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The life and art of Vivien Leigh

Dark Star: A Biography of Vivien Leigh by Alan Strachan, I.B. Tauris, US $27.00, Pp 376, February 2019, ISBN 978-1788312080

Vivien Leigh was surely one of the most iconic actresses of the 20th century although she played in only 19 films during her 30-year long film career. As Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Du Bois, she took on some of the most pivotal roles that changed the cinema forever. In Dark Star, Alan Strachan tells us the full-life story of Vivien Leigh, covering both her personal and professional life. With the help of new sources, Alan Strachan tells us how Vivien changed the cinema. Using her letters and diaries, Alan also shines a light on her fractious relationship with Laurence Olivier. Alan Strachan takes the reader behind the scenes and gives a full story of one of the greatest cinema actresses of all times.

Alan Strachan says that Vivien Leigh left us half a century ago but interest in her life and work and times has not abated. There have been many plays written based on episodes in her life and the people around her. Vivien rose to stardom in with the release of epic film ‘Gone with the Wind.’ Vivien had been acting for a while before she was chosen by David Selznick for the epic film. Other beauties of her day — society’s Lady Diana Cooper, Gladys Cooper, Ava Gardener, Greta Garbo — could not match her range and offered no competition on stage. Truly great beauties — Lily Elsie, Maxine Elliot, Lilly Langtry, Elizabeth Taylor — rarely make great stage performers, largely they do not have to.

Alan Strachan says that Vivien’s first major success in England was due, as she acknowledged, to her beauty. He however argues that no career enduring over three decades, covering work on stage in Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekov, Tennessee William, Jean Giraudoux, Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan, and a Broadway musical — a range wider than many actresses of her generation —  alongside an outstanding screen career, can be sustained solely on looks. She had luck in her career, as she never denied, but bad luck haunted her too and it seems, always, that she constantly had to attempt to escape various shadows.

Vivien actually made comparatively few films –19 in a 30-year career — but she had very rapidly assimilated the screen’s special demands; her early British films, made at a time when there were few talented native directors, still had some inspired, mostly émigré cinematographers from whom she absorbed an unquantifiable amount. Most British actors then tended to patronize the cinema — Ralph Richardson’s attitude (“You sell to the cinema what you learned in the theatre”) was representative — but while Vivien came to love the theatre more she was too intelligent to shot-change film wok. Even in some of these less than classic early efforts, many of them low-budget and quickly shot, a latent vitality, a sense of the complexity of nature both fragile and infused with tensile strength, is communicated. Alan Strachan says that she grasped the essence of screen acting remarkably swiftly (much ahead of Olivier) — that above all the camera photographs though, that the eyes are the index to the interior life. Her eyes were what immediately stuck both Selznick and Cukor; the latter had said from the outset on “Gone with the Wind” that he wanted someone “with fire in her eyes.” Directors and cameramen mostly loved to photograph Vivien’s eyes — many of her films contain memorable close-ups — and virtually all the obituaries and features covering her death mentioned in their focus on her beauty, masking the question of her talent, a lingering shadow.

Alan Strachan says that the cumulative impression conveyed by the most influential critic of his era has affected Vivien’s posthumous reputation. She was a different theatrical animal from Olivier but that does not make her a second rate one. And she was a star on screen in a way Olivier never quite matched (possibly because he did not want to, ruthlessly competitive though he could be on stage). A true movie star is both actor and embodiment of his and or her myth; Olivier’s sheer protection quality undercut that, but on film so often Vivien defines screen stardom.

Dark Star is probably the best-told biography of an actress we all adore. Vivien Leigh’s fans will hugely commend Alan Strachan for this gift. As an insider, Alan Strachan’s personal views on the life and art of Vivien Leigh make the book outshine other biographies of the actress. Alan Strachan makes Vivien even more mesmerizing. This is a meticulously researched and beautifully written book. It is an authentic biography in which Alan Strachan draws our attention to the less-talked-about movies as well.

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