At the beginning of her career, actress Vivien Leigh was ‘the one’ out of hundreds of actresses who coveted the role of “Scarlett O’Hara” in the classic historical romance “Gone With The Wind” (1939). Winning the role changed Leigh’s life forever, garnering her an American audience and a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of the stubborn Southern Belle. With the help of Technicolor, it was no secret that Vivien Leigh had one of the most beautiful faces ever to grace the silver screen and sometimes it seemed her beauty overpowered her skills as a dramatic actress. . Leigh had once expressed her distaste for the movie star label with “I am not a film star. I am an actress.” She proved that claim with her portrayal of “Blanche DuBois.”
Just like when Leigh had to fight for “Scarlett,” the now 36-year-old actress was pitted against a long line of other stars who wanted to play the role of the washed-up, mentally ill Southern Belle who drops onto her sister and son-in-law’s doorstep to upset their lives. Some actresses including Lana Turner had auditioned and tested for the part. However, Leigh had an advantage they did not have. She had played “Blanche” on the London stage a year prior to the projected starting date of the film production, where her husband Sir Laurence Olivier had directed her. When Elia Kazan, who had directed his own production of the Williams’ play in 1947 with Brando as “Stan” and Jessica Tandy as “Blanche,” was working with casting for Warner Bros., Kazan was forced to drop Tandy and cast Leigh not because she did the play but because her name was more commercially successful.
During the beginning of the film production, Leigh and Brando’s relationship off-screen reflected the tension they showed onscreen. Their different work ethics got in the way with Brando being a method actor and not being used to Leigh’s English Rose etiquette. However, by the end of the 36-day filming, Leigh became friends with Brando as well as with everyone else in the production. But the production was not without Leigh’s illness getting in the way. Everyone witnessed it, including Brando who wrote in his autobiography, “Songs My Mother Taught Me”, “In many ways she was Blanche. . .She was memorably beautiful, one of the great beauties of the screen, but she was also vulnerable, and her own life had been very much like that of Tennessee’s wounded butterfly.”
Today, classic film historians and biographers classify Vivien Leigh as a case of classic Bi-polar disorder. However back then, it was quite difficult, nearly impossible for a disorder like that to be diagnosed. Looking back on her role, it would be well-assumed that playing a complex and severely disturbed character like “Blanche” would have been liberating for Leigh but it in fact made her disorder worse. According to Leigh, who had told reporters in interviews at the time, “I had played Blanche on the stage for nine months straight and now she has taken over.” And later in her life, she reflected that the role had “Tipped me over into madness.”
The film adaptation of “A Streetcar Names Desire” (1951) was nominated for twelve Oscars including Tennessee Williams for “Best Screenplay”, Marlon Brando for “Best Actor”, Kim Hunter for “Best Supporting Actress” and Vivien Leigh for “Best Actress, in which she won. Even if she had not won the Academy Award, Leigh’s portrayal of “Blanche Dubois” is timeless and remains unparallel in the pantheon of memorable performances. Williams himself said of Leigh’s performance as “Everything that I intended, and much that I had never dreamed of.”