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Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh

Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh

4.5 13
by Alexander Walker

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“My birth sign is Scorpio and they eat themselves up and burn themselves out. I swing between happiness and misery. I am part prude and part non-conformist. I say what I think and I don’t pretend and I am prepared to accept the consequences of my actions.”—Vivien Leigh

When Vivien Leigh died in 1967, headlines around the world proclaimed,


“My birth sign is Scorpio and they eat themselves up and burn themselves out. I swing between happiness and misery. I am part prude and part non-conformist. I say what I think and I don’t pretend and I am prepared to accept the consequences of my actions.”—Vivien Leigh

When Vivien Leigh died in 1967, headlines around the world proclaimed, “Scarlett O’Hara is Dead!” Perhaps more than any of her contemporaries, Vivien Leigh became the very embodiment of the roles she made famous, from Gone With the Wind’s immortal heroine to her harrowing portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Vivien’s beauty, determination, and enormous charisma were her triumph, whether it was a matter of charming George Bernard Shaw in order to become his personal choice for the part of Scarlett—or winning the then-married Laurence Olivier as her husband. Her twenty-years’ partnership with Olivier, both onstage and off, made them the “royal couple” of the theater, and garnered unparalleled critical and popular acclaim.

But the achievement had its darker side, for Vivien became so immersed in her roles that she began to take on their characteristics in real life—often at enormous cost: playing Blanche DuBois actually “tipped her into madness”; and while filming Ship of Fools, she found herself hammering co-star Lee Marvin’s face with very real—and painful—blows of her spiked heel. The public glamour of her fairy tale marriage to Olivier—so desperately important to them both—hid a private nightmare of violence and frequent infidelity. She was consumed by devastating battles against tuberculosis, to which she finally succumbed, and manic-depression, which she sought to keep at bay through a voracious sexual appetite, having affair after affair—sometimes serious, as with Peter Finch, sometimes with whichever taxi driver happened to bring her home.

Based on previously unpublished interviews with her friends, family, and colleagues, as well as with Vivien Leigh herself, Vivien is an extraordinary picture of a unique and complex woman, as willful as she was beautiful, who knew what she wanted—whether the coveted role of Scarlett or that, equally coveted, of Lady Olivier—and got it. With its telling anecdotes, fascinating insights, and unforgettable glimpses into Hollywood’s heyday, it is sure to stand as the definitive portrait of one of the most talented and tormented actresses of all time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Leigh, the actress who embodied roles she made famousScarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desireis presented from many perspectives in this rendering by London film critic Walker. With access to unpublished materials and conversations with family members and professional colleagues, he arranges a composite of a willful, talented and, finally, self-destructive woman. At age six, Leigh was sent from her home in India to convent school in England, where she remained. Extraordinary looks and an agreeable husband who remained her friend throughout her later turbulent marriages, were ingredients in her theatrical success. It was as the wife of Sir Laurence Olivier, however, that she triumphed. The 15 years of their tempestuous union are empathetically treated by Walker, as are her final yearsshe died in 1967of struggle with manic-depression. Walker offers a measured appraisal of a haunted woman. Photos not seen by PW. (September 30)
Library Journal
Leigh retains her hold over the imagination as Scarlett O'Hara, as a great screen beauty, and as a notable actor. This biography is a serious assessment, which reads well, with a novelist's sense of telling scene and strong dialogue. Through new source material, it argues a coherent view of this troubled actor, showing her fated to self-destruction from her early impulsiveness, through her physical illnesses, to her later manic-depressive episodes. The lavishness, the emotional recklessness, and the artistic competitiveness are clearly delineated. But she was a tragic figure, playing out her own doom. The book is apparently well researched, but lacks the textual documentation needed for a serious work. For popular collections. Thomas E. Luddy, English Dept., Salem State Coll., Mass .

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Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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6.14(w) x 9.18(h) x 1.05(d)

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Vivien; The Life of Vivien Leigh 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You would never assume that a London film critic could have such admiration for a famed 1930's actress but Alexander Walkers portrayal of Vivien Leigh is a passionate exploration of how Hollywood could turn a darling into a self-destructive woman. Walker uses personal interviews from family members and professional colleagues to have a realistic view of what turned theatrical success Vivien into a struggling woman with manic-depression, nothing that 1940's publicity could report of her or should I say hide of her. The book is a detailed assessment that charts the beginning of her life growing up in a strict uniform school in England that lead to her long run of success as a screen beauty which in turn lead to a 15 year struggle of physical illness that finally caught up to her in 1967 at the age of 53. The major message of the book is that through travesty and obstacles in life it is important to have self-control, otherwise your inner demons will drown your sanity and you no longer have soundness of mind. I very much enjoyed how Walker focused on some of Vivien's films while mentioning what was going on during her life balancing her on-screen roles and her personal world to show why her performances were either fantastic or peculiar. A dislike of the book is that during her horrid divorce to Lawrence Olivier it mentions various quotes from his autobiography an he was not the kindest divorcey and it felt as though he was painting the same 'insane' portrait of Vivien as the press and not focusing on her extreme talent. You do not need to be a fan of Vivien Leigh to enjoy this book, I know that all I had ever seen of her was Gone with the Wind, but I would highly recommend this book to anyone that is just like Vivien in the way that they do not conform to societies expectations and rather rebel to leave a lasting impression. If you do happen to read Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh I would also be bold to recommend "Frankly my Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited" by Molly Haskell which gives the in depth and behind the scenes look at the creation of Oscar winning Gone with the Wind and the controversy between the characters, actors and creating the overall film which considerably made Vivien Leigh a household name.
Guest More than 1 year ago
BUY THIS BOOK! when i started reading this book, i knew little else about vivien leigh other than she played scarlett to perfection and only she could have played that character. walker's style of narrative suits her life events perfectly.. he starts by zooming in to give a glimpse of a moment when trouble was just starting to surface in her marriage with Larry Olivier, then zooms out and starts about her life from the beginning in India and connects the dots along the way. His insight into her personality - her ambition, drive, charm and self assurance, is gripping and made me feel like I knew Vivien and how she would have felt at xyz points in her life. He seems to get a bit foggy occasionally, when writing about her manic-depressive disorder, but its clear that he put his heart into the book and it shows. Read this book for a detailed account of her independent streak as a child, determination to become an actress, her marriages, her ambittion to play Scarlett o Hara and her understanding of Blanche DuBois, and her relationship with Jack. Though he never puts her on a pedastal or try to hide her flaws, its clear that hes thoroughly fascinated by and in love his subject. One comes off with a strong understand of this passionate, endearing, inspiring and ultimately tragic story of the life of one of the greatest actresses who ever lived.
kiki327NV More than 1 year ago
I've read another book on Vivien Leigh but this one is better... Not finished yet though... She was a Wonderful, Intricate, Beautiful, Fascinating and Very Talented woman!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
She had a most amazing performance in the spectacular 'Gone with the Wind' and this biography is an exciting story that elaborates on the life of the beautiful actress. I am a huge 'GWTW' fan and was eager to read about my favorite actress. I could not put this book down!! Buy it, read it and pass it along! It's a great book and the photos illustrate her story beautifully.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is not just a biography of an actress. It's an objective portrait of a very intelligent woman, who struggles with life and all the success she kept creating for her self. Author really loves and understands his heroine that is why we trust him in his judgment of her. He is very successful in letting us feel what she felt as well as how other people felt about her. This is a good literature, that's why a reader does not have to be the Vivien's or movie fan to enjoy it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Vivien has to be the best biography I have ever read. With it's graphic details it clearly explains Vivien Leigh's life with all it's up's and down's and the author makes you feel like she's your best friend. If your a Vivien Leigh fan like me then you really need to read this!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is THE definitive Vivien Leigh book and is a great read for any Leigh fan, it gives great insight into the life and mind of one of the greatest actresses of all time. I enjoyed it very much. The way it was written gave me a sense of getting to know her personally.