November 5, 2016 marked what would have been the 103rd birthday of film icon Vivien Leigh. Best known for her Oscar-winning turn as the iron-willed Scarlett O’Hara, Leigh was a versatile actress whose career on the stage and screen spanned nearly thirty years. Her preference for theater acting led to her appearing in a surprisingly limited number of films, which in turn has caused her legacy amongst contemporary filmgoers to virtually begin and end with Gone with the Wind. While her performance as Scarlett is indeed one that would be the crowning achievement of any actor’s career, to limit her recognition to one role would be an injustice to both Leigh and her contribution to the performing arts. In honor of this truly stellar actress, this week I will be featuring three of Leigh’s most varied and accomplished film roles, which prove that she was an artist certainly worth giving a damn about.
That Hamilton Woman: Released in the midst of World War II, this historical epic is often noted for its reported status as a favorite film of both Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin; a status that was likely owed to Leigh’s captivating performance as the title heroine. The story follows the true tale of the meteoric rise and tragic fall of chorus girl, turned aristocrat, turned penniless prisoner Emma Hamilton. The story begins with an elderly, and now alcoholic, Emma reflecting upon her whirlwind life as she spends her final years in a debtor’s prison. The film then flashes back to her beginnings as a struggling actress before revealing the by turns cruel and fortunate fate that eventually led to her becoming Lady Emma Hamilton, one of England’s most well-known and sought after socialites. In these early scenes Leigh successfully charts Emma’s development from vivacious and naïve girl to cynical and resilient woman, playing both extremes with a nuance and aplomb that ensures her character develops with engaging realism. As the story continues, the film evolves from a straight-forward biography to a historical romance and political allegory as Emma meets and shares a tragic love with naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. The scenes following the pair’s hesitant courtship and eventual passionate affair contain a particular sparkle due to the sizzling chemistry between newlyweds Leigh and Lawrence Olivier, who appear to be falling in love before the viewers’ eyes. Similarly, Leigh portrays Emma’s conflict between her impossible love for the unhappily married Nelson and her loveless, but secure, marriage to Lord Hamilton with a depth that ensures viewers will empathize with her heroine’s plight, even as Emma breaks one moral and social code after another. When Emma is finally forced to give Nelson up for the good of her country as England confronts the threat of Napoleon, Leigh successfully captures the self-sacrifice driving her without resorting to the maudlin histrionics so often found in war-time propaganda films. It is her natural approach that provides the film’s conclusion with the crucial subtlety that successfully keeps the film grounded within its own historical context, while recalling the all too present threat that audiences were facing from Nazi Germany. Through her by turns triumphant and tragic performance as one of history’s most notorious women Vivien Leigh ensured that audiences would remember, That Hamilton Woman.
|Just how many tricks did you turn?!|
Waterloo Bridge: Adapted from a 1930 stage hit (which was first brought to the screen in 1931), this 1940 crowd pleaser puts the ‘tragic’ in tragic romance. The film chronicles the ill-fated love affair between an American soldier on leave in London and a British ballerina set against the backdrop of World War I. Leigh begins the film as a portrait of youthful idealism and portrays ambitious dancer Mayra with an effervescent charm that leaves little wonder as to why Robert Taylor’s Roy falls for her as quickly and passionately as he does. The chemistry between the two is nothing short of infectious and ensures that audiences will root for their whirlwind romance to succeed. Leigh is equally adept in her gritty portrayal of Mayra’s downward spiral after she first loses her job and later is misled into believing that Roy has been killed at the front. Her portrayal of Mayra’s determination to survive even in the face of devastating personal loss and degradation is nearly as inspiring as Scarlett O’Hara’s similar efforts to overcome war-time adversity, which in turn makes her ultimate plunge to rock bottom all the more heartbreaking. With one downcast glance of her despondent eyes as Mayra resorts to a life of prostitution Leigh captures the disillusionment and resignation of World War I’s ‘lost generation’. When Roy returns seeking to resume their relationship, Mayra is shaken to her core yet again as she struggles to grasp what may be her final chance at happiness, even as her past continues to haunt her. It is in this final section of the film that Leigh truly shines, as she merges both Mayra’s former vivaciousness and romantic idealism with her eventual world weariness and guilt as she attempts to resume her former life while continuing to struggle with the effects of life-altering trauma. While the film’s tragic conclusion may come as little surprise, Leigh’s devastating performance ensured that this reviewer remained completely transfixed until the final heartrending reel. For a journey into love’s joys and tragedies, join Vivien Leigh for a stroll along Waterloo Bridge.
A Streetcar Named Desire: While the first thing that comes to many a filmgoer’s mind at the mention of this film is Marlon Brando’s anguished cry of “Stella!”, the driving force behind this streetcar is Leigh’s performance as Stella’s tormented sister, Blanche. Fleeing scandal and poverty, displaced Blanche Dubois arrives in New Orleans for a temporary stay with her sister and her sister’s husband, Stanley. Still clinging to the genteel southern belle lifestyle of a bygone era, Blanche is mortified when she meets the cruel and vulgar Stanley and is expected to adapt to the volatile lifestyle that he and Stella enjoy. Leigh’s tortured performance is a fascinating glimpse into arrested development and the dark side of nostalgia as Blanche fervently struggles to hold onto the romantic ideals of her youth, even after those very misplaced notions have led her completely astray. Her wilting flower portrayal of Blanche is a perfect counterpoint to the sensuality and ‘live in the moment’ philosophy that define Stanley, and ensures that audiences will empathize with Blanche even after her sordid history is fully revealed. Similarly, her nuanced and subtle performance stands in brilliant contrast to Brando’s brash method acting and serves to highlight the ways in which Blanche’s struggles with one taboo social ill after another has forced her to lead a shadowed life. Even after the final reveal of her shocking behavior before reaching New Orleans, Leigh’s performance ensures that viewers won’t want to judge the tarnished belle too harshly. Interestingly, the role was in many ways art imitating life, as Leigh herself struggled with bipolar disorder and was known to engage in some of the same risky behaviors that Blanche misguidedly seeks salvation in. In this way, Leigh’s empathetic portrayal serves as both an artistic and social triumph as it not only brings a tormented character to vibrant life, but also provides viewers with insight into the all too real torments that those living with mental illness must face every day. For a tour of acting at its finest step onto A Streetcar Named Desire.