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Vivien Leigh: An Icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age

When Olivia DeHavilland was asked which images she would associate with Vivien Leigh, the Gone with the Wind co-star replied, “A Siamese cat, a tinkling bell, a delicate porcelain cup.”

The word legend is applied liberally these days but in the case of Vivien Leigh, legendary status genuinely applies. An incendiary talent possessing sleek feline looks and a nimble persona, Leigh remains one of the most fascinating actors of any generation. Her attitude, focus and determination are an inspiration to all, while her triumphs continue to be listed among the acting profession’s greatest moments.

Despite being praised for her delicate beauty, a malleable voice and an astonishing ability to dance at any moment, Leigh herself eschewed the very idea that the best thing about her was her appearance. “People think that if you look fairly reasonable, you can't possibly act, and as I only care about acting, I think beauty can be a great handicap,” she once commented.

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VIVIEN LEIGH AND CLARK GABLE IN GONE WITH THE WIND, 1939 © GETTY IMAGES

The first British actress to win a Best Actress Oscar, Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Hartley in Darjeeling, India, in 1913. Raised a strict Catholic, she came to England at six and boarded in a convent school. At 14, her father, an English broker, took her for a tour of Europe for four years where she studied in various European schools.

After her family settled in Devon, Vivien married a barrister, moved to Mayfair and had a daughter, but by the time she was 22, she’d become a hit on the London stage. Her role as a French prostitute in The Mask of Virtue had critics falling to their knees. They noted “a lightning change [that] came over her face” – the first mention of the rapid mood shifts that were to become her acting trademark. In the play, Leigh received, “One of the biggest personal ovations a newcomer has had on the London stage for quite a long time." Reporters appeared at her doorstep - and the play gained her a film contract with the famous Hollywood producer-director Alexander Korda.

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VIVIEN LEIGH PHOTOGRAPHED BY CECIL BEATON IN CAESER & CLEOPATRA, 1945
© THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S

Exceptionally devoted to her craft, Vivien Leigh had inadvertently been trained to act almost from birth. When still a child, her mother would put objects on a tray, let Leigh study them, and then clear the objects, asking Vivien to recreate their order. This helped give her an almost photographic memory. It would take Vivien only one or two readings to know the whole of a play.

Two years above her at school, Maureen O’Sullivan, who was to play Jane in the famous Tarzan series with Johnny Weissmuller, asked Vivien when she was seven what she wanted to be when she grew up. "I'm going to be an actress," Vivien replied with great assurance. In a career spanning over three decades, she got what she wanted too. Leigh performed major roles in Shakespeare’s work, from Ophelia to Viola to Lady Macbeth as well as starring in contemporary works by Wilder and Coward. Leigh won a coveted Tony for her Broadway performance in Tovarich in 1963. Her first love was the theatre, saying, “Shaw is like a train. One just speaks the words and sits in one's place. But Shakespeare is like bathing in the sea - one swims where one wants.”

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VIVIEN LEIGH AND MARLON BRANDO IN A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, 1951 © WARNER BROS.

But we must thank Hollywood for putting Leigh’s talents on worldwide display. While filming Fire Over England, she met and married Laurence Olivier, becoming the power couple of their time. She rocketed to global fame as Scarlett O’Hara in the fabled film Gone With The Wind, a role Leigh won over 1,400 other actresses including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard and Katharine Hepburn. Fiendishly disciplined, she reportedly worked 16 hours a day for 125 days to perfect herself as Scarlett, a character she understood but whom she claimed not to like. According to Cammie Conlon, who played Scarlett’s daughter Bonnie Blue Butler, Vivien worked herself ragged during the filming. “I have [candid photos] of her taken on set. She is exhausted… She was in every scene, almost.” Of the film’s ten Oscar nominations, Leigh won the Academy Award for Best Leading Performance by an Actress in 1939. Her role as the mercenary, indefatigable and irrepressible Scarlett remains one of the most indelible performances in cinematic history.

Her next triumph came in 1951, where she won another Oscar for her role opposite Marlon Brando. A Streetcar Named Desire was the role that outshone Leigh’s turn in Gone With The Wind, a twisted, mad, passionate performance that, to her fans, was the most intense ever captured on film. Leigh, a natural brunette, won her second Oscar donning a blonde wig to play Blanche DuBois, a woman like Scarlett who found her strength and weakness reflected in the opposite sex.

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VIVIEN LEIGH IN GONE WITH THE WIND © GETTY IMAGES

Vivien Leigh, who died at 53, led a life of legendary proportions. Her talent and verve for her profession continues to astound and thrill millions – and her name continues to conjure the utmost magic of the golden age of Hollywood.

Vivien: The Vivien Leigh Collection sells in London on 26 September. A preview exhibition is currently on display at Sotheby’s New Bond Street.

MAIN IMAGE: VIVIEN LEIGH PHOTOGRAPHED BY CECIL BEATON BACKSTAGE AT THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA, HAYMARKET THEATRE ONDON, 1942 © THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S

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