From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week we are celebrating Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. Get your tickets here!
Vivien Leigh is regarded as one of cinema’s all time greatest actors. Her name stands alongside stars like Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, and Ingrid Bergman despite having only appeared in nineteen films. Yet Leigh’s performances in films like Anna Karenina, Gone With the Wind, and A Streetcar Named Desire forever etched her name into film history. But for someone who struggled with bipolar disorder, her performances came at a price.
While Leigh is widely remembered for her roles in the films listed above, she was a prominent stage actress who dedicated the majority of her time to the theater. She met Sir Laurence Olivier, her eventual husband of twenty years, at the theater, and in fact, it was there that she was first introduced to the character of Blanche DuBois.
When Tennessee Williams wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, he had originally pegged actress and close friend Tallulah Bankhead for Blanche. But she refused, concerned that her strong presence didn’t effectively align with Williams’ fragile Southern Belle. Bankhead eventually took on the role in 1956 and to no one’s surprise, she was met with a general agreement that her presence was indeed too strong.
Leigh earned the role in London’s West End production of the play after Williams saw her perform in The School for Scandal and Antigone. And from the moment she was cast, causes for concern arose. Mostly due to the play’s scandalous content, which included rape, adultery, and overall promiscuity. For an actress who was known for primarily performing Shakespeare, A Streetcar Named Desire was a stretch. But also because of Leigh’s delicate mental condition, which was unbeknownst to most people at the time. However, with Olivier directing and her belief that it was the role of a lifetime, Leigh pushed past the critics and her nerves and became Blanche DuBois.
By the time Blanche came around, Leigh had just overcome a bout of depression caused by a miscarriage, was halfway through her marriage with Olivier, and in the early stages of an affair with actor Peter Finch. For those unaware of the role, Blanche is an aging Southern Belle who, after losing the family home, her husband, and her job, shows up at her sister’s house on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Later, it’s revealed that the cause of her husband’s death was suicide and her job dismissal was a result of an affair with a student. Helpless, Blanche turned to prostitution as a way to make ends meet before traveling to her sister. Unfortunately, aspects of the character overlapped with Leigh’s life, causing reality and fiction to meld. As biographer Alexander Walker elaborates:
“[Leigh] had mentally left Olivier and was experiencing something akin to Blanche’s loneliness. She would talk to friends of ‘quicksands’ in her life – this was Blanche’s trauma too.”
The production lasted a grueling nine months with Leigh playing Blanche over three hundred times. She dyed her dark hair a straw-like blonde, an effort she never offered to any other production. In an attempt to understand the lush-like nature of Blanche, Leigh meandered London’s red light district, studying the women who ran the neighborhood. With each performance, Leigh lost a bit of herself to Blanche, and towards the end she would exit the stage shaking and unaware of whether or not she had been able to finish her lines. It may have been Elia Kazan’s 1951 film that she would later claim, “tipped her into madness,” but it was the three hundred-plus reoccurring stage performances that walked her toward the edge.
There was no real gap between the stage production and the film itself. After the play wrapped, Leigh and her husband Olivier headed to Hollywood where she would perform in Kazan’s adaptation and Olivier would star in William Wyler’s Carrie (1952). But Leigh’s Blanche wasn’t offered willingly. Like Williams’ Tallulah Bankhead, Kazan had both Olivia de Havilland and Jessica Tandy in mind. His hesitant decision to pick Leigh over his preferred choices was influenced by Leigh’s extensive experience playing the complex character.
A Streetcar Named Desire is regarded as Leigh’s best performance. The film earned her a second Academy Award for Best Actress; the first was for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). But the years following both the stage production and film of A Streetcar Named Desire were littered with bouts of rage and overwhelming depression. Her mental condition cost her roles in films like Elephant Walk (1954) and plays like South Sea Bubble (1956). While she continued to contribute to both the screen and stage throughout her short life – Leigh passed at the age of 53 in 1967 due to Tuberculosis – it’s clear that there is a distinct line of before-and-after when it comes to the character of Blanche DuBois.