April 8 through 23 audiences will get to experience what it would have been like to pair the talents of Orson Welles with Laurence Olivier for a production of Ionesco's absurdist comedy Rhinoceros. Figuring into the mix to further complicate the partnership of Orson and Larry was the affair that Olivier is having with his protege, Joan Plowright while still married to famous wife, actress and movie legend, Vivien Leigh.
When the play opens Olivier and Leigh are at the end of their 20 year marriage that made them one of Hollywood's supreme power couple throughout the 40's. By 1960, history for the two was repeating itself because at the time they met in the late 30's, Olivier had been married to Jill Esmond, a rising actress on the London stage. Vivien was married. as well, to a barrister named Herbert Leigh Holman.
Each had become fond of one another's work on the stage. Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India just before World War I; the daughter of a teacher and an English businessman. Like Olivier, she had wanted to become an actor at a very early age and so her parents put her on a path to accomplish this. Although they traveled the world due to her father's job as a broker, the young actress eventually ended up studying at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Vivian's time at the academy was cut short when she became married to Holman and gave birth to their daughter Suzanne.
When Leigh and Olivier began working together on Fire Over London (1937) and a stage performance as Ophelia opposite Larry's Hamlet the couple grew closer and closer. They began living together since neither of their spouses would initially grant them a divorce. When Vivien read Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and learned that the internationally popular book would be made into a movie she said, "I will be Scarlett O'Hara. Olivier won't be Rhett Butler, but I shall play Scarlett. Just you wait and see."
In 1938 she took a supporting role in A Yank at Oxford with former childhood friend, Maureen O'Sullivan. Unhappy that she did not get the lead over her friend, she started to gain the the reputation of being difficult to work with. Throughout her life, Leigh battled with Bipolar Disorder and was prone to wild mood swings. At times these fits were so severe that she would have no recollection of them occurring. Despite her behaviors on set, A Yank at Oxford was a success and became her first major exposure to US audiences.
"I am not a film star, I am an actress. Being a film star is such a false life, lived for fake values and publicity."- Vivien Leigh
Her performance in A Yank at Oxford and Fire Over London caught the attention of Myron Selznick whose brother David was producing Gone With the Wind. Selznick, who was acting as Leigh's American agent, championed the actress amidst a highly publicized talent search for Scarlett O'Hara. With Myron pushing her as the dark horse candidate, the actress got the role of a lifetime. Gone With the Wind went on to win 10 Academy Awards with Leigh earning her first Oscar for Best Actress in 1940.
With Olivier receiving his first Oscar nomination for Wuthering Heights in that same year, the attractive pair became a Hollywood power couple and the fodder of numerous tabloids. Leigh continued to take on film roles in movies like Waterloo Bridge (1940) and That Hamilton Woman (1941) opposite Olivier. The actress also went on international tours to visit the troops during the war. Her popularity would continue to grow.
She would she would struggle with her mental illness and recurrent bouts of tuberculosis. During the mid 40's she had frequent health problems and long periods of deep depression. With few commercial successes with films like Caesar and Cleopatra and Anna Karenina, Leigh was frequently filled with self-doubt and at times would loathe the movie making process.
Her second Academy Award for Best Actress would come in 1951 for the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. The part of the fragile and fading Southern flower that she had played to great acclaim on stage in London, mirrored much of what Leigh had become by the beginning of the 50's. Although she was not director Elia Kazan's first choice for the role, she gained his admiration by the end when he realized that "she was willing to crawl through broken glass if she thought it would make the film better."
Shortly after her success in Streetcar, Vivien and Olivier embarked on ambitious stage productions of Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. Although the productions which alternated nights played to full houses, was eventually brought to the states and received mostly great reviews, West End critic Kenneth Tynan wrote comments that dismissed Leigh's performances as being mediocre. Despite glowing reviews for other stage work, Tynan's words hurt the actress greatly and would haunt her through the rest of her career.
As Orson's Shadow opens, Leigh is completing work on A Roman Spring for Mrs. Stone based on a novel by Tennessee Williams. The film co-starring a young Warren Beatty, told the story of a widowed actress who is told she is "too old" to play a role. The movie received disappointing reviews despite the character of Karen Stone being in Leigh's wheelhouse.
As her health both mentally and physically began to take their toll, Vivien would make one last film. 1965's Ship of Fools was considered a critical success and a personal triumph for Leigh. She would die two years later following her long and ongoing battle with tuberculosis at the age of 53. Despite the highs and lows she had experienced with Olivier, Leigh once remarked that she was far more happier to have had him in her life than if they'd never been together at all.