I didn’t adore author Anne Edwards biography on Judy Garland, but she turned that around with her exploration into the troubled mind of actress Vivien Leigh. Recently republished, Vivien Leigh: A Biography is a biting analysis of the actress with a focus on her childhood growing up in India, her troubled marriage with Sir Laurence Olivier, and her battles with mental illness. Edwards still has an issue with assumptions, although not quite on a level as with the Judy Garland biography, but exudes confidence and a keen awareness of her subject that should compel Leigh fans to seek this out…or you can enter my contest for a free copy courtesy of Taylor Trade Publishing!
I’m a passing fan of Leigh as an actress, with viewings of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire under my belt. Edwards’ compendium details all the major facets of Leigh’s life with an eye towards presenting another helpless victim, à la Garland. Where Garland was a victim created by the studio system, Leigh was victimized due to mental illness. Her dependent relationships with first husband, Leigh Holman, and second husband, Laurence Olivier, establish a pattern of inability to cope without a male influence. The sections devoted to Leigh’s relationship with Olivier read like a great romance as well as relationship built on utter chaos. Edwards never puts blame on the men in the relationships, which could easily be done considering Olivier’s infidelity with and on Leigh; instead, the reader sees the tortuous effects of Leigh’s mental illness on everybody, including her husbands.
It’s become a bit of a classic film joke that Vivien Leigh was crazy, suffering from bipolar and schizophrenia. Edwards details the various manic and depressive episodes that Leigh went through; Leigh never remembered who she hurt during these periods and took to writing apology letters during her lucid periods. The descriptions of Leigh’s episodes are never disturbing like Garland’s, although it’s just as sad. There is mention that Leigh’s issues were exacerbated by alcohol, but Edwards doesn’t go so far as to cite it directly as a cause as other biographers do (coughVeronicaLakebiocough).
The relationship with Laurence Olivier is given the greatest amount of space, and at times the biography deserves being titled Leigh and Olivier. Their relationship was built on mutual admiration and sexual attraction, and Edwards states that Leigh never got over her great love for Olivier, continuing to see his performances and keeping his picture by her bedside. Their love story isn’t tawdry although Olivier transforms into a man devoted to success and eventually driven away by his wife’s illness. Surprisingly, you understand Olivier’s desire to get away, disturbed by what type of person his wife would be in the morning. There are no villains in this biography, simply misguided attempts at how to treat mental illness and a woman (Leigh) who struggled to get better, maintain her sanity, and continue to work. Edwards also explores the actresses lament of getting old. Leigh struggled with the realization that she wasn’t young and beautiful, and her desire to maintain that didn’t help in her illness. Edwards’ inquiry into these various demons that Leigh fought creates a fully realized woman that’s a compelling, albeit melancholy read.
As a researcher, Edwards has refined her style. Where in the Judy Garland book she wasn’t found of quoting sources, there’s actual interviews and letters from Leigh to give her voice credence; however, Edwards continues to present assumptions about Leigh’s reactions during certain instances – her divorce from Olivier, for example – but that’s few and far between. Overall, Vivien Leigh: A Biography is an engaging biography traversing the life of an actress who personified the doomed women she played.
CONTEST: You can win a copy of Vivien Leigh: A Biography. This contest is similar to last week’s Judy Garland contest where the first person to comment on this review – complete with name and email address – wins the prize!
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.