VIVIEN: A Life of Vivien Leigh by Alexander Walker

VIVIEN: A Life of Vivien Leigh

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Since the publication of Anne Edwards' Vivien Leigh (1977), which discussed Leigh's manic-depressive illness in rather vague terms, many specifics have been brought to light--in memoirs by Laurence Olivier, Stewart Granger, and others. Also, Walker has fresh interview material from friends and relatives (including Leigh's daughter Suzanne). So, though hardly more insightful than the Edwards book, this new biography does offer a more detailed version--along with its own problems of imbalance and spottiness. Born in India, child of a hedonistic father and a severe mother, young, headstrong Vivien is followed through English convent school to early marriage and motherhood. Uninterested in domesticity, however, the green-eyed beauty rather ruthlessly pursued her acting career in London theater and British films. (Walker considers an alleged affair with A. Korda ""improbable."") By the late 1930's she had two burning ambitions: to marry Olivier and play Scarlett O'Hara in GWTW; she achieved both, of course--with major assistance (on the latter) from agent Myron Selznick. But in the 1940's Olivier's primary passion went to his career; Vivien's mental disease--involving hysteria, quasi-nymphomania, tantrums--emerged, leading to infidelities (Peter Finch above all), Olivier's exasperation, and (when he fell in love with Joan Plowright) divorce. And Vivien's final years, before dying of TB in 1967, included a consoling love-affair with actor Jack Merivale, a few film roles, the ""humiliation and terror"" of the B'way musical Tovarich, and continued battles--with shock therapy--against her recurring illness. Walker (Garbo, Joan Crawford) is solid on Leigh's stage-work, illuminating on some of her early films, but surprisingly humdrum on GWTW. The discussion of Leigh's psychological problems is superficial and often unconvincing. Disproportionate attention seems to be lavished on willing sources (agent John Gliddon, Jack Merivale)--while Olivier, who did not assist Walker, is treated with faint snideness throughout. Still, this is a somewhat classier, and definitely fuller, account than Edwards' gossipy shocker--and solid, depressing reading for any Leigh fans who haven't already heard the sad story behind the glamorous, exquisite presence.

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 1987
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson