A Talk with Kendra Bean, Author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait


In this month’s Book Corner here at TCM, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is the highlighted book of the month.  It was released here in the states yesterday, October 8th and gets released in the U.K. on Thursday, October 10th.  The book’s author, Kendra Bean, is a longtime blogging friend who’s been writing about Vivien Leigh since 2007.  It was in April of that year that she started VivAndLarry.com to expand her own knowledge of the subject and provide resources for other seekers.   As she puts it, “I had two goals with VivAndLarry.com: to gather as many photographs as possible, and to set up an archive of articles and information that was as comprehensive as I could possibly make it.”  Through the years, more and more fans have shown up, shared stories and connected with Kendra.   “I’m grateful for that,” says Kendra, “I can honestly say that Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait would not have been published without their presence and support.”  I got a chance to read the book last month and speak with its author, Kendra Bean.  I was thoroughly impressed with the book and had to start out with a question Kendra must have been asked a thousand times before.

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Greg Ferrara: My first question is (oh, God, it’s so obvious – I’m so sorry): What first got you interested in Vivien Leigh? Were you a film buff who discovered Leigh through your love of movies or did a love for Leigh end up drawing you into classic cinema?

Kendra Bean:   I would say that I was a film buff who discovered Vivien Leigh. But I should clarify: Vivien – to be more specific, Gone With the Wind – is what made me take an actual interest in classic Hollywood cinema. I’ll probably be ostracised from the TCM community for admitting this, but growing up, I can only remember watching a handful classic films like The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, and Disney animation. Otherwise I mostly stuck to modern cinema. I’ve read about a lot of fans my age who were introduced to classic films from a very young age by their grandparents or their parents. It wasn’t like that for me. I don’t remember sitting around the TV like that with my family, and none of my friends were really into old films when I was growing up. I kind of discovered and embraced them on my own, but not until I was in my late teens.

I was 18 and in my first year of college when I first read and properly sat down and watched Gone With the Wind. I think it’s fair to say it changed my life. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I got really into it, as I had done with a few other films in the past, and it was through reading about the production and the stars that I became interested in Vivien’s life and other films and stars of her time.

GF: I myself watched classic films a little earlier but, honestly, it was connecting Alec Guinness in Star Wars to Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai that sealed the deal for me. I’d seen both by 1977, as a kid, and for whatever reason, found it so cool that the guy in KWAI was Obi-Won Kenobi. So I can totally understand taking one movie (like Kwai/Star Wars for me) and letting it guide you down a path.

So when you finally sat down to begin work on this book, was there anything that surprised you? Anything about Vivien Leigh that you never knew until you starting dipping into the Olivier archives?

KB: There had been a solid handful of Vivien biographies in the past so I felt the basics of her life, career, and personality were pretty well covered. I wasn’t expecting to uncover any big revelations as to Vivien’s character or anything like that. What I found in the Olivier Archive (aside from some beautiful, never-before-published photographs) were illuminating – and sometimes surprising – details based on primary source documents that lent clarity to certain situations, particularly concerning her relationship with Olivier and her battle with bipolar disorder. These weren’t trivial aspects; they were huge and important parts of Vivien’s adult life that often entwined with her work and shaped how she was and is perceived as a celebrity.

One example had to do with Vivien playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, which she did on stage in London before going on to win an Oscar for her performance in Elia Kazan’s film version. She felt she really understood Blanche as a woman, and was determined to play the part, but she specifically wanted Olivier to direct. She always deferred to and put a lot of stock in his opinion about acting and how to live as an actor, and never wavered in her belief that he was the penultimate actor of their day.

vivandlarryIrene Mayer Selznick, who produced the London play in partnership with Binkie Beaumont, had a lot of problems with Olivier as a director. He insisted on making cuts against Tennessee Williams’ wishes, which led Selznick to believe he was making a hatchet job of things based on his lack of understanding. Whether Olivier had a firm grasp on the play or not, he did write a lengthy letter to Williams just before the opening in Manchester, which reveals that he felt it necessary to make changes so that British audiences would be able to follow (and to get around imposed censorship), and so that Vivien would physically be able to carry the play through a nine-month West End run. In 1949, it was not yet known that Vivien suffered from a mental illness, but both she and Olivier were quite aware of how demanding theatre acting was, and how much of a strain it often was to play these roles that required a lot of physicality and intensity. Olivier told Williams that Vivien was already showing signs of exhaustion during the dress rehearsal leading up to the opening night. No one else noticed or knew what to look for, but Olivier said he could see it and that it was cause for concern. Vivien really pushed herself to achieve these great heights as an actress, but it was often to the detriment of her health. She actually had to take a break from the play after six months, on doctors’ orders.

GF: I personally think Leigh was perfect to play Blanche. I studied Williams for years, did my senior thesis on him and even worked on a production of Streetcar on the crew. Blanche is a delicate creature, filled with insecurities and self-loathing that Stanley exploits. It’s this delicateness and vulnerability that I felt Leigh had in spades. I never saw Jessica Tandy perform the part but in other performances, she frankly seems too strong, not vulnerable enough (but, of course, I can’t know for sure).

Anyway, when I read the section in your book about Kenneth Tynan, I wanted to punch the guy. None of that stuff is on his basic Wikipedia bio so it was a revelation to me how mean-spirited and destructive he was towards Leigh. Here she was giving great performances, like as Blanche, and he was running her down, throwing her into bouts of severe depression. Did Olivier know this was the cause of a lot of her pain? If so, how come he ended up working with Tynan?

KB: I completely agree with you about Streetcar. Vivien gave such a raw and visceral performance.

Olivier was very much aware of the effect Tynan’s words had on Vivien. I think he really hit the nail on the head when he did an interview with Tynan’s widow Kathleen in the early 80s and said, “To Ken, Vivien was an interloper between me and my fucking genius.” Vivien loved acting opposite Olivier because she really looked up to him, but Olivier was, more often than not, highly praised by Tynan while it was inferred that Vivien would never be able to match him. Acting is such a cutthroat profession to begin with, and there’s that saying that “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,” but Tynan was purposefully antagonistic toward her, and it was a big strain because she felt she always had to do better or give more to get to Olivier’s level. It was like she couldn’t win, despite always being very popular with audiences. But of course, for Vivien, there was a big difference between being popular and being a good actress.

Olivier held a bit of a grudge against Tynan for a long time because of his attitude toward Vivien, but he also realized the potential of Tynan’s influence on the changing theatrical scene. Tynan was eager to be part of the founding of the National Theatre in the early 1960s. By this time, Olivier was married to Joan Plowright, who he said convinced him that a partnership with Tynan would be a good thing.

GF:  One thing I never really knew a lot about was Vivien’s stage career. It’s tempting, I’m sure, in any biography of a Hollywood or international star to just focus on the movies, or in this case, Gone with the Wind, but you really delve into her theater career in depth. I knew about her Cleopatra, and enjoyed her performance on film, but was unfamiliar with how successful she was as Lady MacBeth. I would have loved to see her perform that onstage, if only because she seems too delicate to play the scheming evil of Lady MacBeth. Scarlett schemed, too, but in a less malevolent way and always took care of her family but Lady MacBeth is different.

KB: I would have loved to see her play Lady Macbeth, as well. It would have been great if the film version they had planned to do actually came to fruition.

GF: In a career where she did much more theater than film, did you ever worry that there wouldn’t be enough juicy movie material for the book? In other words, did you feel obligated to give more weight to the movies over the stage stuff (although, you didn’t, I’m just saying)? Was there ever any concern that the story might not be perceived as interesting if it wasn’t all about the movies?

KB: I never really worried about a lack of film information and actually found it more difficult to dig up interesting stories about some of her stage performances. Unfortunately, Vivien died nearly twenty years before I was born, so I never saw her on stage, and therefore had to rely on reviews and reminiscences. Her films are what people remember her for today because they are what remain in posterity. We can watch them and give fresh assessment to her performances. As you know, there’s also a huge fan culture surrounding the movies, so there was a lot of coverage behind the scenes that makes for “juicy” reading. It also helped that Vivien was so popular as a film actress. I remember Robert Osborne from TCM once saying that when Vivien did appear on the screen, it was a major event. Not many actors could take such frequent and long breaks from screen acting and still attract huge audiences, but Vivien’s fans never abandoned her.

In the book, I tried to strike a fairly even balance between film and theatre so I’m glad you felt I was successful in that respect. I think a lot of people – particularly fans – are interested in knowing more about everything Vivien did, really. She led a very interesting life.

GF: I was curious about the brief section on The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. It gets a small write-up along the lines of “people thought she was in love with Warren Beatty” but not much more. Was there a reluctance of surviving members of the cast to talk about it over the years or did you leave information out that might have seemed too gossipy, unsubstantiated?

KB: There was a lot to talk about in that particular chapter, which focused on her life following her divorce from Olivier, so I wanted to allot equal commentary to all of those events. What I tried to convey when discussing Roman Spring was the parallel between Vivien and her character Karen Stone. She was in a very vulnerable place in her life, having recently divorced Olivier, and she really conveyed a lot of those anxieties about growing older and being alone on screen. I don’t know that there was a real reluctance of cast members to talk about their experiences on the film, but a lot of the studio gossip reiterated how like Karen Vivien seemed to be at the time.

GF: Near the end of the book, there’s a definite sadness to almost everything she does. Even her successes, like Tovarich, felt like failures to her despite everyone else thinking they were a success. And while she wanted so badly to see Laurence again, her invites were ignored because it was thought best for her mental state to have Larry stay away. Everyone in her life seemed to love her even if she herself was her own worst critic.

KB: Vivien was definitely a perfectionist, and as such, was always pretty hard on herself and constantly striving to improve as an actress. Stress, whether from work or her personal life, played a huge part in triggering both the manic and depressive phases of her bipolar disorder and her letters reveal that when she was depressed, those feelings of not being good enough were really magnified. I felt sad reading the letters she wrote to her partner Jack Merivale during the rehearsals for Tovarich because she came off as so fragile and vulnerable. She was sure the play would be a failure and mentally beat herself up for taking on a Broadway musical in the first place, which was a totally different ballgame from what she was used to.

As anyone who has been depressed knows, it can be difficult just getting out of bed in the morning. Vivien wrote of anxiety, not sleeping, and feeling mentally and physically exhausted. Yet she somehow managed to gather what energy she did have, channel it into the job at hand, and went out there and won a Tony. Her prediction that critics would be harsh about the about the production turned out to be correct, but many of them thought she was great, and she singlehandedly kept the show afloat for nine months. So, in the end, it was a largely positive experience. The fact that she managed to achieve so many great things while battling these inner demons is really admirable to me, and I know it’s inspirational to other fans out there, as well.

Vivien had a difficult time following the breakup of her marriage to Olivier, but she was lucky in that she had so many people around Vivien_Leigh_1958her who supported and stood by her. She had a real gift for friendship and inspiring loyalty in others, and she was able to meet someone who had the capacity to look after her. Vivien really appreciated Jack Merivale’s presence and his ability to meet her needs at that time in her life. However, as you pointed out, she was never able to fully put her relationship with Olivier behind her. He obviously had an easier time moving on with his life and I think Vivien wanted to remain a part of that in some way, or at least make peace with it. I should clarify for those who haven’t read the book yet that she did keep in contact with Olivier after their marriage ended. She and Merivale often went to see him perform during the early years of the National Theatre, she continued to ask his advice regarding her own work, and they occasionally met one on one – there’s a touching story of when Olivier visited her at her country home in the early 1960s. What Vivien wasn’t able to do was meet with Joan Plowright or see Olivier’s children because her doctors felt her illness complicated things too much.

GF: Was it difficult to find a way to close out both the book and finish your long journey in discovering Leigh? Do you feel like now, after all these years of learning and research and finally writing this book, that your fascination with Leigh is finally satisfied?

KB: I wanted to end the book on a positive note rather than wallowing in tragedy and I hope I’ve managed to do that. There’s a quote in the introduction where Vivien told Olivier, “I hope that my life will prove a useful and good one, to many people.” I love it and wanted to bring it back around to that in the end because I felt it said so much about her as a person and what she tried to achieve through her work. The fact that so many people continue to cherish her films and her memory tells me she succeeded.

Rather than satisfying my curiosity, the long process of putting this book together has actually strengthened my fascination for Vivien. She continues to inspire me, and as we’ve seen recently with the sale of her papers to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, there’s always more to learn.

GF: You were given unique access to massive archives of photos of Vivien, many of which have never been published before.  It must have been incredibly difficult picking and choosing which photos to go with and where to place them. How much control did you have with the actual layout of the book, that is, where each picture would go? Did you choose the pictures and someone else assembled them into the book or were you literally mapping out exactly where’d they go?

KB: A lot of my time doing research included sourcing photographs. I had my own collection that I’d assembled over the years, and then other people have been kind enough to let me use some of their treasures. For various reasons, I actually wasn’t able to use all of the pictures I wanted to use in the beginning, but I think we ended up with a really great selection. The main goals were to cover the significant events in Vivien’s life, and include as many rare shots as possible. This whole thing has been a huge learning process for me. I was at first set on having only photos that hadn’t appeared in other biographies, but talking with people who have been through the publication process before, it became clear that I needed to include a fair mix of things to help establish familiarity.

I was responsible for assembling the photos and writing the captions, but I didn’t have much say in the actual design process. I had a clear vision of how I wanted it to look – high quality, sleek, clean, and classic – and luckily Running Press’ designer, Joshua McDonnell, had the same ideas. I couldn’t be happier with the design and feel of the book. It’s everything I could have asked for.

GF: It’s a great looking book, beautifully designed and lovingly written. You’ve done a great job and I was honored to get a first look at it. Thank you so much for talking with me about your whole experience in writing the book.

KB: Thanks so much, it’s been a pleasure talking to you about it!

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Kendra Bean’s book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, is on sale now.  I can and do highly recommend it.

11 Responses A Talk with Kendra Bean, Author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait
Posted By kingrat : October 9, 2013 4:50 pm

Greg, thanks for a wonderful interview. Kendra Bean’s book would make a great Christmas present for classic movie fans.

In his biogrpahy of Olivier, Donald Spoto mentions that some people believed that Tynan had a crush on Olivier, which accounted for some of his animosity toward Vivien.

My Shakespeare professor, who was English, said that TWELFTH NIGHT was a play which could survive anything “except Vivien Leigh as Viola.” In THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE we learn that Karen Stone got unfavorable reviews for her Rosalind in AS YOU LIKE IT; Rosalind and Viola are similar roles. This seems to be based on Leigh’s experiences. If some of the negative reviews were from a snobbish sense that a Hollywood star shouldn’t be playing Shakespeare, it’s also true that Leigh was a tad old for the part, though England had a long tradition of thirtyish or fortyish actresses playing Shakespeare’s much younger heroines.

Posted By moira finnie : October 9, 2013 7:32 pm

During a recent broadcast on TCM, I watched a few minutes of ST. MARTIN’S LANE again, just to catch sight of the figure of a lithe and delicate Vivien Leigh dancing alone in a darkened ballroom in an abandoned, once grand house. Her quicksilver grace is a quality that Kendra Bean has captured in her beautifully written, well-researched and empathetic website, “vivandlarry,” for some time, enchanting many of us who follow Ms. Bean’s work. I can’t wait to see how this transfers to the pages of this book, especially considering the unprecedented access the author had to the Olivier Archives.

Great interview, Greg. And brava, Kendra.

Posted By gregferrara : October 9, 2013 8:35 pm

Kingrat, I highly recommend Kendra’s book. It’s a great read, beautifully done and very informative.

Tynan definitely liked Olivier as an actor and perhaps romantically too. His hostility with Leigh is very sad, and infuriating, because it hurt her so much.

Posted By Kendra : October 9, 2013 8:46 pm

Thank you for the kind comments, kingrat and Moira, and to you, Greg, for asking such in-depth questions! Moira, I agree about Vivien’s “quicksilver grace.” That’s such a great way to describe her ethereal quality.

I’m not sure that Tynan was interested in Olivier romantically, but he definitely had a man crush on Olivier. It seemed as if Tynan was trying to break up the Oliviers’ acting partnership.

Posted By Doug : October 9, 2013 9:17 pm

I remember once back in the late 1970′s/early 80′s “Gone With The Wind” was shown on NBC.
My friend sat mesmerized, face inches from the screen, soaking it all in. I’d been gone on board ship for months and she never knew that I had come to visit until the show ended. Vivien Leigh had that power to connect with an audience. I’m sorry to hear that she suffered from bi-polar/depression-these days there is so much more understanding and treatment for those issues.

Posted By gregferrara : October 9, 2013 10:47 pm

Thank you, Moira, but all credit goes to Kendra Bean for the interview. And the book will not disappoint. A truly beautiful, richly done work.

Posted By gregferrara : October 9, 2013 10:51 pm

Doug – Vivien Leigh has transfixed me more than once. And I know it may be unoriginal to say so but her Scarlett O’Hara is one hell of a good performance. Thank God Selznick ignored the book’s description, “Scarlet O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it.” Vivien Leigh was as beautiful as they come.

Posted By Gene : October 10, 2013 2:03 am

Great interview! Leigh is still mesmerizing.

Posted By gregferrara : October 10, 2013 3:27 pm

Thanks, Gene, and yes she is.

Posted By moviemorlocks.com – Author Christina Rice on ‘Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel’ : October 14, 2013 7:32 pm

[…] Evidently, we Morlocks like to hobnob with the literary set, as evidenced by Greg Ferrara’s recent interview with Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and a previous interview with Ms. […]

Posted By Valeska Suratt : October 22, 2013 9:45 pm

Fascinating interview ! Thank you, Ms. Bean, for your insight into one of my favorite actresses.

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to watch an excerpt from “The Ed Sullivan Show” originally broadcast on May 12, 1963 in which Vivien performed the physically exerting “Wilkes-Barre, Pa” musical number from “Tovarich.” (Perhaps this has since been included in one the Broadway compilations that have been released in recent years ?)

I vividly remember that though she’d long suffered from severe mental and physical illness, it was entirely undetectable. In fact, she seemed so lithe, graceful, charming and energetic as to defy age, reason and even gravity.

How lucky we are that clips like that and serious biographers like Kendra Bean are helping to preserve a history that would otherwise be so easily lost.

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