Discovering the Films of Vivien Leigh

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On what would have been her 99th birthday, today, I present the third in my series of Discovery posts: the films of Vivien Leigh.

MGM Studio Portrait (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

The Discovery: As I mentioned in my post on Olivia de Havilland, I am a big fan of Gone with the Wind.  And furthermore, Scarlett O’Hara is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters.  Funnily enough, however, Vivien Leigh was the last of the principle cast members of Gone with the Wind whom I saw in another role.  Perhaps this is because, in my mind, she so perfectly embodied Scarlett that I didn’t want to associate any other characters with her.  But, of course, I realized this folly and set about to discover more of Leigh’s films.  Along the way, I learned at her all-too-few film performances are each a special gem.

Thoughts on the Body of Work: Since this is Vivien Leigh we’re talking about, let’s start with the films that everyone knows her from: Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.  She plays a southern belle in both, but that’s about as close a comparison as you can make, since Scarlett is a fiercely independent survivor, whereas Blanche constantly puts herself in the role of the victim.  When Scarlett vows that she’ll “never be hungry again” and when Blanche notes that she’s “always depended on the kindness of strangers,” you believe them.  That Leigh could play both so perfectly is a testament to her magnificent range.

Before Gone with the Wind, Leigh had made a handful of films in England.  The ones I’ve seen are a mixed bag.  There’s a swashbuckler (Fire Over England), an espionage drama (Dark Journey), and something resembling a crime drama (21 Days Together, actually released in 1940).  What’s lovely about some of these early films (A Yank at Oxford, Sidewalks of London/St. Martin’s Lane) is that the stories are lighter than her later work and it actually looks like Leigh is having a bit of fun with the roles.

Still from the Waterloo Bridge trailer (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

In between Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, Leigh made a handful of wholly different films (Waterloo Bridge, That Hamilton Woman/Lady Hamilton, Caesar and Cleopatra, Anna Karenina).  Though they are each noteworthy (I don’t seem to dislike her Anna Karenina as much as some others), Waterloo Bridge is easily the best of them – and Leigh apparently considered her role as Myra her personal favorite.

As heartbreaking as all those films are, Leigh’s last two films (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Ship of Fools) are even more so.  In both, she plays aging beauties.  The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone was her last starring role, and she plays against a very young (and slightly miscast) Warren Beatty.  Though Ship of Fools is an ensemble drama and Leigh receives limited screen time, she makes quite an impact.  Watch for her mirror monologue scene, which is one of the finest pieces of screen acting I’ve ever seen.

After Gone with the Wind, Leigh probably could have played any role she wanted, but she chose to focus on theater – and this makes each of her films incredibly precious.  I learned through my discovery that Leigh tended to choose to play tragic characters, meaning that her films were usually heartbreaking and heavy in subject matter.  It does, however, make them all the more powerful – and all the more wonderful as well.

The Cream of the Crop:

  1. Gone with the Wind:This goes without saying, since Gone with the Wind is pretty much my favorite movie.
  2. A Streetcar Named Desire: Everyone talks about Brando, but Leigh is equally good is this captivating tale.
  3. Waterloo Bridge:I feel as though I’ve used the word heartbreaking one too many times in this post, but there’s really no other way to describe this movie.
  4. Ship of Fools: Leigh bows out of films with this powerful performance.

Other Favorites

  1. That Hamilton Woman/Lady Hamilton: The finest of the three films Leigh and her husband of twenty years, Laurence Olivier, made together.
  2. Sidewalks of London/St. Martin’s Place: A fun little movie in which Leigh gets to dance and speak with a Cockney accent.
  3. Dark Journey: Leigh’s first starring role.
  4. The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone:A somewhat problematic film that still merits a viewing due to Leigh’s heartbreaking performance.

Will I continue the discovery? Only thirteen films in, and I can’t believe I’m so close to finishing Leigh’s filmography.  In fact, there’s only one post­-GWTW film of hers I haven’t seen: The Deep Blue Sea.  I fully intend to complete Leigh’s filmography – and track down that ITV play of hers if I can find it.  She’s just too good not to.

Which of Vivien Leigh’s films and performances do you enjoy the most?

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7 thoughts on “Discovering the Films of Vivien Leigh

    • Very true. I almost felt as though I were skirting around her issues while writing this post because I didn’t want to emphasize them, but they certainly had a profound impact on her career. Thanks for reading!

  1. Vivien Leigh is a favorite of mine. Gone with the Wind, Streetcar and Waterloo Bridge are definitely my favorites. I also love her performance in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, though it isn’t one of my top films from her. I find myself loving her performances even in films I don’t care for. I always enjoy these “discovery” posts!

    • It almost felt too stereotypical for me to list GWTW, Streetcar, and Waterloo Bridge as my top three for her, but they really are her best films and best performances. It’s so remarkable that with only 20 films, she had three powerhouse performances like that. I was able to rewatch the end of Roman Spring when it was on TCM today, and you’re right: she’s amazing even in her so-so films.

  2. I completely agree with your choices for Leigh’s Cream of the Crop movies. As for “A Streetcar Named Desire” I have always felt that Leigh’s performance was the best in the film, although every actor is outstanding. Great post – very interesting read.

  3. Pingback: From the Film Back to the Book: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone | Many Media Musings

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