian — note the normal spelling — Hartley) — and she went on to intriguing roles in British movies and an infatuation with Laurence Olivier that began with her seeing him on stage even before they worked together for the first time in the 1938 film Fire Over England. Leigh is supposed to have told a friend of hers that someday she would marry Olivier; her friend pointed out that both she and Olivier were already married to other people; yet Leigh insisted, “Nonetheless, someday I’m going to marry Laurence Olivier.” (It does sound like Scarlett O’Hara insisting that she’s going to marry Ashley Wilkes.) The show moves quickly to her casting in Gone With the Wind — for once a much-ballyhooed contest to cast a part came out with a genuine unknown: though she’d been in a supporting role in A Yank at Oxford with Robert Taylor made at MGM’s short-lived British branch, virtually no one outside the British Commonwealth had ever heard of her (and when David O. Selznick did his famous poll on who should play the leads in Gone With the Wind Leigh had received exactly one vote — from a fan in New Zealand).

The film then zips us through the highlights and lowlights of Leigh’s career and life — the failure of the stage production of Romeo and Juliet she did with Olivier just after Gone With the Wind (which cost them all the money they’d made in Hollywood, she on Gone With the Wind and he on Wuthering Heights); the triumphant success of her follow-up film to Wind, Waterloo Bridge (which seemed to be yet another Hollywood sacrifice to the Great God Xerox; the obvious thought behind the production was, “You liked Vivien Leigh in a doomed love story set against the backdrop of a major war? Well, here she is in another doomed love story set against the backdrop of a major war” — and they even wanted Clark Gable for the male lead, but Leigh had disliked him so much during Gone With the Wind, especially for getting George Cukor fired as director and his drinking buddy Victor Fleming hired instead, that she refused to work with him again), which according to the narration (by Jessica Lange, whose main commonality with Leigh was that they both played Blanche DuBois in productions of A Streetcar Named Desire) was her favorite of her films; then the ups and downs as her chronic tuberculosis put a damper on her energy and her growing mental illness (she seems to have been bipolar) detached her further from reality and drove a wedge between her and Olivier. The story is deeper and richer than the version that got told here — though one reason she made only 19 films (and only eight following Gone With the Wind) was that, like a lot of British actors, she regarded the stage as her true calling and films as something to do merely to pass the time between plays.

The show mentioned her triumph as Blanche DuBois in the film version of Streetcar, which won her her second Academy Award, without noting that she’d previously played the role on stage in London under Olivier’s direction and, according to his later interviews with biographer Donald Spoto, she had drawn on so much of her own mental illness for the part she never fully recovered. It also didn’t mention her miserable experience on the set of Elephant Walk in 1954, when she went back to India, drifted into an affair with co-star Peter Finch and ultimately had a nervous breakdown so severe she was unable to finish the film (Elizabeth Taylor, not exactly a paragon of stability herself, replaced her) — or the hissy-fit that finally ended her marriage to Olivier over the film The Prince and the Showgirl.

This movie was based on Terence Rattigan’s play The Sleeping Prince, which Olivier and Leigh had done on stage, but the film rights were bought by Marilyn Monroe for the company she co-owned with photographer Milton Greene and they hired Olivier to direct and play the male lead. (The result was a movie in which the showgirl totally out-acted the prince: Monroe, ravishingly and sensually photographed by Jack Cardiff in a much subtler color scheme than she was used to at home, turned in an exquisite and multi-faceted performance while Olivier just played it as schtick.) On the set, Olivier watched as Monroe systematically humiliated her husband, Arthur Miller, treating one of America’s greatest playwrights as her go-fer, and he determined to leave Leigh before she could do the same thing to him. (It probably also didn’t help that the plans of Olivier and Leigh to film Shakespeare’s Macbeth together fell through when Alexander Korda died and they weren’t able to find another producer willing to back them.) Ironically, it was Leigh who put Olivier in touch with modernist playwright John Osborne, who cast him as a down-and-out music-hall performer in The Entertainer — Leigh wanted to be in the play but she was too glamorous to play Olivier’s wife and too old to be his daughter, and eventually the actress who did play his daughter, Joan Plowright, became the third Mrs. Laurence Olivier.

The show had little to say about the post-Olivier Leigh except via an interview with Stanley Kramer, who directed Leigh’s last film, Ship of Fools (as I wrote about that movie earlier, it aspired to greatness and achieved goodness — it aspired to great and powerful enduring statements about the human condition and achieved quality entertainment without any particular depth — but at least it allowed Leigh to make her exit in a film of quality rather than a cheap, disgusting horror movie), which was also represented by an intriguing clip in which Leigh’s character pinches her own cheeks to make them glow red just before she goes out — a trick she’d learned during her research to play Scarlett O’Hara. It also showed clips of her appearing in Atlanta for the 1961 reissue of Gone With the Wind — a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War — and noted the irony that her film legacy is scanty but still looms large in cultural history: after all, she was the female lead in a movie that’s at least one of the leading contenders for the “greatest film of all time” title.