Vivien Leigh is celebrating as she turns 100 years old today, and one of the greatest movie stars alive. Leigh starred in the original 1939 Gone with the Wind, and 100 years ago was an entirely different world.
The actress was featured in eight movies over the course of 25 years. The theater world’s gain — she was kept busy on the London stage — was the film world’s loss. But even if she had starred in only two movies — Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire — that would have been enough to make her a screen legend.
She was born to British parents in Darjeeling, India and began her film career in the mid-’30s, playing bit roles in programmers such as Things Are Looking Up, The Village Squire, and Gentlemen’s Agreement. Leads and second leads followed later in the decade, but it’s hard to believe that the pretty and likable — but hardly extraordinary — Storm in a Teacup, and St. Martin’s Lane / Sidewalks of London would become a world-renowned film star in a mere couple of years and well-respected stage actress a decade later.
Gone with the Wind is proof that way too frequently it’s not hard work that counts, but being in the right place at the right time — and having the right connections. After all, Leigh was then Laurence Olivier’s lover; Olivier’s agent was Myron Selznick, who happened to be Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick’s brother. The little-known English actress thus landed the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara — the Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen, and Anastasia Steele of the ’30s.
Leigh is a perfect Scarlett O’Hara, but many say her mentally “delicate” Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is even more impressive. And just about as outstanding are her performances as two other faded beauties: first, getting mixed up with Italian gigolo Warren Beatty (no kidding) in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and then giving Lee Marvin a beating in Ship of Fools (1965).
Leigh won Best Actress Academy Awards for both Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire; but absurdly, there would be no other Oscar nominations. Not for her two movies of the ’60s (though fellow players Lotte Lenya, Simone Signoret, Oskar Werner, and Michael Dunn were all shortlisted), or for her remarkable work in Waterloo Bridge (1940), That Hamilton Woman (1941), and Anna Karenina (1948).