Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh arriving at Rome airport, 1953

Amour fou of the star-crossed lovers

The relationship between Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh was one of all-consuming passion

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“An express lift skying me upwards and throwing me downwards in insanely non-stop fashion.” Thus Laurence Olivier on his relationship with his second wife, Vivien Leigh. It’s a lovely image, with something Shakespearean about that “skying”. But as Stephen Galloway’s Truly Madly makes plain, it hardly does Olivier’s and Leigh’s deranged romance justice. Forget love in an elevator. This amour fou was a whole fairground’s worth of tummy-turning, ticker-torturing rides. Anyone who has ever doubted Sophocles’s suggestion that possessing a male libido is like “being chained to a lunatic” will think again after reading this book. 

Hamlet was “but mad north-northwest”. Olivier’s lust — what he later called his “cretinous romanticism” — for Leigh drove him barmy every which way. As well it might have done. Vivien Leigh was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived. Fortunately for most of us, the Leighs of this world are out of our league. 

In a way, she was out of Olivier’s league, too. He was never really convincing as a matinee idol. His nose was too big, his eyes too deep-set, his chin a little too prominent for the poster-boy territory he started out wanting to inhabit. But Olivier could act, and since that was the territory Leigh fancied herself conquering, she hitched herself to his star.

Truly Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century, Stephen Galloway (Sphere, £25)

Early on, the relationship was a success. Though Olivier and Leigh had each abandoned spouse and child to be together, their fans were more forgiving than newspaper editors would have liked. They looked so good together — never more so than in 1937’s Fire Over England, a Tudor sabre-rattler as potent as it was portentous for a people that knew war was coming again. Little wonder that Hollywood soon came calling. 

Director William Wyler wanted Olivier for Heathcliff. Oliver said this Wuthering Heights “smelled of [Sam] Goldwyn corn”, but added that he might be tempted if Leigh could be in the picture, too. Fine, said Wyler, offering her the minor role of Isabella. 

Leigh dismissed the idea out of hand. She would, she said, “play Cathy or nothing”. For a while Olivier stood firm with her. But then he got wind that Wyler was considering casting Robert Newton in his place. At which point he took the part, telling Leigh she must stay home for fear of what the American press would make of we two marriage-wreckers.

Leigh was so limited an actress that you have to wonder why Olivier bothered

Leigh was having none of it. A couple of years earlier she’d read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and promptly decided she was perfect for Scarlett O’Hara. This was sweet nonsense. Leigh’s cut-glass vowels and debby deportment made her a most unlikely catholic southern belle. If anyone was a shoo-in for Scarlett it was Bette Davis. 

Then again, even as Olivier was bickering with Wyler about character construction (Olivier thought it was all about building something up from the outside, whereas Wyler said that you had to find whomsoever you were playing within yourself), Leigh had only to breathe to embody Scarlett’s petulant self-regard and smug certainty. She got the part.

She got the plaudits, too. In fact, while they were both Oscar-nominated for their Hollywood debuts, it was Leigh who carried off the award for Best Actress. Olivier was, he later admitted, “insane with jealousy”. Though he was sporting enough to mug for the cameras at the Oscars ceremony, “it was all I could do to restrain myself from hitting her with it”. Olivier and Leigh married shortly afterwards, but their relationship never recovered what little equilibrium it ever had. 

Rightly enough, Olivier had always prided himself on his versatility. No part was beyond him. In one astonishing double-bill he transformed himself from Oedipus to Sheridan’s Mr Puff in the time it took his audience to knock back their gin and tonics. After Leigh’s Oscar win, though, he seemed to get less satisfaction from plumbing his own depths than from exposing her none too hidden shallows. Throughout the 40s and 50s, when he and Leigh were rarely off stage together, he went all out to prove that while he could be anybody, she would always be a nobody. 

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller pose with Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh on their honeymoon in 1960

In truth, Leigh was so limited an actress that you have to wonder why Olivier bothered. Galloway tries gamely to support what he calls her struggle to “define herself as a major stage actress”, but that is like endorsing chocolate for its tensile strength. I lost count of the number of times Galloway quotes from one of Ken Tynan’s numerous demolition jobs on Leigh. 

Having praised Olivier as Macbeth, Tynan dismissed her Lady Macbeth as “more niminy-piminy than thundery-blundery, more viper than anaconda … but still quite competent in its small way”. As for her Blanche Dubois in Olivier’s own production of A Streetcar Named Desire, she was, Tynan said, “a posturing butterfly, with no depth, no sorrow, no room for development, and above all, no trace of Blanche’s crushed ideals”. 

Even Olivier balked at this, telling Tynan that he held him responsible for Leigh’s nervous breakdown. But, as Tynan knew and Galloway makes plain, Leigh had been bonkers from the off. How else to explain her behaviour the day the Tynans lunched at the Oliviers’ country pile, Notley Abbey. Leigh was, Tynan said, “vivacious, metallic and in a high manic state, talking endlessly, with eyes unnaturally bright”. 

Later, she came to his bedroom and fondled him through his Y-fronts. Alas for Leigh, Tynan worshipped Olivier and couldn’t have risen to the occasion even if he’d wanted to. Nothing daunted, Leigh promptly jumped into bed with Tynan’s then wife, Elaine Dundy. 

Long after their divorce, he remained infantilised by desire for her

All this is good fun, though rumours of an early miscarriage aside, Galloway has precious little by way of news. And for a former editor of the Hollywood Reporter, he is rather ill-at-ease with showbiz trivia. Olivier might well have been upset by Pauline Kael’s damning New Yorker review of his 1955 movie of Richard III, but there is no way he read the piece a few months after the picture’s release, for the simple reason that Kael did not join the magazine until 1967. 

Nor is there any record of the aforementioned Wyler having compared Marilyn Monroe (Olivier’s co-star in The Prince and the Showgirl) to Hitler, though Tony Curtis did once say that smooching with her on Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot had been like kissing the Führer. 

Kissing Vivien Leigh was unlike anything else that ever happened to Laurence Olivier. Long after their divorce and her desperate, early death, he remained infantilised by desire for her. Not long before Olivier’s own death a friend found him weeping in front of one of Leigh’s old movies. “This,” Olivier said, “this was love. This was the real thing.” 

All set to shuffle off this mortal coil, he was still chained to that lunatic. As Jill Esmond, the wife Olivier abandoned for Leigh, once counselled their son, Tarquin: “Real passion — I’ve only seen it that once. If you’re ever hit by it, God help you.”

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