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Very Vivien Leigh

Published: 7/8/2012
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Vivien Leigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Given the general consensus about Vivien Leigh's great talent – the American Film Institute, for example, ranks her as one of the top 20 best actresses of all time – it's surprising that she didn't win more awards. In fact, just three of her stage and screen roles received any notice from major awards organizations.

The omission may be due, in part, to the short span of Leigh's career. Her relatively short time as an actress was frequently interrupted by illness – physical and mental – causing her to take time off from acting and leading to her early death 45 years ago today, when she was only 53. Many great actors do their best work at an age when Leigh was struggling with bipolar disorder and tuberculosis, the disease that would take her life. Had she had more years, Leigh might have turned in more spectacular performances like the ones that won her Oscars and a Tony.

We wish we had more from Vivien Leigh, but we're also glad of the great performances she left behind – and today, we're remembering her three award-winning roles.

When Leigh read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, she knew immediately that she had found her perfect role. She told a journalist, "I've cast myself as Scarlett O'Hara" – and she did eventually land her dream role. When the 1939 blockbuster film was made, Leigh was indeed cast as Scarlett, opposite Clark Gable (though some thought Leigh's husband, Laurence Olivier, would have been the perfect Rhett Butler). Leigh's iconic performance won her both the Oscar and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.

Leigh's next – and last – Oscar wouldn't come for another 12 years. The role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire was a hot commodity, and Leigh was far from the only actress considered. Many stars from the original Broadway cast were considered, including Broadway’s Blanche, Jessica Tandy. But producers worried that Tandy wasn't a big enough star. Olivia de Havilland (Leigh’s Gone with the Wind co-star) and Bette Davis were also considered, but in the end, Leigh was chosen to reprise the role she had played in the London production. Her portrayal was stunningly good, winning her not just the Oscar but also Best Actress awards from BAFTA and New York Film Critics Circle, and the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival. But it was also grueling – director Elia Kazan said of her determination to nail the role, "She'd have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance." And her drive to occupy the persona of the damaged Blanche DuBois was, ultimately, damaging to Leigh herself. She later said the role "tipped me over into madness."

In the years following A Streetcar Named Desire, Leigh struggled with her bipolar disorder, and sometimes was unable to work as a result. But there were still triumphs in store for her. In 1963, Leigh – as much a stage actress as a big screen star – spent seven months playing the lead in the Broadway musical Tovarich. Though depression would cause her to leave the production early and be replaced by Eva Gabor, the strength of her performance didn't go unnoticed. Leigh won that year's Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

Written by Linnea Crowther

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