The London audience that jammed the theatre to see Vivien Leigh enact the role of Blanche in the sizzling play version of A Streetcar Named Desire will never forget her starkly realistic portrayal of a sex-ridden woman.
Playgoers sat silently in rapt attention as she went through the uninhibited sexual gyrations of a nymphomaniac.
“Miss Leigh’s lust,” wrote one critic, “rolls off the stage like a tropical storm cloud, causing vague stirrings in old codgers far past their prime.”
But it was the closing minutes of the play that would later be regarded with such deep significance– when the sex-mad heroine, unable to satisfy her craving for more and more lascivious adventures, suffers a complete mental breakdown. Vivien Leigh’s real-life breakdown, years later, seems to parallel her Streetcar role in more ways than one.
On the London stage as Blanche Dubois
Even at the height of her success in this play, close friends of the actress were already noting how fervently she was throwing herself into the part. In gesture, in voice, in other ways, Vivien was even acting out the role of a tormented woman off the stage.
That Vivien Leigh was leading a strange double life first came to public notice a few months ago, when it was learned that the actress had made a trip to Paris in the company of playwright Terence Rattigan.
But Vivien’s Parisian adventure was not the only incident that has kept London’s West End tattlers gossiping about the actress’ dual personality.
Actually, it all began when she landed a part in a new play co-starring with one of England’s most rapidly rising young stars, Laurence Olivier.
Although Vivien was already married and the mother of a beautiful little girl, she was unable to resist the attentions of Olivier. During the successful run of the play, Fire Over London [Fire Over England], the most torrid love scenes undoubtedly took place backstage.
Friends of Vivien, aware of what was going on, were worried about her. They already knew that for her, love was an all-embracing and overpowering emotion. If sufficiently aroused, she could kick over the traces of her past life.
She did. She divorced her husband, bade her daughter a tearful farewell, and ended the first act of her real-life drama by throwing herself into Olivier’s eager arms.
For a while, all was serene. Olivier rapidly became England’s greatest actor, culminating in his remarkable production of Hamlet. For his superb artistry, he was knighted. And Vivien automatically became Lady Olivier.
But by now there were ugly rumours in Piccadilly that she was not conducting herself in a lady-like manner.
There were more rumours to the effect that Sir Laurence was keeping a tight rein on his lady-love in a desperate attempt to hold her on the straight-and-narrow.
The public got its first inkling that storm clouds were raging within the Olivier household when Paramount Pictures wired the couple an offer to co-star in Elephant Walk, which would be filmed in Ceylon.
Olivier glanced at the script and instantly turned it down. There was nothing unusual in this — Olivier had always made the decisions about what plays or scripts they would do.
But then Vivien rebelled — and accepted the female lead in the film!
Did her action stem from a genuine desire to play the part? Or was it a ruse to place herself beyond the watchful eye of her husband?
Olivier himself was the one who gave credence to this suspicion by insisting that a mutual friend, Peter Finch, be assigned to the picture– to keep an eye on Vivien.
Vivien Leigh, Peter Finch & Laurence Olivier
Finch obviously took his extracurricular job with a large grain of salt. Dana Andrews, who replaced Olivier in the co-starring role, was seen everywhere with her. And Vivien acted like a changed woman– happy, carefree, bent on having fun.
Then, something happened. The exact details may never be known, but it is reported that Andrews, her constant companion, was deeply concerned about her behaviour. He urged her to see a psychiatrist. Vivien turned up her beautiful nose at the idea.
“Psychiatrists cause more trouble than any other people in the world. I don’t believe in them,” she snapped.
At this stage, Peter Finch apparently decided matters had gone too far. He finally told the facts to Sir Laurence, who wasted no time in flying to Ceylon.
What transpired in the privacy of the room where Sir Laurence and his Lady conferred is another aspect of this drama that may forever be shrouded in mystery. The end result was that Vivien, Dana Andrews, and the rest of the company went off to finish the film in Hollywood. Sir Laurence took a plane back to England alone.
And now the scandal-sheets and rumour mongers really had something to go to work on.
One peep-hole artist literally crowed his discovery that, although Vivien was supposed to be living alone in a rented home, actually she was spending most of her time in the apartment of none other than Olivier’s trusted pal, Peter Finch!
Another discovered that Vivien was also seeing quite a lot of John Buckmaster, an English actor who was once married to Jan Sterling. Buckmaster and Vivien, so the story went, spent hours together while he taught her the mysteries of Yoga.
It was obvious even tot he technicians at the studio that Vivien’s real-life drama was fast nearing its climax.
The breakdown occurred on the set, where she collapsed in hysterics. A psychoanalyst was summoned. And Vivien Leigh’s condition became public knowledge. She was forced to withdraw from her role in Elephant Walk, and was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor.
Arriving back in England
What the public did not know was that Vivien’s derangement had the effect of erasing her identity as Vivien Leigh. She had become the nymphomaniac in A Streetcar Named Desire — right down to the sultry southern accent.
The double life of Vivien Leigh merged into a nightmare single entity –that of sex-ridden Blanche of the play.
Fortunately, the real-life drama of Vivien Leigh has a typical Hollywood ending. The actress is now completely well –thanks, mostly, to the devoted love and affection given her in her darkest moments by her husband, Laurence Olivier.
But it is unlikely that Vivien Leigh will ever forget the horrible weeks she spent living a fantastic double life.