Magazine article The Spectator

'Dark Star: A Biography of Vivien Leigh', by Alan Strachan - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Dark Star: A Biography of Vivien Leigh', by Alan Strachan - Review

Article excerpt

'Dark Star' is a suitable enough title in itself, but the definition makes it a brilliant one: 'A Dark Star', we are told in this book, 'is shadowed, often detectable by its gravitational effect on other bodies. It is often a component of a binary star and can cause the brightness of its visible partner to vary periodically.' That is to say, Vivien Leigh was bipolar and married Laurence Olivier, and these things dominated her life.

She was born in Darjeeling in 1913, her father, Ernest Hartley, a stockbroker. When she was six, she was sent to school in England. This was not unusual, but that does not mean that she did not feel abandoned. She was educated by Roman Catholic nuns and read a lot, including Rudyard Kipling.

Vivien had a gift for prophecy. 'When I leave school, I am going to be a great actress,' she announced; and Strachan convincingly argues that she did become one. Accepted by Rada, she was introduced to a fair young man on a chestnut horse. 'I think he is the perfect type of Englishman,' she commented. 'I am going to marry him'; and she did. He was Leigh Holman, kind and reliable, and became a lawyer and her lifelong friend. From the beginning she was astonishingly pretty, well-mannered, serious, hard-working and had a steely determination. In 1936 she saw a rising young actor in a dashing role -- Laurence Olivier. 'That is the man I am going to marry,' she whispered, again with her usual accuracy.

What makes this account of a familiar story outstanding is that Strachan wins the reader's trust. For instance, he adds that the third story may be legend, sprung from the second. As an experienced man of the theatre, he suggests, qualifies and adds interesting views of his own. People have been gossipping, exaggerating and frankly making things up about the Oliviers for years. We need a reliable guide.

So their drama unfolds. Their passion was immediate and overwhelming: 'I think I have never lived so intensely,' Vivien said, years later. Olivier went to Hollywood for Wuthering Heights and Vivien followed, aware that Gone With the Wind was in production but not yet finally cast. She told a friend: 'I intend to get the star part.' Having contrived to be present on the set, perfectly dressed, she was introduced to the film's producer, David O. Selznick, by his brother Myron, her US agent, with the words: 'Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O'Hara.'

Soon Olivier and Leigh were both stars, but she the brighter. Strachan does not think their professional partnership harmed either of them, but it is obviously more difficult to find a play or film with perfect parts for two. …

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