September 8, 2014

Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind

Won: Academy Award - Best Actress | New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress

As the story goes, in 1939 a little known actress came along to the states from across the pond and surprised everyone when she snatched up what author Helen Taylor called "the longest, most prestigious female role in Hollywood's most ambitious, epic film." This during a studio era in which the "star system was most fully developed and films were financed, promoted, and celebrated on individual star names..." The rest is simply glorious cinematic history.

When reading praises of fine performances one often runs across the exclamation that an actor simply is the character they're playing. And at the risk of making a redundant statement, Vivien Leigh just is Scarlett O'Hara. She embodies Scarlett. She delves deep into the depths of Scarlett and brings to life all that is beautiful and ugly about her. Scarlett O'Hara is a cesspool of mesmeric qualities; she is a spoiled princess, a flighty and impulsive brat, a manipulative minx, a stone-cold bitch...she is shameless, she is steadfast, she is vulnerable, she is delusional, she is bold as brass not just in her convictions but in the way she presents herself to the world. She is a whole 'lotta woman. To take on Scarlett O'Hara is to submit oneself into an acting boot camp, and Leigh is fantastically resilient in her tackling of this complicated and multifaceted heroine. What's amazing about this performance is the fluidity and the precision with which Leigh navigates Scarlett — she can be such a delight, as sweet as pie when she's faux-charming the people around her one second before turning around and making a cutting remark towards or about someone else the following second (bitchy Scarlett is, in my opinion, just to die for, and Leigh's bitchery helps make Scarlett all the more exquisite) Leigh handles these pivots in character effortlessly and makes it all look second-nature. With every different phase of life, every scene, every frame, Leigh nails all the different degrees of refraction that make up the Scarlett O'Hara spectrum. Whether she's to be a girlish coquette at the start of the film or a tired, battle-scarred woman by the film's conclusion, not a single moment of Scarlett's many transformations rang untrue. What's more, Leigh is hopelessly charming throughout it all. During a time when proper morals in films were forced onto the public, where female characters hardly deviated outside of the sweet and/or tragic archetypes, Scarlett stands out for her outright brazen selfishness. The beauty of this role and of Leigh's performance is that we applaud, root for and love her in spite of her inconsiderate ways. Leigh makes Scarlett impossible to hate even though Scarlett gives us all the reasons to hate her. Not many actors can succeed with the herculean task of carrying a massive, four hour Civil War epic rife with melodrama...but Leigh does it with aplomb, engaging us with every minute she's on screen. Perfectly synthesizing the self-centered shrew (for which we happily indulge in) together with a delicate and elegant chutzpah (for which we happily cheer on), this is a performance that forever immortalizes Leigh not only in cinema's iconography but as a heroine, as an actress, and as a symbol of Hollywood excellence.


  1. You described her perfectly!

    How do you like de Havilland and McDaniel?

    1. Thank you! I had a lot to say about Leigh, and was hoping to keep it short-ish and succinct.

      When I first watched Gone with the Wind some time ago, I loved McDaniel and didn't think much of de Havilland. Upon rewatch however, while I still loved McDaniel quite a bit, I found myself really really loving de Havilland. At this point in time, I would go with Olivia between the two. But 1939 as a whole has been an amazing year for supporting actresses!

  2. I kid you not when I say that a big part of my everyday-life personality was (unfortunately or not) undoubtedly influenced by Scarlett O'Hara, Margo Channing & Blanche DuBois. I am whatever you get from mixing these 3, highs and lows.

    Hard to go through life knowing I will never be... Viv as Scarlett. :)

    1. i don't see anything wrong in that! Scarlett is a whole lot of fun. Sort of confused and a bit of a mess at times but fun nonetheless :)

      And that doesn't mean you can't emulate her spirit as closely as possible! Please tell me you can make impromptu outfits out of curtains :P Or at least tell me you have a special scandalous/skanky red outfit somewhere in your closet for a special occasion :P :P

  3. Well, I think it was Mammy who actually made the dress, you wouldn't catch Scarlett sewing (of course) :D But you've learned more on that from Ru's DR that I did from GWTW, I bet. :)

  4. Of the four principals, only Olivia deHavilland was impassioned from the first to play the part she did. She hounded Jack Warner, and even enlisted his wife to lobby on Olivia's behalf for the loanout to Selznick. She got her way, but to curb her afterwards, Warner forced her when back at her home studio to play second banana to Davis and Flynn in Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, with Olivia's name below the title.

    Leslie Howard had no stomach or inclination to play another wistful, cerebral dreamer, as well as (probably rightly) thinking he was too old for the part of Ashley. The irresistible catnip proved to be Selznick's promise to let Howard direct (as well as co-star) in Intermezzo, the film that would mark Ingrid Bergman's debut in a Hollywood production.

    Certainly Vivien Leigh, like every actress of her generation understood the enormous opportunity that Scarlett O'Hara offered. But in 1938, Leigh was so madly in love with Olivier, she likely would have walked through a wall of flames to be with him anywhere. Thus, had Sam Goldwyn means and inclination to nudge Merle Oberon out of Wuthering Heights, and offer Leigh the chance to play Catherine Earnshaw, we might very well have known a different Scarlett. Hers is one of the most deserved Oscars in history, not only for her exemplary performance, but just for the sheer degree of work. No other actor in the picture had more filming days than Leigh, measurably out-stripping even Gable.

    As for The King, not long before production Selznick and company learned to their shock, and despite massive public acclamation that only Gable could do justice by Rhett, the actor hadn't even read the book. He did so over one harried weekend, and pronounced that Rhett was a Ronald Coleman role, and he wasn't interested. Luckily, Gable was very interested in the money. He and Carol Lombard had fallen in love and longed to marry, while Gable's second wife Rhea Langham was demanding an enormous six-figure settlement to let him go. Nearly every dollar Gable earned for Rhett went right into Langham's pocketbook. But when Carol attended the Atlanta premiere of the finished film with Clark in December 1939, it was as Mrs. Gable.

  5. I admire and appreciate this performance more than I love it. It's an enormous undertaking for any actor and could have been mishandled in the extreme. Instead, Vivien Leigh navigates Scarlett's complexities with masterful precision and effectively sustains her characterization over the course of GWTW's massive length. Scarlett could have been unlikable and annoying but Leigh gives her a feisty strength that's both admirable and lots of fun to watch. Every time you see that light bulb turn on in Scarlett's eyes, you know something interesting is going to happen.

    My complaints about the performance center around Leigh's acting style. She's a cerebral performer, which works for the character, but I don't always experience her as 100% involved with Scarlett emotionally, which for me makes the performance a bit dry at times. She also has a tendency to rush her lines, which I think detracts from much of her work. Still, I can't think of another actor who could have succeeded in this role like Leigh did in 1939. It's not one of my all-time favorites, but I always enjoy seeing it, which I have many times.