Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016


The first paragraph of Alexander Walker’s 1987 biography of Vivien Leigh captures the gilded high-life of the then theatre’s golden couple The Oliviers perfectly:

The Caprice had sent the usual tray over to Vivien’s dressing room at the St James’s Theatre. There were little triangular-shaped sandwiches, enough for the dozen or so people who usually came round after the curtain: smoked salmon, prosciutto and, her own favourites, brown bread filled with thick honeycomb (“Not runny honey” she’d remind Mario, the Caprice’s maitre d’hotel). There were also four bottle of good Chablis  - not for Vivien though. She served her guests wine but preferred a large gin and tonic to be waiting for her when she came off the stage at the end of the play.
That Saturday night at the end of August 1951 the play was CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA …. The Oliviers had been married for eleven years. They would celebrate their anniversary at the end of the month at Notley Abbey, the country house in Buckinghamshire which Vivien and Olivier had created out of the stoney bones of the thirteenth century Augustinian monestary and hospice founded by Henry II. It wad for Notley they were bound tonight, with weekend guests whom Vivien was expecting any minute in her dressing-room as the crowd of backstage visitors dwindled. There would be Orson Welles, the writer and journalist Godfrey Winn, plus Rex Harrison and his wife Lilli Palmer. In addition a number of other people from the world of theatre and films would be coming over for Sunday lunch and staying on to play tennis or croquet. After dinner there would be charades or other party games. Perhaps they would roll back the carpet and have a dance …

The Oliviers were at the height of their power and celebrity in the early 1950s. He was the greatest actor of his generation. They were the most popular couple on the English-speaking stage. He had been knighted in 1947. They had been treated like surrogate royalty when they led the Old Vic on an Australian tour the following year. They were screen stars too. Even in the few places where Vivien’s name may not be known the name and image of Scarlett O’Hara was part of cinema mythology. Olivier’s HENRY V had been a wartime battle-cry and the most successful Shakespeare film ever - and then of course his acclaimed Oscar-winning HAMLET. Only the year before in 1950 she had filmed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE with Marlon Brando in Hollywood – another iconic role for her. At 37 and 44 respectively, Vivien’s clear-cut, delicate Dresden shepherdress beauty and Olivier’s strong, dark good looks – she vivid and outgoing, he more withdrawn and self-absorbed - were hardly beginning to show any signs of the passing years.

Alexander Walker ( 1930-2003), the well-known influential film critic of London’s “Evening Standard” (we read his reviews eagerly each week) and an acclaimed biographer (of, among others, Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Dietrich, Crawford, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, and tomes on the British Cinema in the 1960s); he knew Leigh and Olivier and their milieu and captures it perfectly here. I used to see him around town quite a bit, no doubt on is way to or from press shows. In the Leigh biography he dissects the Oliviers’ union (from 1940 to 1960 when they divorced and he set on that new marriage to Joan Plowright and that new career after THE ENTERTAINER and launching the new National Theatre).

But back in 1951: “The name ‘The Oliviers’ meant something more than the mere aura of showbiz fame of a couple uniquely favoured in love, talent and fame. It signified, style, commitment, audacity and a sense of showmanship that was wonderfully refreshing to experience in the England of those post-war years when the memory of grim austerity had not yet faded. In the public’s perception of them the Oliviers were a couple who were still deeply in love with each other, fused together in their lives and careers, by the irresistible attraction which had compelled them both to break up their marriages to others in the 1930s and recklessly join their fortunes ….

The throng of friends and hangers-on in Vivien’s dressing room began to leave or pass next door to Olivier’s. Godfrey Winn arrived and Vivien kissed him and waved him towards the remnants o the sandwich tray, Rex and Lilli were next door with Larry and they were waiting for Orson to arrive before setting off through the autograph hunters waiting outside, for the hour or so drive to Notley … the weekend was beginning.

It is a fascinating read, capturing it all perfectly, including the fascinating story of Vivien’s rise to fame, her determination to play Scarlett O’Hara, and her subsequent breakdowns and manic depression. I like her also in THE ROMAN SRING OF MRS STONE (see review at Leigh label) from 1960, covered in fascinating detail here, as is her life after Olivier, until her death in 1967. “A lass unparalled’d” indeed …

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