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Vivien Leigh (Star of the Month)
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Vivien Leigh Profile
* Films in Bold Type Will Air on TCM

Vivien Leigh was possibly the movies' most exquisitely beautiful star and certainly one of its most spirited actresses. At once delicate and commanding, her Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) stands as one of the screen's truly great performances, along with her other portrait of a Southern belle, the aging Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Each role brought Leigh a well-deserved Academy Award as Best Actress.

Born Vivian Mary Hartley to British parents in Darjeeling, India, on November 5, 1913, she received her early education at a convent school and later training at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Attracting attention from the start for her dark-haired, emerald-eyed beauty, she made her film debut as a "schoolgirl" in the English film Things Are Looking Up in 1935. During that same year she appeared on the London stage in The Green Sash and The Mask of Virtue, becoming an overnight sensation with her looks and poise in the latter play.

Leigh's other early English films included Fire Over England (1937), an Elizabethan adventure co-starring future husband Laurence Olivier, to whom she was married from 1940 to 1960. (An earlier marriage to Herbert Leigh Holman gave Vivien her professional last name and a daughter, Suzanne.) MGM's A Yank at Oxford (1938), filmed in England, cast Leigh in the small role of a minxish wife, with Robert Taylor and Maureen O'Sullivan in the star roles.

Visiting Olivier in Hollywood as he filmed his breakthrough role in Wuthering Heights (1939), Leigh tested for Scarlett and, to the consternation of many, won this highly coveted role. More than holding her own against Clark Gable's Rhett Butler and the many disasters that befall the heroine of this epic romance, she won over all her critics and emerged as a leading international star.

Leigh made only nine films after Gone with the Wind, a disappointing number for an actress whose major ambitions seemed to lie in the theater even though she was uniquely suited to films. She was reunited with Taylor in Waterloo Bridge (1940), a moving remake of the 1931 Pre-Code drama about a young woman who becomes a prostitute after believing her lover to have been killed in World War I. Looking gorgeous in period costumes, she played Lady Hamilton to Olivier's Lord Nelson in That Hamilton Woman (1941), which was often cited as Sir Winston Churchill's favorite film. She was a delightfully kittenish Cleopatra in a film version of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and brought tragic stature to the heroine of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1948).

After her triumph in A Streetcar Named Desire, which she also had performed onstage in England, Leigh played other aging, troubled beauties in The Deep Blue Sea (1955), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and Ship of Fools (1965). Her many stage roles over the years, often performed opposite her distinguished husband, ranged from Juliet to Lady Macbeth. She had particular successes with The Skin of Our Teeth on the London stage and Tovarich on Broadway, with the latter play bringing her a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical in 1963.

A bipolar disorder often meant that Leigh's personal life was as turbulent as that of one of her tragic heroines. She died of tuberculosis in 1967.

by Roger Fristoe

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