M A R C H 1 9 7 3
by Gavin Lambert
TOWARD the end of her life, Vivien Leigh turned against Scarlett O'Hara. "I never liked Scarlett. I knew it was a marvelous part, but I never cared for her." She also insisted that she never went after the role, that she believed George Cukor still favored Katharine Hepburn, and that the screen test was only a "lark." By this time, no doubt, she was tired of being haunted by a 1egend; and she was not well, and not happy. The truth is that she read Gone With the Wind in London when it first came out, and was eager for the role. With an intuition and courage that were typical of her, she even thought she would get the part. She once admitted this to me -- "Yes, of course I wanted it" -- and in 1960, in an interview with the London Daily Express, she affirmed: "Everyone said I was mad to try for Gone With the Wind, but I wanted it and I knew I'd get it. The only thing I didn't want was the seven year film contract that went with it."
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See the first installment of this article from the February, 1973, Atlantic Monthly.
Return to Flashback: "Gone With the Wind."
When she went to Hollywood early in December, 1938, it was on a sudden impulse,
in its mixture of romance and ambition. Laurence Olivier and she were in love,
although each was still married to another -- Vivien to Dr. Leigh Holman and
Olivier to the actress Jill Esmond (who had tested for Hepburn's part in A
Bill of Divorcement). Vivien was about to start rehearsals for the role of
Titania in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Old Vic,
while Olivier had already gone out to California to film Wuthering Heights.
Both thought of themselves primarily as theater people and were suspicious
of Hollywood. Olivier had a personal grudge against the place, having gone
there in 1933 to test for the lead opposite Garbo in Queen Christina and
lost out to John Gilbert. He returned to England and soon became a major star
in the theater. When William Wyler, who was going to direct Wuthering
Heights for Goldwyn, came to London to offer Olivier the part of
Heathcliff, the actor at first refused. He didn't want to go back to Hollywood.
Then he said he might do it if Vivien could play Cathy; but Merle Oberon had
already been cast. Wyler offered her instead the role of Isabella Linton.
Vivien turned it down, wanting Cathy or nothing, and Isabella went to Geraldine
In spite of his doubts, Olivier found the prospect of Heathcliff irresistible. But he was soon writing unhappy letters to Vivien -- he had athlete's foot and was hobbling around on crutches; the film was going very badly; he felt he was not getting any help from Wyler, who gave all his attention to Merle Oberon; and this was naturally affecting his relationship with his leading lady. He implied that she might even walk off the picture. So Vivien went to Hollywood because he was unhappy, and because there seemed a chance that she might play Cathy after all. She was supposed to return within two weeks to start work at the Old Vic, but it was almost two years before she went back to England.
The chance of replacing Merle Oberon did not in fact exist. There were problems at first on Wuthering Heights, but if anyone was in danger of losing a part, it was Olivier. Merle Oberon has described to me how, after two weeks of shooting, Sam Goldwyn came on the set and told Wyler and Olivier that he was not satisfied with the actor's performance. He found it too theatrical, and thought Olivier was using an unnecessarily squalid and repulsive makeup for the Heathcliff of the early sequences. As a result, the scenes were reshot and Wyler began devoting most of his attention to Olivier. In spite of the false start and all the tensions, the actor found his way to an extraordinary performance that made him an international movie star.
No Cathy, then; but Scarlett O'Hara was still not yet cast, and Myron Selznick was Olivier's agent. Vivien had told Olivier how much she wanted the part, and he asked Myron to introduce her to David. At first Myron hesitated; then at the burning of Atlanta the moment suddenly arranged itself. When they met on the platform, David was so electrified by the look of Vivien that he asked her almost at once if she'd like to make a test. She was clever enough to express surprise, then agreed.
In the actress who should play Scarlett, Cukor has said, he was always looking for someone "charged with electricity" and who seemed "possessed of the devil." It is certain that Vivien Leigh was in some way possessed. The exterior was all beauty, grace, manners, charm; beneath it was something neurotic and driven that perhaps she herself never really understood. There was a duality in her nature, as marked as the break in the body of a rock. In a cool, precisely offhand voice she could throw off alarming confidences such as, "I've never slept much, ever. Since I was born, I haven't slept much." There would be no hint of it in her appearance. Although she once said, "I could never find anything of Scarlett in myself," this side of her temperament, the mixture of exquisite control and passionate excess, was very close to the way Margaret Mitchell described her heroine: "The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor." It seems impossible that an actress should have passionately wanted a part with which she felt she couldn't make personal contact. Although the scheming, shallowly flirtatious aspect of Scarlett was alien to her, she responded very much to something driven and desperate in the character.
Cukor had another actress to test before Vivien that day, and Vivien always remembered that when she got into Scarlett's costume it was still warm. The test was in black and white, and she played two scenes, with Hattie McDaniel as Mammy lacing up her corset for the Wilkes barbecue, and with Leslie Howard as Ashley, when she first declares her love for him during a siesta at the barbecue. A few days later she made a third test -- coached in the meantime for a Southern accent by Susan Myrick, known as the "Emily Post of the South," one of several experts engaged to advise on dialect and manners. This was a later scene with Ashley, soon after the war; Scarlett makes another, even more passionate declaration of love and suggests they run away together.
To see these tests is to witness one of those instantaneous understandings between actress and part. The Southern accent hardly exists in the first two, but it doesn't matter. In every other way Vivien Leigh becomes Scarlett, and the boldness and confidence of an actress only twenty-five years old, required to show her grasp of a role with hardly any preparation at all, are extraordinary. In contrast to the others who tested, what is unique and immediately striking is her passion. "There was an indescribable wildness about her," Cukor remembered later. She is never coy nor tentative nor strained, and instead of playing the first scene with Ashley like a schoolgirl with a crush, she is direct in her desire for him, dangerously impatient. The third test is the most highly charged of all. Within a few days she has basically mastered the Southern accent, which slips away only now and then. Since Howard was not available that day, she is playing with another Ashley, but the woodenness of Douglass Montgomery in no way deters her. Now she presents a woman instead of a girl, hardened by experience, with an underlying panic and desperation; the scene becomes a fierce, disturbing appeal to Ashley to save her life. In fact, the performance here is more striking than when she repeats it in the film under Victor Fleming's direction.
Five days went by after the last test, and she heard nothing. Strangely confident, she cabled Tyrone Guthrie in London, explaining the situation and asking for her release from A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was granted. Selznick's delay had nothing to do with the performance. Both he and Cukor were convinced they had found their Scarlett. However, Selznick was worried both by the fact that she was English and -- he was remembering the problem with Paulette Goddard -- having a love affair with Olivier while both of them were still married. How much public hostility would be created by the announcement that an English actress had been chosen to play Scarlett? "The idea of it seemed outrageous," Cukor reminisces. Though two of the other leading players were English, presumably Leslie Howard and Olivia de Havilland were thought of as American by having worked in Hollywood for several years. The public's disapproval was far less than feared, anyway, and a threat by the Florida branch of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to boycott the film seemed a small price to pay. On the second score, both Olivier and Vivien assured Selznick that they were filing suits for divorce and intended to get married.
On Christmas Day, 1938, Cukor gave a lunch party at his house. Vivien and Olivier were among the guests. Soon after they arrived, Cukor took Vivien aside and told her the part had been cast. She supposed he meant Hepburn was to play it after all. He shook his head and told her, "I guess we're stuck with you."
There remained a final deal to be made. Selznick bought Vivien's contract from Korda, who told her she was making a foolish mistake. "You are completely wrong for the part.... " For the longest leading role in what was to become the longest and most profitable movie ever made in Hollywood, she was paid $30,000 and would remain under contract to Selznick until 1945. Her mixed reactions, and Cukor as a deciding factor, are evident in the first (January 25, 1939) of several letters she wrote to her husband, with whom she remained on friendly terms:
As you so well realize, I loathe Hollywood and for no other part would I have dreamt of signing a contract.... All their standards are financial ones, and I am doing Gone With the Wind for them for less money than I have been earning, per picture, for the last two years. The director of the picture was in the theatre for a long time and is a very intelligent and imaginative man and seems to understand the subject perfectly....
Copyright © 1973 by Gavin Lambert. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 1973; The Making of Gone With The Wind, Part II; Volume 231, No. 3; pages 56 - 72.