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Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh (1987)

av Alexander Walker

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
1905110,957 (3.47)3
¿I will play Scarlett O'Hara' she said, even while the novel of Gone with the Wind was being reviewed ¿ and she did. While a barrister's wife with an infant daughter she saw a handsome actor and immediately announced ¿I will marry him' ¿ and she did. From 1940 until they divorced in 1960 Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were the ¿royal' couple of the stage in two continents, yet were steadily being consumed by Vivien's manic depression which led her into follies and affairs. Drawing on the memories and anecdotes of her family, friends and fellow players, as well as on his own conversations with Vivien just before her death, Alexander Walker has written the definitive biography of Vivien Leigh.… (mer)
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I've read this book twice, but the second time was a few years ago. I'm a long time GWTW fan so naturally anything about Vivien Leigh interests me. I enjoyed this book clearly although I'm aware since having read it last that there are supposedly some inaccuracies in it. I haven't read any other biographies of Leigh, although I'm aware there are some to compare this one to. Regardless of any inaccuracies or how it measures up to the others, I would very much recommend this book to anyone who adores GWTW and/or Vivien Leigh. ( )
  Misses_London | Aug 7, 2013 |
Alexander Walker

Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh

Conundrum, Paperback, [1987].

8vo. x+342 pp. Bibliography, notes, index [pp. 312-342].

First published, 1987.

Contents

List of Illustrations
Foreword and Acknowledgements
Prologue: Notley Abbey

Part One: Leigh
1. 'I won't sing, I'll recite'
2. 'You deserve to be kissed'
3. 'Had a baby - a girl'
4. 'I will not be ignored'
5. 'What a virile performance'
6. 'We're in love'
7. 'I shall play Scarlet O'Hara'

Part Two: Larry
8. 'I'll only be gone a few days'
9. 'Please do not tell anybody this'
10. 'I shall never be happy here'
11. 'Send back the wine!'
12. 'Perhaps I saw you as a danger'
13. 'Time is very precious to us all'
14. 'I have everything at Notley, including Larry'
15. 'Walking corpses'
16. 'I don't love you anymore'
17. 'Why not Peter Finch'
18. 'I though you were my friend'
19. 'But, darling, the godparents have been chosen'
20. 'Eva Peron was lucky... she died at thirty-three'

Part Three: Jack
21. 'I love you every day of the year'
22. 'Warren, shall we dance?'
23. 'What time is it in London?'
24. 'Does Larry know'
25. 'My love will be keeping you company'

Epilogue: Tickerage
Chronology
Bibliography
Source Notes
Index

==========================================

This biography is worth reading only insofar as the basic events of Vivien Leigh's hectic life are concerned. Mr Walker writes decent and readable, if dry and often turgid, prose. But his book is fatally compromised by an exceptionally sloppy research and laughably amateurish attempts at psychology.

Mr Walker's "Source Notes" cannot account for at least two thirds of his book. Unsourced information occurs constantly. Let me repeat and stress this adverb: constantly. He gives accounts of Vivien's parents and her years in a convent that are packed with minute detail, yet his notes reveal the sources only of the few direct quotations. (The first chapter has exactly two notes!) The author constantly tells us what Vivien thought, felt, imagined, liked, disliked, was scared of, was fond of, etc., etc. Yet all these bold claims to know her mind intimately appear to be sheer speculations built on very flimsy ground.

As a result, while reading I was often compelled to put the book down and ask, exasperated: "How the hell do you know?!" Mr Walker never tells that. His "Foreword and Acknowledgements" look very impressive but are every bit as unhelpful as his notes. Are we to assume that he knows all that from his one and only personal conversation with Vivien which took place more than twenty years before the writing of the book and for which Mr Walker had but his memory to rely on?

Nor is Vivien herself given many opportunities to speak about herself. The table of contents may lead you to believe that much of the book is in her own words. Complete illusion. In fact, she is seldom quoted, mostly about trivia.

Mr Walker's psychological analyses are embarrassing. They are both unsubstantiated and poorly defended. He is particularly ridiculous as regards Olivier. When he says that Confessions of an Actor (1982) is a "book permeated, to an uncomfortable extent, by the pleasures of self-abasement", Mr Walker only shows that he had read the book, if at all, with silly preconceptions. He certainly missed the point of it, which is probably not surprising since Olivier had a rakish sense of humour whereas Mr Walker has none at all. Consider also the following passage:

If Olivier was disgusted with himself - and evidence shows he sometimes was - he probably turned that emotion to good theatrical use: after all, wasn't it one of the best ways to know oneself and weren't the parts he played on stage the greatest possible way of adding to his sum of self-knowledge? It is no coincidence that Laurence Olivier made his lengthiest strides into greatness precisely at those periods when his private life and conscience were under most strain.

The beginning is rather promising, if not especially remarkable. But then follows a remark that's neither rooted in any primary evidence nor justified by the author's analysis. The strain on Olivier's conscience, as made clear by Mr Walker, was his adulterous relationship with Vivien while both were still married. But what are these "lengthiest strides into greatness"? A good case can be made that these were his seasons in the Old Vic in 1944-46 during which he played with great success parts as different as Oedipus, Sergius, King Lear and Richard III, not to mention his first two Shakespearean movies that flank this period. And this time was among the happiest in his marriage. Clearly, Mr Walker's assumption does not withstand scrutiny.

The same questionable method is applied to Mr Walker's sources. Some of them are indeed suspicious. Who is Gavin Lambert that he should be quoted several times, once at length, freely speculating about Vivien's personality? Well, Mr Lambert certainly wrote a fine screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' poignant novella The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. But how well did he know Vivien? It appears that they worked together on this movie only.

By the way, Mr Lambert's conclusions should be taken with a solid pinch of salt. For example, the remark that Vivien had at first been "alarmed by the cruelty of the way Mrs Stone was described in the novella" is difficult to believe. There is, for one thing, absolutely no cruelty in the sensitive and compassionate portrait of the aged actress as masterfully drawn by Tennessee Williams. And Mr Lambert's screenplay, though necessarily toned down, does capture the essence of the character, no doubt because it makes an extensive use of the original. So, in short, however alarmed Vivien might have been (probably not at all considering her love affair with Blanche DuBois), this did not prevent her from delivering an outstanding performance.

The best that can be said about Mr Walker's research is that he conducted interviews with some really important people in Vivien's life. Two of them, John Gliddon and Jack Merivale, stand out. Yet their voluminous memories should by no means be taken as a gospel. After all, they were concerned with times long past, nearly half a century in Gliddon's case, and time has the unpleasant effect of colouring memories - in either direction. And, of course, cynical as this may sound, the desire to overestimate one's importance in the life of a legendary movie star must be tempting.

John Gliddon was Vivien's first agent, the man who actually discovered her. When she signed with him she had appeared in a single movie only, and this was one of those dreadful "quickies" so characteristic for the British cinema of the 1930s. Gliddon was later treated rather shabbily: he was dropped before Gone With the Wind but learned only much later. So he was able to tell Mr Walker a lot about Vivien's very early and outstandingly obscure career. But that was all. About the post-Scarlet period Mr Gliddon could be of no use.

Jack Merivale was the man who was with Vivien for the last seven years or so of her life, that is after she finally divorced Larry in 1960, the marriage with whom had died the natural death of passion a decade earlier. Jack knew Vivien since 1940 and some of his earliest recollections are suspicious. He recalls a Vivien's outburst at the time - perhaps merely a bad mood, perhaps (with the benefit of hindsight) the first sign of her manic depression - and then he attributes to her words, said much later, that she might have taken him as a danger. To what? To her relationship with Olivier? That seems vastly unlikely as early as 1940, because at the time Larry and Vivien were, by all accounts, rapturously in love with each other. So here Jack most probably overestimated his importance. How many times he did so about Vivien's last years is hard to say.

Another defect of Mr Walker's research, if it may be called thus, is that he seems to have had very little access to personal correspondence. He is apparently aware that this might be considered a drawback and he takes the trouble to dismiss Vivien's letters early in the book. He does so in a rather condescending manner:

Few of Vivien's letters then - or later - amount to more than expressions of affection. She wasn't one to dash her thoughts down on paper - more frequently, feelings came first. She retained a style of childish breathlessness characteristic of thank-you letters, which hers often were.

This is all very well. Only it has little to do with the truth. As Hugo Vickers has shown in his biography, incidentally first published only one year later, Vivien's letters are far more revealing that Mr Walker would have us believe. In his defence, he was probably sincere because that's a conclusion his restricted access would naturally lead to.

All in all, Mr Walker's biography is very disappointing. It is packed with facts and figures which are mostly well-researched but almost entirely unimportant. It often goes inside Vivien's head, but these speculations are indeed very poorly researched - if at all. The "insight" into the complicated relationship between Vivien and her parts consists mostly of lame rhetoric that hardly makes sense. In short, the book's fine only as a starter, and it must be read with great caution.

Vivien Leigh: A Biography by Hugo Vickers is a great deal better attempt to capture Vivien's elusive character. It has its fair share of flaws and prejudices, of course. But it does concentrate on the woman behind the actress, it makes a fine use of much revealing personal correspondence Mr Walker knew nothing about, and it finally presents a much more convincing portrait. ( )
3 rösta Waldstein | Oct 27, 2012 |
GREAT CONDITION! ( )
  leslie440 | Jan 5, 2012 |
I've read this at a leisurely pace, but it's pretty straightforwardly chronological, so easy enough to read this way. I have, of course, seen Leigh's major roles: Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the lead in Anna Karenina, and the unfortunate woman in Waterloo Bridge. I wasn't as aware of her career on the stage, but that was at least as important in terms of the time she spent appearing there and her reputation during her lifetime. Walker repeatedly makes the point that Leigh's talent, while versatile and adaptable, was no match for the towering talent of her famous (second) husband, Laurence Olivier.

Together, the two were 'the Oliviers,' epitomizing talent, looks, glamor, and fame before, during, and after World War II. And there is no doubt that they loved each other passionately; each of them had to divorce a spouse before they could be married. However, their marriage could not survive her illness.

Ultimately, the book is most illuminating on the subject of Vivien's illness; I knew that she suffered from bipolar disorder, but it was a bit harrowing to read of her frequent electroshock treatments. Still, I don't know that the portrait painted by Walker would have brought home to me the devastating nature of the disease if I had not experienced it more or less firsthand (a friend and former boss suffers from it). Vivien's extravagant shopping expeditions could have been no more than generosity to others and the result of her high income, rather than the manic symptom that I know they are.

One more small point: the author mentions that the South American tour for a play Vivien was in started in Mexico City; this error made me suspect other details. I'm sure his research into her life and work was painstaking, but such minor but easily correctable errors of fact affect my opinion of the work as a whole.

The overall impression left by the book is of a woman who was beautiful (yet who resented being complimented on her beauty, as if that were all she had to offer), talented (though not as talented as her famous husband), determined (yes--it was rather remarkable that an almost-unknown British actress should nab the plum role of Scarlett O'Hara against so much competition for the role), funny (apparently she had a very bawdy sense of humor), and tortured (as anyone would be by her disease). She wasn't much of a mother to her one daughter (with first husband Leigh Holman), but her daughter seemed to accept her ambitious mother and Holman, whom she left for Olivier, remained a lifelong friend whom she continued to visit. As much as her beauty, her taste and charm seemed to endear her to others, along with a genuine desire to please--she was a popular hostess if sometimes less than restful. ( )
2 rösta ejj1955 | Apr 24, 2010 |
I loved learning about my favorite actress. ( )
  jenreidreads | Oct 5, 2007 |
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¿I will play Scarlett O'Hara' she said, even while the novel of Gone with the Wind was being reviewed ¿ and she did. While a barrister's wife with an infant daughter she saw a handsome actor and immediately announced ¿I will marry him' ¿ and she did. From 1940 until they divorced in 1960 Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were the ¿royal' couple of the stage in two continents, yet were steadily being consumed by Vivien's manic depression which led her into follies and affairs. Drawing on the memories and anecdotes of her family, friends and fellow players, as well as on his own conversations with Vivien just before her death, Alexander Walker has written the definitive biography of Vivien Leigh.

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