You may think of the marriage of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as that of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, with scones, but you would be wrong. As Stephen Galloway writes in his compelling new biography, Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century, the Olivier-Leigh alliance was even more tempestuous, and long-lasting, than the Burton-Taylor affair.
The English theater critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote, “… the best British actors often come in pairs,” and though in his harsh reviews he was no friend to Leigh, he adored Olivier and would certainly have included them in his pantheon of great theatrical couples. Indeed, for nearly two decades, from their marriage in 1940 through their last play together, Titus Andronicus, in 1957, Lord Laurence Olivier and Lady Vivien Leigh were considered the Royal Couple of the Stage—an identity they both treasured but which nearly destroyed them.
Galloway, a veteran biographer and executive features editor of The Hollywood Reporter, charts the star-crossed path of their sensational love affair, bringing previously unearthed correspondence and fresh testimonies to their rocket ship of a marriage. Even if Leigh had not suffered horribly from a long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder that sometimes sent her raving naked into the streets, there were undercurrents and jealousies in this internationally famous coupling that would have defeated lesser mortals.
“Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” These oft-quoted words from Sophocles could apply neatly to their 20-year marriage, which began in eyebrow-raising adultery and ended in Leigh’s terrifying bouts of mania. Another homily that would apply: Saint Teresa of Avila’s “More tears are shed over answered prayers …” After all, who could resist being part of London’s premier theatrical couple, married to extraordinary talent and success, God-given beauty (his and hers), not to mention wealth and fame?
Hot and Cold
Some would say Leigh and Olivier were doomed from the start. Their hot passion for each other broke up their previous marriages, leaving the actress Jill Esmond to raise Tarquin, her son with Olivier, by herself, and relegating Leigh’s daughter, Suzanne, to be raised by Leigh’s cast-off husband, the barrister Leigh Holman, and her mother, Gertrude.
Leigh and Olivier possessed outsize ambition and the talent to match, a source of mutual envy. Whereas Olivier was the superior stage actor, achieving tremendous heights, especially in three iconic Shakespearean roles (Coriolanus, Henry V, and Hamlet), Leigh was the better film actor. She is still beloved for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (which made her an international film star) and for her mesmerizing, vulnerable Blanche DuBois, escorted to a mental institution in the final scene of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Both roles earned Leigh a best-actress Academy Award, her first in 1940 for Gone with the Wind, whereas Olivier had to wait nine more years to receive his best-actor award, for Hamlet, in 1949 (Olivier was not happy about that.)
Achieving those Oscars tried Leigh’s soul, as the production problems on Gone with the Wind—three different directors; a huge cast; long, grueling hours of filming—left her exhausted and in a weakened state; she contracted tuberculosis soon after.
Playing Blanche was even worse. The role “tipped me into madness,” she later said, though the truth is she’d had her first manic episode much earlier, when she and Olivier were appearing together in Fire Over England, three years before they were married.
As for Olivier, none of his peers surpassed him in sheer, brilliant theatricality. While playing Coriolanus, he jumped headlong from a parapet each night, trusting his fellow actors to catch him by his heels. Tynan noted that “young actors trust[ed] and venerat[ed John] Gielgud, but the man they mostly cop[ied was] Olivier.”
Though contemporary audiences now reject his playing of Othello because he wore blackface, it was a sensation when it debuted, in 1964, at the National Theatre (which Olivier founded and helmed for ten years). In fact, the Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) described Olivier’s Othello as “an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the last three centuries. It’s grand and majestic, but it’s modern and realistic. I would call it a lesson for us all.”
If Vivien Leigh had inner fire, Laurence Olivier felt himself to be a hollow man who increasingly put all his passion into acting at the expense of just about everything else in his life, including his beleaguered marriage. “I’ve played over 200 parts in my life,” he once said, ”and I know them all better than I know myself.”
He built his characters from the outside in—How do they walk? What do they wear? What kind of nose would they have?—the opposite of Method acting, which was transforming American actors across the pond. In response to Dustin Hoffman’s soul-searching in Marathon Man, Olivier scoffed, asking, “Why not just try acting?”
When, worn down by infidelities and Leigh’s all too frequent attacks of mania, it finally became clear that the couple should separate, they both clung to their status as First Lord and Lady of the Theater. Leigh, especially, could not give that up, even after their passion had died and she was madly pursuing the actors Peter Finch and, later, Jack Merivale.
It would take years for Olivier to persuade her to divorce him so he could marry Joan Plowright—a gifted actress, but no Vivien Leigh.
Nancy Schoenberger is the author of Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero