VIVIEN LEIGH…A Handy Ten

Tennessee Williams thought she was the finest dramatic actress of her day, Noel Coward the best comedienne (a side that was seen only in her very earliest films and on stage). I’ll have some educated guesses here about what Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando really thought.

She was severely bi-polar in an age when that condition was, to put it mildly, not well understood. She spoke seven languages, had a reputation as a spectacular hostess, won two Oscars and a Tony, and I suspect would have traded every bit of it for a kind word from her peers (“Oh no, Vivien, you mustn’t do that,” John Gielgud once said, when she asked him to read lines with her while she was practicing for Juliet. “That requires a real actress.”).

And that was just her friends.

Like many geniuses who deliver a shock to the system, she got most of those kind words (including from Gielgud) after she was safely dead, at 53, of tuberculosis, having spent years receiving periodic electroshock treatments.

And, like many geniuses safely dead, she remains misunderstood by those who fawn and carp alike.

She is the only person who has ever truly frightened me while giving a performance on screen–and I confess I was frightened both for and of her.

I do not blame anyone for refusing to get her. For those who dare….

1)  Gone WIth the Wind (1939)
D: VIctor Fleming

It’s fascinating to see her screen tests which–despite an early childhood in Colonial India that I suspect gave her instinctive insights into the Plantation South her Hollywood competition couldn’t comprehend–barely hint she would take over the character of Scarlett O’Hara so fully that imagining anyone else in the part was soon rendered not only moot but ridiculous. It was an art-house performance, given not in a Euro-classic masterminded by some bleak or pointilist master like Dreyer or Bergman or Renoir, but in a (make that the) Hollywood blockbuster that stretched to nearly four hours, had at least three principal directors and was micro-managed by the definitive example of that dread antithesis of Art, the Super Producer. And it was a (make that the) star turn given by someone who was not yet a star. Her own screen time ran to nearly two-and-a-half hours. I once watched it without sound and then listened to it with my eyes closed, back-to-back, trying to catch a false note. No such luck. I also developed a habit over the years of counting how many times Scarlett physically assaults someone. It’s somewhere around a dozen but I’ve never managed to convince myself I didn’t miss one or two. In short, there’s nothing else like it. Whenever there is a list of greatest film performances and someone else is on top (there always is–and it’s never her Blanche DuBois, the only real competition), I laugh. People amuse me sometimes.

2) Waterloo Bridge (1940)
D: Mervin LeRoy

A remake of a 1931 weeper, Leigh and co-star Robert Taylor both named it as the favorite of their own movies. Though she had been turned down for Rebecca (after a screen test that was no further from Joan Fontaine’s fine performance than Leigh’s GWTW test had been from her Scarlett) this was an interesting place to land. After Gone With the Wind, Leigh gravitated by hook or crook toward self-destructive characters who increasingly mirrored her own life and personality. This one is a gut-punch, to my mind more subtle and delicate than the fine earlier version, thanks mostly to Leigh’s ability to turn melodrama into the real thing, even if she had to live it. I won’t tell you how it ends, only that, like most of her post-Scarlett adventures, it is prescient and not an easy watch.

3) That Hamilton Woman (1941)
D: Alexander Korda

Does one really need to do more than look at those two shots and realize they are the same actress in the same movie? Or should I add that there is no hint of strain in the transition? She spent the rest of her marriage to co-star Laurence Olivier begging him to do another movie with her (especially Shakespeare, his specialty!). He refused….and kept the reputation as the Great Thespian of the two, which I suspect he knew he had not earned. Clever man.

“After? There is no after.”

I should mention before moving along, that if Hollywood had been serious about having Oscars match Art, she would have won for both of the preceding movies (she was nominated for neither). For better or worse she wouldn’t make another movie for nearly five years.

4) Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
D: Gabriel Pascal

And a curious thing it was. She may have gone after it harder than she went after Gone With the Wind. The resulting film is–like just about every Shaw play that wasn’t based on Pygmaliion–about equal parts maddeningly entertaining and just maddening. (He’s my favorite playwright but his style rarely translated well to film.) The worst part was that Leigh suffered a miscarriage during the filming. It was one of several but this one seemed to cost her the best chance of having a child with Olivier. For someone who was already at least flirting with mental illness, it was bound to leave a scar. The movie reflects some of that. It’s still worth seeing, as a curio if nothing else (and for the impeccable Claude Rains as a definitively Shavian Julius Caesar). But nothing in it matches the photograph of Leigh with Shaw that Kendra Bean dug up for her excellent book of such photos (with insightful essay) dedicated to Leigh’s life and career (which I reviewed here). There are grainy reproductions on the net, but by all means find the book. The picture there of Leigh standing between Shaw and director Pascal contains multitudes. If the old man had still been on his game, he would have written a play about her pursuit of his approval–and I bet it would have made a better movie than Caesar and Cleopatra or perhaps even Pygmalion. Especially if he convinced her to play herself.

5) Anna Karenina (1948)
D: Julien Duvivier

By now the pattern was set. She was a complex narrative actress in a simple narrative medium…so the construction of the connective tissue required to drive home the telling details in stories that took place over years (and, here, miles) was generally left to her. Everyone else could do their thing, as she could play with or against anyone (Clark Gable, Leslie Howard,  Robert Taylor, Olivier, Claude Rains, here Ralph Richardson, all except Olivier just because she was asked–you try it some time). Anna’s not the plum part some make it out to be. I don’t quite buy Garbo in the role (I buy the movie, and Garbo, just not the part where we all know she’s going to kill herself–what you might call the Anna part–though I accept I am in the minority) and it left Keira Knightley lost and confused. How would Gielgud have put it? It requires a real actress. Someone who can make you feel the weight of going under that train that every English major in the world knows is coming for her from the beginning even if they’ve never been within ten miles of Tolstoy. She does that. Mostly, I think, by giving it just a touch of cold and allowing the passion underneath to show through only at the crucial moments. It didn’t win her any friends or awards, but you can start to see why she only made a movie every three years.

6) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
D: Elia Kazan

“Yes dear, you strike a lovely match. But will you burn down the cornfield?”

Which meant the next one was this, the truly frightening one. I watched it for the first (and so far only) time about fifteen years ago. My response to Brando was So this is where he got that reputation.

My response to Leigh was You can’t do that.

Not because the part required a “real” actress (though it did), but because, when you are living in someone else’s skin, there are places you can’t go and expect to come all the way back–especially if the someone else is having a rape-induced mental breakdown. Leigh, alone among screen actors, went there. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. A few years later, on a visit to New York, I saw an Off-Broadway play called Orson’s Shadow (if it’s ever near you, see it) which is, among other things, about the last days of Leigh and Olivier’s marriage. In the lobby during intermission I wandered around, reading the play notices. One of them contained a quote with which I was previously unfamiliar (as I was with Leigh’s history of serious mental problems):

“She (Blanche) is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

If you want to know what the affect on Brando was, read any story of his sad pathetic life. Like Olivier in That Hamilton Woman, he knew what had happened, even if (as with Olivier) there was an entire cottage industry devoted to insisting it wasn’t so.

He went on to be careful and mannered and lauded in On the Waterfront–prelude to a lifetime of being showered with accolades and represented as the epitome of approved good taste masquerading as revolution.

She was carried off her next film set in a strait-jacket.

One of these days. I’ll watch this one again.

7) The Deep Blue Sea (1955)
D: Anatole Litvak

(No box office you say? With advertising like that? Just one of life’s little mysteries.)

This has apparently never been available in any home video format. I’ve seen it only in a grainy bootleg version which is barely watchable. But there’s enough there to know she had, post Streetcar and post breakdown, mastered a certain kind of fragility which gave her characters a vulnerability everyone else has been forced, for their own protection, to play act. Again, not an easy watch.

8) The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
D: Jose Quintero

A good double bill with The Deep Blue Sea. Same train, different time. Similar result. Tennessee Williams insisted she was the only one who could play the part on screen. He knew what he was about. Hell, he probably wrote it about her, even if only subconsciously. Not an easy watch…but you know that by now. Don’t let its fame (or infamy) or good-not-great reputation or Warren Beatty playing an Italian fool you. Beatty’s quite good, she knew how to make this stuff hurt all along–and she only got better at it. Everyone who has walked through the beauty-terrified-of-losing-her-looks narrative since has done so in her footsteps. Maybe someone has filled her shoes, but, if so, I haven’t seen it. Here, as elsewhere, when she destroys herself, you not only believe, you believe there was no other way.

9) Ship of Fools (1965)
D: Stanley Kramer

After? There is no after.

She was dead in two years.

10) Vivien Leigh with Kenneth Tynan, Sam Goldwyn and Edward R. Murrow.

Permit yourself to time travel. Their like, good and bad, are with us in every age. Her like, we won’t see again.

Except for Kazan, she worked with no director who could be mistaken for an auteur, though none were less than solid professionals.

John Gielgud was a fine actor, by many accounts a wonder of the stage. By every account superior to his dear friend Vivien.

Today, though, when we hear her name, we think of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Dubois, of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.

When we hear his name, we think of Arthur, if not Arthur 2.

Talent abides.

Genius finds a way.

WENDY HILLER GROWS UP…AND GROWS OLD (Segue of the Day: 5/29/17)

I Know Where I’m Going (1945)
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Fred Zinneman

Wendy Hiller, now virtually unknown to anyone but film buffs, was one of those periodic Brits (they were common in her day, but Helen Mirren, for instance, continued the practice well into ours) who preferred the stage to the screen. In the case of the actors who went that route, I never thought the best of the men–Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson–were much of a loss, fine as they sometimes were.

The never-were performances of the women, however–Hiller, MIrren, Vivien Leigh– amount to a cultural gap.

Hiller was perhaps the most devoted stage-hound of them all. She was in some Hollywood productions, but there were no West Coast sojourns. She forever preferred the West End and was thus content to be the first British actress nominated for an Oscar in a British film (1938’s Pygmalion, her second film, where she was a luminous and definitive Eliza Doolittle and for which she likely would have won by acclaim if the film had been an American production, such as the following year’s Gone With the Wind), star in a mere 21 films over a 55-year career, and go for long periods without appearing on film at all.

I Know Where I’m Going, which captures perhaps her greatest performance (I say perhaps only because I haven’t seen them all), was only her fourth film. It came four years after her second and seven years before her fifth. I suppose if you are only going to do something once in a decade you might as well be indelible.

it took me a long time to get around to this one and Hiller, not the film’s famous writer/director team, who in my handful of brief encounters elsewhere have seemed more impressed by their own eccentricities than anyone who isn’t an Anglophile could be, was the main attraction.

This was my second viewing, and it was lovely and romantic and breathtaking all over again with the added touch that I got past the magic sparks Hiller and Roger Livesey keep throwing off just enough to notice that it’s also one of the great weather-and-landscape movies. Coming from 1945–a year that still has powerful resonance for anyone with a sense of history (let alone History)–the two leads serve as literal embodiments of the national character, a character that is now lost (to the world anyway, I can’t speak for how the Brits feel about themselves).

I can’t recall any other film where True Love is so closely tied to, and complicated by, not only to traditional notions of honor, but the very landscape and its most brutal elements. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Hiller’s attempt to reach a remote Scottish island where her conveniently rich and doltish fiance awaits and Livesey’s attempts to “help” her. She’s continually cut off by a series of obstacles–howling gales, rising seas, whirlpools. obstinance thicker than the Scottish accents–and finally risks her life, and those of others, not so much to reach her fiance, as to get away from Livesey, who has begun to suspect as much, but dares not hope she’ll act on either his wishes or hers, and dares even less to smash his sterling character by actively pursuing a woman who is spoken for.

Both characters–and both actors–reside within a  mindset which firmly accepts that, if there will always be an England, it will be because people like themselves will finally do the right thing. Just what that right thing is, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out and, even if you aren’t surprised, the final scene is still likely to thrill anyone harboring a trace of romance in these days when no dates ever resonate but we simply drag endlessly and remorselessly on, toward the place where England is no more.

Which makes Hiller’s supporting-but-still-indelible presence in A Man for All Seasons--seven years after her previous filmall the more poignant in hindsight. Filmed barely twenty years later, set four hundred years earlier, she might be fifty years older.

There’s a reason they call it acting I guess.

The England that would always be is just coming into being on the screen, mid-wifed by the conflict between Henry VIII and Thomas More over the matter of Anne Boleyn (defined variously by Robert Shaw, Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave, all proud products of the England that would always be and was just beginning to be no more). But while all the more famous characters are products of their time and breeding (it’s among the best cast and acted movies within the realm of human ken), it’s Hiller’s Alice More–illiterate, intemperate, unromantic, sensible, everything her earlier embodiment of the National Character was not–who knows best what’s really at stake. It’s as if she’s the only one who sees that an England built on Henry’s sand, rather than her husband’s rock, will be doomed to come a cropper in the end, even if the end will come out the other side of an Empire upon which, as the old saw had it, the sun never set, and, as a late-arriving wag riposted, the blood never dried.

The end, that is, that the Wendy Hiller who marched to bagpipes toward a curse-ridden castle and whatever fate awaited her in the final frames of I Know Where I’m Going would just live to see….and perhaps mourn.