more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Star-Cross’d Lovers: The Oliviers


Make sure you’ve got some tissues handy, because this is a real tearjerker.  Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were brilliant actors of stage and screen.  They were beautiful.  They were glamorous.  They started out like a house on fire – and ended in much the same way.


She was born in India in 1913, and went from being a gorgeous child to a gorgeous woman.  Indeed, she sometimes felt limited by her great beauty – as if she would be taken less seriously for it.  Garson Kanin said of her that she was a “stunner whose ravishing beauty often tended to obscure her staggering achievements as an actress. Great beauties are infrequently great actresses — simply because they don’t need to be. Vivien was different; ambitious, persevering, serious, often inspired.”


He was born in the hilariously named Dorking, England in 1907.  A great director as well as a great actor, he excelled in adapting Shakespeare for stage and screen.  As an actor, he was better on the former than the latter, but still handsome and photogenic enough to be assured of success in Hollywood and British films.  His third wife, Joan Plowright, said: “If a man is touched by genius, he is not an ordinary person.  He doesn’t lead an ordinary life.  He has extremes of behaviour which you understand and you just find a way not to be swept overboard by his demons.  You kind of stand apart.  You continue your own work and your absorption in the family.  And those other things finally don’t matter.”

That’s as may be, but in the course of their nearly 25 years together (20 of which were as man and wife), Larry had to wrestle not only with his demons, but with Viv’s as well.  Her quickness and alacrity, her passion and emotional depth, were either signposts or decoys for bipolar disorder.  She would fall into dark, horrible depressions, then into blinding fits of rage, then into periods of shrill and manic happiness, and then back into depression.  Her condition worsened throughout the 1950s, and eventually the strain became too much: they divorced in 1960.  He married Plowright the following year.  She died in 1967 of tuberculosis.


Unfortunately for those of us not alive at the time, they didn’t make very many films together.  There was Fire Over England (1937), 21 Days Together (1940), and That Hamilton Woman (1941).  They appeared on stage throughout their relationship together, however, and by all accounts were absolutely magical together.  Whether playing the original star-cross’d lovers in Romeo and Juliet, the scheming Scots in Macbeth, the queen and the emperor in Caesar and Cleopatra, they brought the unmistakable life and urgency of their own love to whatever roles they played together.  I’ve always said I wish I’d been born around 1900, and sometimes it’s just so I could have followed these two around while they were performing.

As for their life together, it was difficult – very often.  They met while they were still married to other people, and carried on a very well-publicized affair for four years.  She won the role that all of Hollywood wanted – Scarlett O’Hara – and he had to find a way to move to California to be with her. (He did, playing Heathcliff in William Wyler’s 1939 version of Wuthering Heights.  In case you didn’t know.) They finally married in 1940.  While they were very happy for a few years, Leigh’s illness took an increasing toll on their marriage: one day, she apparently told Olivier in a very calm voice over tea that she was no longer in love with him.  On an extended tour of Australia and New Zealand with the Old Vic Theatre, he felt that he “lost Vivien” for good.  In his autobiography, he wrote – and note his tired, beaten-down tone – “Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression, with its deadly ever-tightening spirals, she retained her own individual canniness—an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me, for whom she could hardly be expected to take the trouble.”


The poor kids.  Such beauty, talent, and love – and at their respective peaks when they were together – all burnt up and gone now, with hardly any of it recorded on film.

But one of their few movies together ends with quite an appropriate line, and I’ll close this with it as well.  In That Hamilton Woman, the former Lady Emma Hamilton is a withered drunk thrown into a debtor’s prison.  She tells the rest of the inmates about her life as a courtesan, noblewoman, and lover of Lord Horatio Nelson.  Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton were passionately in love, but against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars.  He fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, was mortally wounded, and died a hero’s death.  She spun into despair and alcoholism and poverty.  After the debtor, drunkard Lady Hamilton finishes her story, an inmate asks, “And then?  What happened after?”


“There is no ‘then.’ There is no ‘after.'”


2 comments on “Star-Cross’d Lovers: The Oliviers

  1. frenchdrawings
    April 7, 2013


  2. Pingback: 2015 Movie Challenge: That Hamilton Woman | more stars than in the heavens

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This entry was posted on February 10, 2013 by and tagged , , , , .
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