PRESENTING VIVIEN LEIGH
Vivien Leigh won Academy Awards for half her films. She made four films in America and was named best actress of the year for two of them. In both of those she played Americans, and playing Americans was something she did well. In both she played Southern belles. One, an historical hoyden, Civil War vintage, a character she made likeable because of her determination, her will to survive and, of course, her own extraordinary beauty. The other, a fading contemporary spinster of a delicate, exquisite beauty and a will to survive that costs her everything but her final illusion. Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire. In the latter she deftly achieves that final refinement of Southern speech, the belle exaggerating her accent for whatever her needs or purposes.
Despite the fact that David Selznick wished to “present” her as Scarlett O’Hara — and did in the credits — Vivien Leigh had made ten films in England before coming here to star in Gone with the Wind (eleven, counting a short called Guide Dogs for the Blind). After Gone with the Wind she would make only eight more films during twenty-six years distinguished by stage work and plagued by illness. There was mixed reception for her Anna Karenina, but she never gave a bad film performance. All were capable; most were at least excellent; and some were outstanding, especially Caesar and Cleopatra, in which she was perfectly cast, and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone in which her apparently perennial ravishing beauty was excelled only by the subtlety of her facial expression and body language.
In two roles — astonishingly recognized even by the Academy at the time — she gave two of the greatest perfomances in the history of film. Given the longevity of Gone with the Wind and her definitive Blanche in Streetcar, she can be decribed as the greatest of all film actresses. Even Miss Hard-to-Please admired her Blanche du Bois. Pauline Kael said it might be the greatest screen performance given by an actress.
Photograph of Vivien Leigh by Athol Shmith (wikimedia commons source: National Gallery of Victoria)