Although her name is universally synonymous with her groundbreaking roles as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivien Leigh's legacy as an actress radiates across a career that spanned three decades and singularly impacted the worlds of both stage and screen. From her industry-changing portrayal of one of the most iconic film characters of all time to her twenty-year relationship with Laurence Olivier, Vivien has always been a woman somehow trapped beneath stigmas, rumors, and ever-changing accounts. She battled manic depression in a time when the disorder was far from understood; she carried the weight of the world’s opinions over her love affair with the world’s greatest actor; and through it all, she remained deeply personal, selective in her career, and enigmatic in her public image. In Kendra Bean’s new biography, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, the details of Vivien’s life combine with rare and previously unpublished photos to present in full the true nature of Vivien Leigh, celebrating the legend while simultaneously liberating the woman from the shadows of her own success.
The publication of Bean’s Intimate Portrait coincides with Vivien’s centennial, an undoubtedly nerve-wracking endeavor for a first-time author. But by utilizing her academic skillset, drawing on the past six years spent single-handedly running the popular Oliviers website VivAndLarry.com, and by foraging into the Laurence Olivier Archives for the first time in a Vivien Leigh biography Bean has created a portrait of the legendary actress that is well deserving of such a momentous celebration. The resulting biography epitomizes Vivien Leigh and handles her legacy with the same characteristics that continue to define the actress: with beauty, grace, and elegance. Bean’s applicable narrative creates a reliable foundation for Vivien’s story, one that engages the reader and delivers rich details for fans while taking care never to overwhelm new admirers with the its expanse of information. Thus the stage is set, and an impressive collection of photos deliver extraordinary visual appeal, among them a vast selection from Vivien’s “personal” photographer, Angus McBean, as well as a plethora of candid shots that tell of Vivien’s life on the set, on the stage, and in private. All rendered in a strikingly designed, coffee table-style tome, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait makes for a sumptuous commemoration of its subject.
Also beautifully captured is Vivien’s love affair and subsequent marriage to Laurence Olivier. In handling what is arguably one of the most celebrated and controversial relationships of the twentieth century, Bean exercises a keen respectfulness. When sifted through the couple’s personal letters and the insights from those closest to them, Vivien and Olivier’s deeply-felt and ultimately complex love shines through as the defining pillar of their relationship. Olivier himself is fully detailed in this biography, his character entwined with Vivien’s at the height of their success in both career and life; but despite Vivien’s own lifelong praise of him as the ultimate man and actor, it’s she who remains the luminary of every page. While I loved every facet of An Intimate Portrait, I think my favorite moments were when Bean documented Vivien and Olivier's work on the stage; for film-goers with less knowledge of the couples’ theatrical work, this in-depth exploration offers an especially exciting foray into their life together. Vivien’s battle with bi-polar disorder is also touched on with respectful repetition, eloquently (and perhaps vitally) sketching the effects the mental illness had on her life, career, and relationships through many years. Bean examines with great insight how Vivien’s personal struggles mirrored the struggles of her characters, and how this illustrates for us the depth of Vivien’s passion as an actress.
More than an organized compilation of facts, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait takes its reader wholly into the past and showcases Vivien’s life in an explosion of colorful detail. There’s a quality to the book that could be described as atmospheric, raising the bar not only for how illustrated biographies are presented, but also for how they make us feel. In the case of An Intimate Portrait, a gorgeous and thoughtfully-rendered letter of admiration and affection, the reader can expect to find themselves fully immersed in Vivien’s stratosphere, a passenger in the life of a tremendous woman who left an unprecedented mark on theater, cinema, and the world at large.