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The Spotlight: She channels an icon in 'Vivien'

August 24, 2011 |  6:30 am

Judithchapman From Juliet to Scarlett O’Hara, Vivien Leigh shocked audiences with her combination of beauty and ferocity. Now Rick Foster’s one-woman play explores the woman behind the Southern accent: Set in 1967, a few days before Leigh died of tuberculosis at age 53, this intense portrait of the British star features soap opera veteran Judith Chapman in the eponymous role.  

What do America audiences understand least about Vivien Leigh? 

All we know is Scarlett and Blanche du Bois. No one knows Vivien’s theatrical work because it was never filmed. The major bone of contention in her relationship with Laurence Olivier was that he never hired her to be in his Shakespeare films. They performed together onstage, so she assumed she would be his Ophelia onscreen. But he hired Jean Simmons instead. 

Leigh and Olivier are one of showbiz’s high-drama couples. What’s your assessment of their relationship? 

When they met, Vivien was 23. Both were already married.  But she saw him and she wanted him. In their early films like “That Hamilton Woman” you can see their extraordinary chemistry. But Vivien was bipolar and eventually her illness became too much; she wore Olivier out.  He broke up with her on her birthday. He told her he wanted children; Vivien always miscarried. 

How did a Brit end up playing a Southern belle in “Gone With the Wind”?

Sheer determination. She followed Olivier to Hollywood because Olivier’s agent was David O. Selznick’s brother, and Selznick was the man to convince. George Cukor, the film’s original director, loved her. Clark Gable apparently had Cukor fired. Vivien struggled to keep Scarlett’s character at the center of the movie. She was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, probably from stress and to fit into those costumes. She and Olivia de Havilland would sneak off and get Cukor’s advice on scenes.

There’s a line in the show about Leigh powdering over the burn marks on her forehead from electroshock therapy. 

Her symptoms started to manifest during “Gone With the Wind.” She was only 26. There were wild mood swings. Violent episodes. She had an insatiable sexual appetite. They had no idea how to treat her mania until shock therapy came long. I had the chance to see her onstage in “Tovarich,” about two exiled Russian aristocrats turned au pairs. She won a Tony for it.  She would have shock treatments during the day and then go on at night. Vivien chose to have the treatments rather than be committed. She was terrified of being institutionalized. 

So she was the ideal person to play Blanche du Bois. 

She said, “I don’t know anything about this Method stuff. Acting is life.” She was typecast as a delicate beauty, but hers is a story of survival. She was preparing for her next job, a London production of Edward Albee’s "A Delicate Balance," when she died. She was skeptical about playing the role, saying: “I have no business seeking a delicate balance.” Mostly of us are deathly afraid of living at the extremes. Vivien wasn’t.

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--Charlotte Stoudt 

"Vivien," presented by Rogue Machine, plays at Theater Theatre through Sept. 4 . For the L.A. Times' review, click here.

Above: Judith Chapman as the late Vivien Leigh. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times

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