- About Elizabeth
Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh are two of film’s most enduring icons. Both are celebrated for their raven hair, porcelain skin, and delicate features, but the two have more in common than their physical appearance.
“Vivien Leigh was my heroine,” Elizabeth once said. “She was innocence on the verge of decadence, always there to be saved.” Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913 in Darjeeling, Bengal, India to British parents (her father was a British Officer in the Indian Cavalry). Like Elizabeth, Vivien made her stage debut at the age of three, giving a recitation of “Little Bo Peep” in front of her mother’s amateur theatre group. (Elizabeth’s debut came when she performed along with other young ballerinas from Madame Vacani’s class in front of The Duchess of York and her two daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.)
When the family moved back to England, Vivien saw a film starring Maureen O’Sullivan (one of her childhood friends) and decided she wanted to become an actress. Elizabeth’s ambition to act is said to be quite similar. When the Taylor’s decided to seek refuge from London in their native America, Elizabeth saw her first film on the voyage across the Atlantic. The film was The Little Princess, and Elizabeth allegedly vowed then to become an actress.
After revealing her career choice to her parents, Vivien was enrolled at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She made her film debut–uncredited–in 1935′s Things Are Looking Up. She would continue to act in films, and on the stage. Her notable film roles during this time include Fire of England and Sidewalks of London, but it wasn’t until 1939′s Gone with the Wind that she was propelled into international susperstardom. The role of Scarlett O’Hara not only became the most celebrated role of her Leigh’s career, but is arguably also the most famous female film role of all time.
Elizabeth’s mother, Sara, was supposedly stopped on the street by perfect strangers during this time telling her how much her daughter resembled a young Vivien Leigh, and saying that she was perfect for the role of Bonnie Blue Butler, Leigh and Clark Gable’s daughter in the film. But according to Elizabeth Taylor biographer William J. Mann, Sara had actively campaigned for the role for her daughter, including enlisting the help of her acquaintance, gossip queen Hedda Hopper:
Back in 1939, when Elizabeth was just seven, Hedda had suggested that David O. Salznick cast her as Vivien Leigh’s daughter in Gone With the Wind. It still rankled Hedda how disingenuous Sara could be about that whole experience, insisting that she’d never had any thought of putting her daughter in pictures. Sara claimed that it was only after ‘people on the street’ had told her how much Elizabeth resembled Leigh that she had even given it a thought. Hedda scoffed at such baloney. At that point in time, no one had any idea what Vivien Leigh looked like! Of course the entire enterprise had been Sara’s, right from the moment she’d showed up at Hedda’s office with her daughter in tow, obsessed with the idea of getting her into the film.
While they didn’t get to play mother and daughter in Gone with the Wind, Elizabeth did replace Vivien in Elephant Walk when the actress fell ill during location shooting in Ceylon many years later. She was assigned her new role on March 19, 1953. She was loaned out to Paramount by MGM for $150,000, which was, according to Taylor and Leigh biographer, film critic Alexander Walker, “ten times the full salary Elizabeth was now receiving.” With all of the retakes necessary after the replacements of the film’s star, the film inevitably ran over schedule. It cost a total of $3 million, making it Paramount’s most costly film to date. Vivien is still visible in some of the film’s long shots.
According to Vivien Leigh biographer Hugo Vickers, “She wished Elizabeth Taylor well in the film and indeed she hoped to film in Hollywood in the future.” But the end result proved that Elizabeth was miscast. “[I was] faced with an almost impossible situation,” said the film’s producer, Irving Asher, “because in the original story there was a shrew who really created problems for her tea-planter husband. He would rather stay downstairs and play childish games with the boys, like riding around on bicycles, than face the scorpion Vivien waiting for him to go up to bed with her….Vivien was absolutely perfectly cast. She just had to stand there and tacitly demand his presence. The camera did the rest. But Elizabeth, extremely young then, and simply magnificent to look at, coming down in a negligee, trying to get Peter to come up with her, just didn’t ring true. There isn’t a man on earth who wouldn’t have raced up those stairs!”
Alexander Walker, writing in his Taylor biography, agrees: “Vivien had the pathos to play a woman abandoned by her husband at bedtime for the chauvinist company of expatriate buddies. Not so Elizabeth: she was fatally miscast. Her sexuality was now so apparent and inviting that audiences were left bewildered at why on earth Peter Finch, as her husband, didn’t sprint up the grand staircase and into bed with her. Had he a problem?”
Throughout their careers, both Elizabeth and Vivien’s beauty often obscured their formidable acting talent, leading reviewers to gush over their appearances rather than the stellar performances they usually turned in. “People think that if you look fairly reasonable, you can’t possibly act,” Vivien once said, “and as I only care about acting, I think beauty can be a great handicap.” Vivien sought meaty roles, something that Alexander Walker, who penned biographies of both ladies, believes was an influence on Elizabeth. In the 1960s, after her marriage to Burton, Elizabeth herself was looking for more weightier roles, especially after poor reviews in Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s, and The Sandpiper, which would eventually lead her to accepting the role of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
Another influence [on Elizabeth's urge to act in better parts] was her identification with Vivien Leigh; a tragic heroine, admired for her tenacity in inviting calamity and surviving it. Vivien, who had only another few years to live at this time, had also been a stage actress of limited but incisive range, partner on occasion to her husband, Laurence Olivier, and, like Elizabeth a woman who didn’t flinch from the hazards of seemingly unsuitable and daunting roles. She had played in her first Broadway musical, Tovarich, two years earlier, at the age of fifty. Elizabeth knew that took guts. Vivien had also been asked to play in the Paris production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but had backed out because, as she wrote to her lover Jack Merivale after seeing it on Broadway, it was ‘such a v.v.v. long play’.
On film, Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh both gave some of their finest performances in Tennessee Williams. Elizabeth starred in film adaptations of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Boom! (1968), and on TV in Sweet Bird of Youth (1989). Cat and Suddenly garnered Elizabeth Oscar nominations for Best Actress. (Vivien had been offered the role of Elizabeth’s aunt, Violet Venable, in Suddenly, Last Summer, but did Duel of Angels on Broadway instead. The part went to Katharine Hepburn who was also nominated for a Best Actress Oscar.) Leigh won her second Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which she also played magnificently in London. Exactly ten years later she would play another of Williams’ tragic heroines in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961).
Vivien and Elizabeth also both played the Queen of the Nile onscreen. Vivien Leigh appeared as Cleopatra in the film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), which became the most expensive British film to date at a cost of £1.25 million. (Sand was even imported from Egypt to ensure accuracy.) It was Elizabeth’s turn in 1963. At $44 million, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra became the most expensive film of all time, and still is to this day with inflation. The costumes for Leigh’s Cleopatra were designed by Oliver Messel. He had designed the costumes for Elizabeth’s film until production shut down and was moved to Rome. The costumes were then redesigned by Irene Sharaff.
Both Elizabeth and Vivien were also one half of two of the greatest romances of the 20th century: The Burtons and The Oliviers. The unions of Vivien Leigh and Laurance Olivier, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, had many parallels. Both worked with their spouses onscreen and onstage. Offstage both relationships were tempestuous and fraught with personal daemons which would eventually destroy their marriages. Olivier himself saw the parallels and went as far as to dissuade Burton from being with Elizabeth. He asked Burton, “You have to decide. Do you want to be a great actor or a household name!” “Both!” Richard replied. “Larry Olivier didn’t approve of my marry Elizabeth,” Burton later told David Lewin. “What Larry said to me was this: ‘I went from Vivien Leigh to Joan Plowright and you have gone from a Joan Plowright in Sybtil to a Vivien Leigh with Elizabeth. And that is the wrong way round.’” While both the Burton’s and Olivier’s marriage ended in divorce, and both men were married to different women when they died, it is still the glamorous Liz and Dick and Viv and Larry that endure and figure most prominently in people’s minds, perhaps much to the dismay of their surviving widows.
An episode from Leigh and Olivier’s relationship was the inspiration behind the Burtons first pairing after completing Cleopatra. The film was called The V.I.P.s, and according to biographer Alexander Walker, “[Screenwriter Terrence] Rattigan had got the idea from just such a contretemps when Vivien Leigh, in one of her manic phases, had tried eloping to New York with Peter Finch. Before they could take off, the fog came down; by the time it lifted, Vivien had recovered her mental balance and was no longer seized by the idea of leaving Olivier.”
In the film Burton plays an industrialist named Paul Andross, and Elizabeth his jewel bedecked trophy wife, Frances. She’s having an affair with a Frenchman named Marc Champselles, who she plans to run away with to New York. While the film didn’t receive great notices, it was a box office success, and the fans’ first time seeing Taylor and Burton on the big screen in modern clothes.
Did these two English roses ever meet? It appears that they did, at least twice. The first time was for the London premiere of Around the World in Eighty Days. Mike Todd held a spectacular premiere in Battersea Gardens on July 2, 1957, and Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were among the attendees, where they enjoyed a ride on the carousel. Elizabeth was outfitted in a ruby-red chiffon Dior gown, ruby and diamond earrings, and was pregnant with her daughter Liza, who she’d give birth to prematurely the following month. The second time was after a party after a performance of Duel of Angels in 1960, which Vivien was starring in on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Elizabeth also met Vivien’s mother, Gertrude, that evening.
Although these two legends are no longer with us, as long as there are films and people who love watching them, Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh will continue to fascinate. William Shakespeare called Cleopatra “A lass unparalleled.” Had he been writing of Elizabeth Taylor or Vivien Leigh, surely he would have described them in a similar way.
This blog post is my contribution The Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Blogathon at VivandLarry.com Thank you for inviting me to participate, Kendra!
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