Vivien Leigh: An Interview with Kendra Bean

Earlier this week, we posted a review of Kendra Bean’s wonderful new illustrated biography of Vivien Leigh, subtitled An Intimate Portrait. Today, Kendra has graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us about Vivien and the process of researching and writing the book.


You state early in the book that you were first introduced to Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind (1939), which, as you acknowledge, is the way many of her modern-day fans first discovered her talents. What was it about Vivien in this particular role that you found so personally appealing?

I read Gone With the Wind before I ever saw the film. Margaret Mitchell was particularly skilled at descriptive writing and used lot of imagery, so I had a clear picture in my head of what I thought the characters in the book looked like. When I watched the film, I was struck by how much Vivien resembled the picture of Scarlett that I had in my imagination. I think she fully embodied the character and brought her vividly to life. Scarlett is fierce, she’s modern, she doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and she fights for what’s important to her. Okay, her methods are hardly ever kosher and she’s not a very nice person, but she has a lot of qualities that so many of us can admire.

This blog is staffed by four born-and-bred Southern women, and I can tell you, we are particular about our Southern accents. With Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951), Vivien Leigh played two of the most iconic “Southern belle” characters of all time, and though she’s a Brit through and through, she fully embodies both of these characters seamlessly, with flawless inflections and charm. It seems to be so difficult for some actors to nail the “Southern” experience. How do you think Vivien was able to do it so capably, not once, but twice (and with two polar-opposite takes on the “belle” archetype)?

Sometimes her British accent did come through a little bit in her American roles, but she had voice coaches for both Gone With the Wind and Streetcar and spent hours every day practicing diction and inflection. Funnily enough, she seems to have been the only one of the main actors in GWTW who bothered perfecting an accent.

waterloo bridge

Vivien and Robert Taylor in Waterloo Bridge

Beyond GWTW and Streetcar, what would you say is another role that best demonstrates Vivien Leigh’s true capabilities as an actress?

I would say Myra Lester in Waterloo Bridge (1940), because although some of her Scarlett sauciness comes through in the scenes where she’s prowling Waterloo Station to pick up a man for the evening, it’s a real departure from Gone With the Wind. Through Myra, Vivien showed that she could play vulnerable and naive as well as headstrong and coquettish. It was important for her to not be typecast, and I think she does a really great job in this film. It’s a definite tearjerker. Instead of wanting to slap her as you do Scarlett, you want to reach through the screen and give Myra a hug.

In the book, your discussion of Vivien’s struggle with mental illness is remarkably restrained and sympathetic, yet unflinching in some of the details of how the illness affected Vivien’s life and career. As an avid fan of the actress, how difficult was it for you to approach that particular topic in the course of writing the book? How were you able to strike an effective balance between sympathy and bluntness in discussing that aspect of Vivien’s life?

This is a great question. I felt it important to explore this side of Vivien, not only because it’s been talked about a lot, but because I discovered new details pertaining to that infamous 1953 Elephant Walk incident (I can safely say I’m the first person to look through some of that material), and because it was a huge part of her adult life that affected both her work and her personal relationships. It’s also an area I felt has been misunderstood or reported inaccurately in the past. It was difficult to write about because it’s a sensitive subject that, as we know, is easily sensationalized.

Chapter 6 was actually the first chapter that I wrote and I took special care to make sure I relied on actual evidence rather than going off into speculation. I then sent it to several different people for feedback, including someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder. I wanted to highlight what happened in 1953 and show that it wasn’t just something that came out of nowhere. It had been building up for quite a while, and you can hopefully see throughout the book that there were incidents that occurred very early on in her adult life. No one knew what to make of it at the time. People in her life thought she was just high-strung and behaving badly. But looking at things in hindsight, it’s easier to make those connections. I also wanted to show how difficult it was for those around Vivien to deal with. Vivien’s actions had an effect on many people, including her daughter Suzanne who, from an article I discovered from 1953, decided not to pursue acting anymore after she saw the toll that the stress took on her mother.  Finally, I wanted to show how Laurence Olivier dealt with it, which I think has been misrepresented in previous Vivien biographies.

I don’t think her mental illness is something to be ashamed of and brushed under the rug. It was part of who she was, and there’s plenty of evidence to back up the fact that it was a real issue in her life. I think once we see what she went through, her accomplishments become even more extraordinary. I was asked by a journalist recently whether I thought Vivien’s life would have been easier had she had the help for her bipolar disorder that people have today. Well, yes, undoubtedly it would have been easier in some ways. Perhaps she would have been able to talk about it publicly, for example. But then, who’s to say she would have been able to accomplish all of these great feats? Her manic energy seems to have enabled her to push herself and really go for what she wanted.

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Much has been made of the fact that you are the first Leigh biographer to dive into the Olivier archives. An Intimate Portrait is also the first substantive Leigh biography to be published in more than two decades. What new insights will Vivien’s fans glean from reading AIP that haven’t been previously revealed in other books about the actress?

Another great question. I’ve seen some comments on Amazon and Facebook by people saying it’s just a rehash of previous biographies. And of course, any biography of Vivien is going to reference and pull from previous books and articles. You can’t rewrite history entirely. I didn’t go into this expecting to uncover any huge revelations about Vivien’s life. With An Intimate Portrait, the Devil is in the details. I interviewed a few people who had never been interviewed before, and those who had been interviewed before such as Louise Olivier and her mother, Hester, gave new life to old stories.

The materials from the Olivier Archive have never been published in another Vivien Leigh book. There are a couple of poignant letters from Vivien to Olivier, as well as a lot of detail pertaining to how fans and friends felt about her. It was interesting to see how fans reacted to her campaign to save the St. James’s Theatre, for example, and the recommendations they gave to Olivier when Vivien was ill. There are also some great photos of Vivien as a child which were sourced from that archive. In addition, I brought some of my own analysis to her career and tried to put things into the wider perspective of contemporary British and American film history. That hadn’t really been explored before. Finally, most of the photos in the book have not been published in other Vivien biographies–a number of them had never been published in a book at all until now. Because of the Internet, it’s easy to say we’ve seen this or that already on eBay or Tumblr, but for casual fans and people who are just discovering Vivien, much of this will be new.

Which is your favorite Vivien performance on film, and why? (I guess what I’m really asking is, after all these years and all of the Leigh films you’ve seen, is it still GWTW?)

If we’re talking performance and film as a whole, I’d still say Gone With the Wind because it’s so iconic for me, as a fan. But if we’re just talking about performance on its own, I think her Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire takes the cake. Vivien never would have called herself a Method actor by any means, but it’s quite clear when looking back at the film that she gave so much of herself to this role. She identified with Blanche on a base level and more than held her own against the powerhouse that was Marlon Brando. Their chemistry is electrifying. That said, knowing how much she gave to the role makes it rather difficult to watch because it’s so realistic.
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With the 75th anniversary of GWTW coming up next year, do you have any plans to come stateside to promote the book, or to talk about Vivien and her place within the film and its legacy?

One of the great things about the timing of An Intimate Portrait is that Vivien’s centenary runs into the 75th anniversary of her most famous film. So far I’m scheduled to participate in the celebrations being planned by the Scarlett on the Square Museum in Marietta, Georgia, but I’m hoping for an opportunity to do some more things surrounding the GWTW celebrations. And, of course, it would be my dream to go to the TCM Film Festival.

Just in time for the centennial of Vivien Leigh’s birth, the Victoria & Albert Museum has acquired Leigh’s archive. You will be appearing at the BFI on November 12th as some selections from the archive will be shared with Leigh’s fans for the first time. Can you tell us a little more about this (sold-out) event, and what those lucky enough to attend can likely expect?

I’m participating in the panel discussion about researching Vivien during the latter part of the event, but I’m really excited about Keith Lodwick’s talk concerning the treasures in the archive. Having been to see part of it a few months ago with Terence Pepper of the National Portrait Gallery, I can tell you that it’s a gleaming treasure trove. Keith’s a great speaker and very passionate about the materials he works with in the Theatre and Performance archive, so although I don’t know everything he’ll be highlighting, I know it’s going to be a fascinating presentation!

What’s next for you professionally? (Other than maintaining the essential Vivien Leigh-Laurence Olivier website, that is!) Is there another book on the horizon? If so, will it be related to Leigh/Olivier, or are you pursuing new research interests?

I’d really like to continue on with writing. This whole experience has been very informative and challenging. I’m currently in talks with my agent and a publisher for a full biography about an as-yet undisclosed subject, but yes, I’d like to pursue other subjects and areas of film history. I also mentioned this in another interview, but I’m lucky enough to be currently working in the photographs department at the National Portrait Gallery here in London, which I’m loving, so perhaps there will be some archival or further curatorial work in my future. It remains to be seen!

vivien leigh an intimate portrait

True Classics would like to thank Kendra Bean for taking the time to speak with us. We would also like to thank Running Press for providing a copy of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait for the purposes of our review earlier this week. 

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.

Don’t forget: today is the last day to enter our contest to win a copy of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. 

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