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Vivien Leigh: A Biography (AND CONTEST!)

I didn’t adore author Anne Edwards biography on Judy Garland, but she turned that around with her exploration into the troubled mind of actress Vivien Leigh.  Recently republished, Vivien Leigh: A Biography is a biting analysis of the actress with a focus on her childhood growing up in India, her troubled marriage with Sir Laurence Olivier, and her battles with mental illness.  Edwards still has an issue with assumptions, although not quite on a level as with the Judy Garland biography, but exudes confidence and a keen awareness of her subject that should compel Leigh fans to seek this out…or you can enter my contest for a free copy courtesy of Taylor Trade Publishing!

I’m a passing fan of Leigh as an actress, with viewings of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire under my belt.  Edwards’ compendium details all the major facets of Leigh’s life with an eye towards presenting another helpless victim, à la Garland.  Where Garland was a victim created by the studio system, Leigh was victimized due to mental illness.  Her dependent relationships with first husband, Leigh Holman, and second husband, Laurence Olivier, establish a pattern of inability to cope without a male influence.  The sections devoted to Leigh’s relationship with Olivier read like a great romance as well as relationship built on utter chaos.  Edwards never puts blame on the men in the relationships, which could easily be done considering Olivier’s infidelity with and on Leigh; instead, the reader sees the tortuous effects of Leigh’s mental illness on everybody, including her husbands.

It’s become a bit of a classic film joke that Vivien Leigh was crazy, suffering from bipolar and schizophrenia.  Edwards details the various manic and depressive episodes that Leigh went through; Leigh never remembered who she hurt during these periods and took to writing apology letters during her lucid periods.  The descriptions of Leigh’s episodes are never disturbing like Garland’s, although it’s just as sad.  There is mention that Leigh’s issues were exacerbated by alcohol, but Edwards doesn’t go so far as to cite it directly as a cause as other biographers do (coughVeronicaLakebiocough).

The relationship with Laurence Olivier is given the greatest amount of space, and at times the biography deserves being titled Leigh and Olivier.  Their relationship was built on mutual admiration and sexual attraction, and Edwards states that Leigh never got over her great love for Olivier, continuing to see his performances and keeping his picture by her bedside.  Their love story isn’t tawdry although Olivier transforms into a man devoted to success and eventually driven away by his wife’s illness.  Surprisingly, you understand Olivier’s desire to get away, disturbed by what type of person his wife would be in the morning.  There are no villains in this biography, simply misguided attempts at how to treat mental illness and a woman (Leigh) who struggled to get better, maintain her sanity, and continue to work.  Edwards also explores the actresses lament of getting old.  Leigh struggled with the realization that she wasn’t young and beautiful, and her desire to maintain that didn’t help in her illness.  Edwards’ inquiry into these various demons that Leigh fought creates a fully realized woman that’s a compelling, albeit melancholy read.

As a researcher, Edwards has refined her style.  Where in the Judy Garland book she wasn’t found of quoting sources, there’s actual interviews and letters from Leigh to give her voice credence; however, Edwards continues to present assumptions about Leigh’s reactions during certain instances – her divorce from Olivier, for example – but that’s few and far between.  Overall, Vivien Leigh: A Biography is an engaging biography traversing the life of an actress who personified the doomed women she played.

CONTEST: You can win a copy of Vivien Leigh: A Biography.  This contest is similar to last week’s Judy Garland contest where the first person to comment on this review – complete with name and email address – wins the prize!

Interested in purchasing today’s film?  If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site!  Thanks!

Vivien Leigh: A Biography



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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

13 thoughts on “Vivien Leigh: A Biography (AND CONTEST!) Leave a comment

  1. This is indeed the definitive Vivien Leigh bio…Anne Edwards’s best work. I agree that her Garland biography left something to be desired!

  2. I had the same problem with Edwards making assumption in her biography of KH. It was really annoying, but it’s hard to fault her because her research was pretty sound… (i think).

    • I didn’t know she did a bio on KH. I wouldn’t consider her my “go-to” author for biographies (she’s no Donald Spoto), but she’s worth a look for those hoping to get earlier opinions considering several of her bios were written during the 1970s.

  3. I disagree that this is the “definitive” bio on Vivien. The problem with this book, for me (as a serious fan of Vivien’s as well as a researcher and writer), is that it is basically a novelisation of her life. It’s very romanticised. It’s probably because I come from an academic background but I find the lack of a source notes section annoying; it’s unfair to readers and I think it takes away from a book’s credibility. I know Edwards talked to people in Vivien’s life like Jack Merivale, but because of the lack of source notes, one suspects a good deal of her dialogue was fabricated.

    The big thing about this book is that it was the first to reveal that Vivien suffered from a major mental illness. It’s a an engaging read, but there has been a lot more information that has surfaced since the 1970s and I think other biographies present a more factual story.

    • Haha, I was waiting for your input, Kendra. I like that you sum this up as a “novelisation” because that’s the word I wish I had thought of. It goes back to my “assumptions” element where Edwards includes what Leigh was “supposedly” thinking during important events. Oh, the lack of source notes ALWAYS makes me suspicious. It’s the predominant reason I don’t consider Darwin Porter bios to be factual at all because there’s no bibliography.

      • Oh God yeah, Porter is the bottom of the barrel. When you’re consistently published by a company that aims to emulate Hollywood Babylon, you know you’re not writing out of respect for your subjects or readers. His book about Vivien and Larry Olivier was the worst thing

      • I haven’t read the Vivien/Larry one. I do have a few of his Hollywood Babylon books as well as his Steve McQueen bio. I will say he appears to be writing for the fans; I’ve exchanged a few emails with him and he’s a really nice guy.

      • The major problem I have with his books is that they’re a perfect example of perpetuating rumors about dead people. And of course he doesn’t include source notes for anything. My personal view is that if you can’t say where you got a piece of information, you probably shouldn’t publish it. Simply writing whatever you want to sell a few books makes it a lot more difficult for people who want to write factual biographies. Unfortunately, a lot of people believe whatever they read. :S

        Porter co-wrote the Viv and Larry book with a person called Roy Mosley, who was sort of a hanger-on in Vivien’s later years. He did know Vivien, but definitely not as well as that book suggests. Also, the other thing that really rubbed me the wrong way was that they lifted photos from my website and published them without permission, some even still had the “” tag in the corner.

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