Serve to Lead makes much of the relationship between leadership and art. In the end, what is leadership, but performance art?
Effective leaders often possess notable acting skills. Great actors may offer leadership lessons through their development and application of their craft, their focus on serving audiences, and their entrepreneurial approach.
It is against this background that I read with interest the new book Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by film historian Kendra Bean. It’s manifestly a labor of love by a writer for her subject. The release coincides with the centenary of Leigh’s birth, and the 75th anniversary of the release of the film that is the hinge point of her life and work, Gone With The Wind.
The book is memorably well-designed and executed, Bean navigates the treacherous shoals of not letting one’s reactions to any part of Vivien Leigh’s sprawling, expansive persona, work, and life overwhelm one’s capacity to objectively evaluate the whole. The core of the book is, as it must be, the personal and professional partnership of Leigh with the love of her life, Sir Laurence Olivier.
Four aspects of Bean’s rendering strike this reader as noteworthy and filled with lessons:
—Leigh’s Strength and Resilience
—The Leigh-Olivier Partnership
—The Crack Up
—Leigh’s Celluloid Legacy
Leigh’s Strength and Resilience
It’s striking, from the remove of middle age, to recall that Leigh succeeded in her quest of the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara at the age of 26. Her performance garnered an Academy Award.
Appearances notwithstanding, it had not come easily. She had made her way to acting, through an emotionally challenging childhood and an unsatisfying, conventional first marriage.
Leigh’s delicate features were consistent with an emotional fragility that was evident long before mental illness asserted its cruel, destructive dominion.
As Bean relates, the noted critic Kenneth Tynan appeared to harbor some grievances if not malice toward Leigh. With that in mind, one recognizes the strength she summoned to challenge Tynan directly in this television interview hosted by Edward R. Murrow.
The Leigh-Olivier Partnership
As recounted by Bean, there was inevitability to the joining of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Their extraordinary gifts, their passion, their devotion to the theatre, found expression in a relationship that each regarded as the love of their lives.
Each left marriages, including young children, for the other. The abandonments were foreshadowed, yet no less ruthless for that.
Their passion was rampant. It electrified their performances. Elements of admiration and even a bit of competition annealed into a seemingly unbreakable tie. The overused words, larger-than-life, are apt in every sense.
Would Leigh or Olivier have accomplished as much without the support and spur of the other? It’s difficult to say.
There was another, malign force loose in their lives. It would strain and ultimately sunder their unique bond.
The Crack Up
If Leigh’s star lit the sky early, so, too, it was extinguished far too soon. Following a startling decline over a period of years, she died at 53.
Bean is unflinching in illuminating the tragedy of Leigh’s descent into mental illness—most likely a variant of bipolar depressive disorder. Nonetheless, readers searching for a surfeit of lurid detail can find it elsewhere. The essential elements, though, are all here.
Perhaps the most understanding and insightful summation is from actor Alec Guinness.
I never saw cruelty or coldness in Vivien—even her ambitions and her needs were dealt with charmingly and sweetly, insofar as my witness can bear. It was very sad. She appeared, at a very young age, to turn into a lovely stalk of chalk, and the chipping away had begun, and you were there to see the flaking off.
So many of us, I can attest, tried to do what we could, but there was—and is—nothing really to do. The destiny that gave her that extraordinary beauty and talent and that magic that surrounded her came, I hate to think, with some exorbitant debts, and those debts were collected early and bluntly and swiftly.
Olivier, by all accounts, was exceptionally dedicated to Leigh. Despite herculean efforts, he was ultimately impelled to make a clean break.
At the time of their divorce, he wrote, “My heart aches for her, but I cannot let my mind follow it.” Bean aptly summarizes the denouement with a quotation from late in Olivier’s life. He compared the disintegration of their marriage to the quandary posed by a drowning person grasping desperately for survival from a life raft: “I’m sorry, I can’t pull you out. If I pull you out, you’ll pull me in.”
Shortly before her untimely death, Leigh mused: “I’d rather have lived a short life with Larry, than face a long one without him.”
Years later, at eighty years of age, Olivier wiped away tears as he beheld her image and spirit returned to life in a film. He said, “This, this was love. This was the real thing.”
Leigh’s Celluloid Legacy
Vivien Leigh’s screen output was relatively small. Nonetheless, her performances included several memorable, historic roles: Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
In these and other performances, Leigh’s evocation of character was achingly compelling. Her life and work appeared to converge. There was a progression in the two iconic roles, one for a younger actress, the later for an older actress, parallel with Leigh’s own trajectory.
Was Vivien Leigh a great actress? That has been, and remains, in some dispute. Yet no one can doubt the greatness of those two performances. Olivier would have added, at the least, a third, her portrayal of Lady Macbeth.
Laurence Olivier was one of the great actors of the age. Could it be that Leigh’s greatest performances will speak to the future with equal force—or even greater force—than his most celebrated work?
Kendra Bean | Vivien Leigh Intimate Portrait