This post is written in conjunction with the Star-Studded Couple Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies.
“If we loved each other only with our bodies I suppose it would be alright. I love you with much more than that. I love you with, oh everything somehow, with a special kind of soul.” (Olivier to Leigh, c.1939)
As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this week, it seems only fitting to mention one of the most central figures in the history of Shakespeare on film and stage, Laurence Olivier, along with his wife and sometimes co-star Vivien Leigh. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh first met socially in 1936, and though both were married to other people at the time, they would soon become entangled in a passionate secret love affair.
“I couldn’t help myself with Vivien. No man could. I hated myself for cheating on Jill, but then I had cheated before, but this was something different. This wasn’t just out of lust. This was love that I really didn’t ask for but was drawn into.” (Olivier on his affair with Leigh)
“You are in my thoughts and weighing so heavily in my heart all the time. I am only existing until I see you again and only just managing to do that.” (Olivier to Leigh, c.1939)
Not only was 1939 a monumental year for Hollywood, but it was an important year for Olivier and Leigh as well. Both made significant films that year – Olivier made WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939) and Leigh starred in a little Civil War drama called GONE WITH THE WIND (1939).
“The idea of you playing Scarlett is wonderful… in fact it’s glorious and magnificent. [I’m] sure no one can teach you anything about Scarlett.” (Olivier to Leigh, on hearing of her being cast as Scarlett O’Hara)
By 1940, the young lovers had been granted divorces from their respective first marriages and were free to marry each other. It seems only fitting that their first performance as a legitimate couple be Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, their relationship suffered during the war years. Olivier trained for the RAF and made a number of propaganda films, while Leigh suffered from depression and over-drinking.
After the war, the couple toured Australia with the Old Vic, where Leigh began an affair with actor Peter Finch. Olivier then arranged for Leigh to play the role of Blanche in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which then led to the lead in the 1951 film adaptation, for which Leigh won her second Academy Award. However, some friends were concerned that the strenuous part would put a strain on Leigh’s fragile mental health.
“Oh sweet Baba. If we were together I expect this would seem quite exciting, but then that applies to everything in life.” (Leigh to Olivier, 1950)
“Whenever you think of me my Larry-boy you will know I am with you adoringly Vivien.” (Leigh to Olivier, c.1950)
Throughout the 1950s, Olivier and Leigh continued to act together, though their relationship was suffering. Vivien Leigh suffered a miscarriage in 1956 which led to a period of deep depression. Her bi-polar disorder was having a negative affect on her marriage, her acting, and even her husband’s performances, as critics accused him of watering down his talent to match Leigh’s standard of acting.
“I had reached a stage in my life that I was getting profoundly sick of—not just tired—sick. Consequently the public were, likely enough, beginning to agree with me. My rhythm of work had become a bit deadly: a classical or semi-classical film; a play or two at Stratford, or a nine-month run in the West End, etc. etc. I was going mad, desperately searching for something suddenly fresh and thrillingly exciting. What I felt to be my image was boring me to death.” (Olivier)
“Vivien is several thousand miles away, trembling on the edge of a cliff, even when she’s sitting quietly in her own drawing room.” (Olivier on Leigh’s mental health)
By 1960, Leigh’s instability and Olivier’s affair with actress Joan Plowright led to the couple filing for divorce. It was a sad ending to a highly charged public romance between two of the most glamorous English stars of the day.
“You did nobly and bravely and beautifully and I am very oh so sorry, very sorry, that it must have been much hell for you. I am very grateful to you for enduring it and setting me free to enjoy what is infinitely happy for me. Oh God Vivling, how I do pray that you will find happiness now.” (Olivier to Leigh, following their 1960 divorce)
If you are interested in reading more about Vivien Leigh, I recommend
Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean.