Hollywood has been the backdrop for numerous love affairs. Among those is the story of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, a love that, over time, has garnered attention for its passion and turmoil.
Beginnings of an Iconic Relationship
Born Vivian Mary Hartley in India, Leigh’s journey to Hollywood stardom began with humble roots. According to Alexander Walker’s book, at the age of three, she graced a small stage, performing ‘Little Bo Peep’ for an amateur theatre group led by her mother. Her big break arrived in 1935 with a role in the play ‘The Mask of Virtue.’ This led to a series of film offers.
Meanwhile, Leigh’s personal life was evolving. She changed her stage name after her marriage to Herbert Leigh Holman. Their union faced challenges, particularly due to differing views on Leigh’s career.
Olivier and Leigh’s love story began in the 1930s. Leigh, then married to barrister Herbert Leigh Holman, had one daughter named Suzanne. It was her performance in ‘The Mask of Virtue’ that caught the eye of Olivier, who was also a married man with a son named Tarquin from his marriage to Jill Esmond.
The two began an affair, which was initially kept under wraps, despite the fact that both were married to other people. Vivien was so drawn to Olivier that she once whispered about him: ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry.’
Leigh and Olivier’s Shared Successes
The duo’s chemistry soon spilled over into their professional lives. They appeared together in the film ‘Fire Over England,’ where their on-screen romance mirrored their growing off-screen affection. Yet, not all joint ventures were smooth. While Olivier was cast in Hitchcock’s film ‘Rebecca,’ Leigh was notably absent.
Outside of joint projects, both actors made waves in Hollywood. Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’ garnered her an Academy Award in 1940. However, filming wasn’t without its challenges. Leigh faced difficulties with some co-stars due to unpredictable behavior, later identified as stemming from bipolar disorder.
Olivier, on the other hand, balanced his film career with service, enrolling with the Royal Air Force during World War II. In 1940, the pair’s bond deepened as they exchanged vows after parting ways with their spouses.
The following years saw the couple collaborating in movies like ’21 Days Together’ and ‘That Hamilton Woman.’ However, their joint venture on Broadway, ‘Romeo and Juliet,‘ didn’t fare as well and strained their finances.
The Challenges They Faced
The early 1940s saw the couple returning to England, with Olivier joining the Fleet Air Arm and Leigh touring North Africa to entertain troops. Around this time, Leigh’s health faced challenges as she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Despite her health battles, Leigh’s passion for acting didn’t wane. She continued to act, most notably in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ where she played Blanche DuBois. According to Marlon Brando, her co-star, she started having affairs at that time:
“She slept with almost everybody and was beginning to dissolve mentally and to fray at the ends physically.”
As the pair’s stars rose, their personal lives became increasingly complex. Leigh’s mental health began showing signs of strain in the early 1950s, and she was later diagnosed with manic depression.
The condition put a strain on their relationship. Olivier and Leigh both sought solace outside of their marriage; Leigh found comfort in the arms of Australian actor Peter Finch, while Olivier became close to actress Joan Plowright.
In 1960, the strains proved too much, and the couple initiated divorce proceedings. Leigh’s statement from May 21, 1960, is an indicator of the pain and finality of their separation:
“Lady Olivier wishes to say that Sir Laurence has asked for a divorce in order to marry Miss Joan Plowright. She will naturally do whatever he wishes.”
The End of The Love Story
Despite the challenges and the end of their marriage, the bond between Olivier and Leigh never truly disappeared. They shared fond memories and maintained contact until Leigh’s death from tuberculosis in 1967 at the age of 53.
Olivier, before his death in 1989, was found reminiscing about their time together. While he went on to have a family with Plowright, it’s reported that he was watching one of Leigh’s films with tears in his eyes. ‘This, this was love,’ he remarked.