Stephen Galloway offers a penetrating, compassionate account of the 20-year relationship between Leigh, best remembered as Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” and Olivier, renowned for his performances as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Henry V, and Richard III. Galloway deepens the portrait of their marriage with research into Leigh’s struggles with bipolar disorder and new knowledge about the illness.
What was the original spark for the project?
When I was 13, I was an actor in British theater in the West End, which was an amazing and magical world. This was the early ’70s and Olivier was like a god who just towered above everyone. It’s impossible to describe the extent to which he was this colossal figure in the world of British theater at that time. Almost 50 years went by, and I found out that the Victoria and Albert Museum had bought Vivien Leigh’s archive. At the time, I was the executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter, and I thought, this is an interesting article, let me go take a look. Of course, you get into the archive and it has everything because she kept most of the letters, notebooks, papers. I very quickly realized that there’s a lot more here than just one article.
Why did the book become a portrait of what its subtitle calls “the romance of the century”?
There had been biographies, and some of them very good, about them as individuals. A double biography would have been enormous. The more I looked at it, the more I thought, this is the biography of a marriage. That was the challenge. How do you enter a marriage half a century later and make some kind of assessment?
Did they influence each other as actors?
I don’t think he would have been the actor he was without her and all the emotions he had to wrestle with—extreme love, extreme pain, betrayal, mental illness. And (Leigh) had intelligence. She would often be on set giving him ideas. She was extraordinarily well read, spoke many languages. I would have loved to have listened to one of their conversations about his work. We all know the influence he had on her work, and he directed her a lot. But what did she say to him? You always think people are either talented or they’re not. His talent grew. He really became a great Shakespearean actor around the time he started being with her.
Were there professional rivalries?
For two actors to be together, it’s an almost impossible situation. Careers never go in sync. And you’re so vulnerable to rejection as an actor. A bad review, a role that you don’t get. Even if you love the person you’re with, it’s hard not to have that as a sort of mirror on your own life. I feel later he was very generous with her. He had “Wuthering Heights,” she had “Gone With the Wind” around the same time, but “Gone With the Wind” was bigger. She was never as big as he was again, and he made sacrifices to let her do important work. He directed “A Streetcar Named Desire” in London. He didn’t want to do it; he did it for her. Then of course she won her second Oscar doing the movie. So I think he really believed in her and supported her. But again, nothing is in primary colors in a relationship; everything is shaded and has multiple layers. You can both want to help and be jealous. That’s what you get with biography—you get the full complexity of human life.