Oct 30, 2013

Book Review--Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait
Kendra Bean
Running Press, 2013

Scarlett O'Hara is the kind of role that could both make and destroy a career. The risk is multiplied when an actress is as perfectly cast as Vivien Leigh was. If becoming an Oscar winner being an English Southern rose was her only claim to fame, she would still have been legendary. What's remarkable is that she went on to do so much more, achieving numerous triumphs on the stage and screen, acquiring another Academy Award for A Streetcar Called Desire (1951) and even winning a Tony in 1963 at age fifty for performing in the musical Tovarich.

Living an ordinary existence was never an option for Ms. Leigh. She knew that early on, as a young wife and mother who left behind placid domesticity to fully embrace her passion for the stage. Without her jaw dropping beauty, she might not have gotten far. Her thin voice was not made for reaching theater audiences and clearly she needed to work hard to develop her craft. And yet, she had an intensity and charisma that was meant to be admired.

Leigh used these raw materials, and a determination that always bordered on obsession, to become one of the most celebrated and adored actresses of both stage and screen. She overcame her limitations to make a significant mark in theater, but she was built for film. No worries about a voice carrying there, and audiences could catch every delicious emotion rippling across that delicately beautiful, but somehow not really delicate face.

At her side for over two decades was Laurence Olivier, a man for whom she had either great reverence or a pathological obsession, depending on who you asked. She put him on a pedestal, allowing him to mold her in the hopes she could absorb some of his greatness, though she knew she was not born with his genius. Before and over the course of their marriage they were lovers and partners, focused on their work both together and apart, but always in great need of each other.

Kendra Bean draws on documents from the newly-available Laurence Olivier Archives to fill out the contours of these elements in Leigh's life. There aren't any shocking revelations, but more than in any previous biographies of the star you get a sense of the intense drive that propelled her towards both greatness and despair.

With Intimate Portrait, I got a better feel for how Leigh's manic depression affected her life and loved ones. Though I knew her disease had been a factor in breaking up her marriage to Olivier, I'd never fully understood how devastating it had been for him to watch his beloved wife suffer. His love for her never died; he simply had to save himself from being destroyed by her madness.

Through sheer determination, Leigh held back her illness so that she could continue her work, following each episode of mania with apologies to her friends. She could be in the midst of an episode, shaking from the intensity of it off camera, pull herself together for a scene, and then return to the sidelines, once again in agony.

Leigh's good manners, style and professionalism endeared her to friends, co-workers and an adoring public. The enduring halo of Scarlett cemented that goodwill, and had she not succumbed to tuberculosis at age 53, it is likely that she would have kept her prestige. She was not one to fade away into obscurity.

Bean is a compassionate biographer, and she has constructed a loving, balanced portrait of the actress. She acknowledges that Leigh was not always an angel, sharing Streetcar co-star Karl Malden's story of how the actress snubbed his wife at a social event and tales of her infidelities with other actors. Explored here in detail are the complexities of a woman who essentially abandoned her baby daughter, while she eventually became a maternal figure to Olivier's son Tarquin, from whose mother she stole his father. There are two dark Viviens at play here: one who sins because of a manic episode and another who rebels against convention to pursue her passions.

Though Intimate Portrait could stand on its text alone, the photos that Bean has found, many of them previously unpublished, are striking and sometimes astonishingly revealing. From public appearances, to cozy private picnics, these images reveal a glamorous and yet down-to-earth woman with an intoxicating verve for life. The overall book design is beautiful as well, sensual almost, with rare attention to details including color, endplate design and organization. It is an elegant presentation worthy of its subject.

Many thanks to Running Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Images from Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia


  1. Great review, KC. I can't wait to read this one.

  2. Thanks Tom. You may have noticed I've reviewed a lot of books this year? This one is in the top five. You're going to love it.