Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait
Release Date: October 15, 2013
Hardcover, 272 pages
Tomorrow, November 5th, marks the one hundredth anniversary of Vivien Leigh’s birth. And though she appeared in fewer than two dozen films during her career, she remains one of the most memorable actresses to ever grace the screen, largely due to her embodiment of two iconic Southern belles: spiteful survivor Scarlett O’Hara, and the fragile Blanche DuBois. Both roles won her the Academy Award, and they remain two of her most indelible performances. But Leigh was so much more than Hollywood’s seemingly go-to Southern belle prototype. Her career ranged from the stage to the screen, and over the course of more than thirty years, the breathtaking actress built an impressive list of theater and film credits, along with a hard-won reputation as a truly talented artist.
Film scholar Kendra Bean’s recent biography of Vivien Leigh, subtitled An Intimate Portrait, takes a fresh look at Leigh’s extraordinary life and career. Featuring hundreds of gorgeous photographs–some never before published–Bean’s examination of the actress is heartfelt and well-researched, relating Leigh’s story from her earliest days in the spotlight, through her complicated marriage to fellow actor Laurence Olivier, to her struggles with mental illness and her unexpectedly early death at the age of fifty-three. In the process, Bean constructs a compelling and thoughtful narrative of Leigh’s life, one that is both sympathetic and unflinchingly forthright in its portrayal of the actress’s triumphs and troubles.
Bean, who has maintained the seminal classic film resource site VivandLarry.com since 2007, focuses a great deal of attention on the relationship between Leigh and Olivier. And with good reason: Bean is the first Leigh biographer to delve deep into the Laurence Olivier Archives, uncovering previously unseen primary sources–letters, personal correspondence, and other documents–that shed new light on their marriage. Revealed in many of these letters are Olivier’s admiration for Leigh and her talent, as well his growing heartbreak at the eventual dissolution of their union. In one of the most moving passages in the book, Bean recounts Olivier’s reaction to Leigh’s hospitalization in the wake of a 1953 breakdown, as he wrote to his ex-wife, Jill Esmond, about the “incredible nightmare” involved in transferring a very sick Leigh from Hollywood to London: “As you may have gathered, she set up the strongest resistance, and of course as naturally follows when things go wrong, I was to her her worst enemy. She has suffered terribly and will be very ill for some time. […] No one can see her for a bit so I am taking the time to recharge the batteries against whatever the future may hold …” (p. 165). The inclusion of such previously unexplored sources from the Olivier Archives adds an intriguing layer of depth to Bean’s overall portrait of Vivien Leigh, allowing fans to see the beloved actress from the perspective of the man who undoubtedly knew her best of all.
Recently, I have seen other reviews of An Intimate Portrait that have classified it as little more than a “coffee-table book,” one that, by definition, would focus more on the exquisite array of photographs that are included than on the accompanying text. But I feel that this characterization belies the obvious depth of research that Bean has put into producing her illustrated biography of Leigh. I wouldn’t call this a mere coffee-table book, nor would I suggest that Bean’s text is secondary to the photos. Instead, they beautifully complement one another. While An Intimate Portrait is admittedly not as in-depth as past biographies of Vivien Leigh, there is a level of intellectual analysis here that far surpasses the simple “coffee-table” designation, particularly in Bean’s delicate yet honest depiction of Leigh’s illness.
Bottom line: Engagingly written, and demonstrating an innate and careful understanding of the famous actress, Kendra Bean’s Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is a lovely, immensely readable tome filled with genuine heart and the utmost respect for its brilliant subject. It is a fitting tribute to a woman who, more than forty years after her death, remains a genuine cinematic treasure. Highly recommended.
Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is available for purchase now from booksellers and online retailers including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For more information on the book, check out Kendra Bean’s author website. You can also follow Kendra on Twitter and Facebook.
True Classics is giving away a copy of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait to one lucky reader! Simply leave a comment below sharing your favorite Vivien Leigh performance, and you’ll be entered in the drawing to win a copy of the book. You can also earn extra entries in the drawing by tweeting a link to this post (limit one tweet entry per day).
This contest is only open to residents of the United States and Canada. The contest will end at 11:59PM EST on Friday, November 8th. All comments and tweets must be posted before then in order to count for the drawing. The winner will be contacted by email or Twitter DM on Saturday, November 9th and will have 48 hours to respond with a mailing address for their prize. If the winner does not respond within the designated time period, another name will be drawn. If you have any questions about the contest or your eligibility to enter, please contact us at trueclassicsblog (at) gmail (dot) com.