How ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ Drove Vivien Leigh to the Edge of Insanity
Struggling with mental illness and a tumultuous marriage to Laurence Olivier, the actress sought a comeback (and a second Oscar) with the adaptation of Tennessee Williams' hit play — an exclusive excerpt from Stephen Galloway’s forthcoming book 'Truly, Madly.'
Fourteen years after Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh had embarked on an adulterous affair — leading them to abandon their spouses and children, unable to tear themselves apart, finally marrying in 1940 — their all-consuming love had begun to fray. The pressure of living under a glare of publicity, the microscopic attention paid to their every move after 1939’s Wuthering Heights and Gone With the Wind, and Olivier’s lightning-fast rise from matinee idol to titan of the stage (a rise his wife couldn’t match) had all taken a terrible toll.
And so had Leigh’s increasingly erratic behavior. Her moods would swing from vertiginous highs to debilitating lows. During the highs, she never seemed to sleep and would indulge in extraordinary excesses, sexual and material; during the lows, she could barely function. Friends accused her of being spoiled or drunk. What they didn’t know — nor did the Oliviers — was that she suffered from bipolar disorder (or manic depression, as it was then known).
After returning from a disastrous six-month tour of Australia — during which they hoped to rekindle their relationship — the Oliviers were in the midst of preparing a return to the stage when Vivien confronted Larry with a shattering announcement.
In early 1949, the Oliviers were sitting at home in England when Vivien spoke up. “It came like a small bolt from the blue, like a drop of water,” Larry (as Laurence was known) recalled in his 1982 memoir. “I almost thought my ears had deceived me: ‘I don’t love you any more. … There’s no one else or anything like that; I mean, I still love you but in a different way, sort of, well, like a brother.’ “
The shock was profound. He “felt as if I had been told that I had been condemned to death.” The couple continued to have sex — as Larry ruefully observed, despite their new, nominally fraternal relationship, “occasional acts of incest were not discouraged.” But Vivien was entering a dark and frightening period of her life; she was coping with moods she couldn’t fathom, let alone control, even if she was beginning to recognize something was wrong. “When she had the breakdowns and behaved very, very violently,” said actor John Gielgud, a close friend of the couple’s, “she would always, afterwards, write letters and go and see the people, the nurses who had looked after her, and apologize for having upset them. It must have been a dreadful thing to know that was coming on.”
Vivien returned to the London stage with two hits — School for Scandal and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone — performed in repertoire with Larry’s Richard III. But no matter how well she did, she was constantly reminded that her talent paled beside his. To compensate for their struggles, the Oliviers kept living beyond their means, accumulating ever more ferociously: furniture; trees for their garden; paintings by Renoir, Degas and Bonnard; and even a new Bentley. Their problems persisted. Vivien needed something more than luxury to validate her. But what?
The answer came to her when she read A Streetcar Named Desire, a year after Tennessee Williams’ play had become a Broadway legend with Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. She felt a strong connection to the character of Blanche, a former schoolteacher with a mysterious past who leaves Mississippi to move in with her sister, only to disintegrate in her New Orleans home, amid revelations of sexual promiscuity. Vivien could barely control her excitement at the thought of playing Blanche in the West End, under Larry’s direction, of course.
Larry was less convinced. The play was seamy, he thought, and its subjects — homosexuality, prostitution, nymphomania — were all but unmentionable on the British stage, where they would surely draw the wrath of the Lord Chamberlain, Britain’s censor. Still, driven to support Vivien despite their troubles, Larry told the play’s producer, Irene Selznick, that he was keen to direct Streetcar in England, with Vivien as Blanche. “Tremendously enthusiastic about prospect and hope it will fructify,” he wrote, his ornate choice of language revealing his ambivalence.
Like her ex-husband, producer David O. Selznick, Irene had never cared for Larry, any more than his wife. She remembered all too well the difficulties they had caused David when Vivien starred as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. But now she had to be careful: In England she would have far less clout than in New York, where producers held ultimate power, not directors or stars — and that made it crucial for her to find the right partner. Could it be Olivier? Should it be?
Williams, meanwhile, favored Larry while remaining skeptical about his wife. “If only we could be devastatingly frank with Sir Laurence,” he wrote to Irene, “and say, ‘Honey, we want you but could do without her!’ “
Vivien could not do without Williams’ play. She had “fastened her hopes” on Blanche, Larry believed, ignoring his warning that to play a woman on the edge of insanity could trigger a return of her own. Despite friends’ fears that the production would prove too taxing, Larry listened to what Vivien wanted and kept fighting to obtain the rights.
In May 1949, Williams came to London to see Vivien in her three plays. He found the city choked with traffic and smog, but his trip paid off. “Vivien in essence did an audition for three nights running, and she was all too aware of it,” wrote Irene. “By the third evening the matter was settled.”
As work commenced on the London production of Streetcar, Larry began to impose his will, casting without auditions and pushing for cuts. Try as Irene did to remind him that they had an ironclad deal forbidding changes, he waved her away. “Oh, the old boy won’t mind,” he insisted of Williams.
He wasn’t alone in wanting changes. The Lord Chamberlain had a whole list, particularly relating to Blanche’s shocking revelation that her ex-husband was gay, the one thing Williams insisted “cannot be altered.” And yet it was and he was forced to capitulate to the Chamberlain’s rules, leaving British audiences under the impression that Blanche’s husband had cheated on her with a woman, rather than a man, and not only a woman but “a Negress.”
Rehearsals started in Manchester where an out-of-town run was due to begin in September 1949. In an impassioned, 16-page letter to Williams, scrawled late at night in his suite at the Midland Hotel, when he was too tired and stressed to be tactful, Larry heaped scorn on some of the writing, while paying lip service to the writer.
“You must know that I think Streetcar is a really great play,” he told Williams before insisting on an hour’s worth of cuts. “I honestly think the play is a little long. I also hear from every single person I have spoken to who has seen it in America that this is not only theirs but a general feeling. ‘Repititious’ [sic] and ‘Over-written’ (horrid isn’t it?) are fairly usual expressions of critical comment. Among even the most enraptured praise and wonder, these reservations of opinion are usual … God damn it, Colonel, I don’t understand you, how you can [object to] a single thing I’ve done when you submitted (I suppose you submitted) to this vandalism in N.Y.”
Olivier’s outburst had as much to do with Vivien as the play. Locked in rehearsals, fighting to capture the precise Southern accent, as well as the essence of a character who goes out of her mind, she was tackling the most challenging role of her life, one that made even Scarlett look easy. Her voice was flagging and preview audiences complained that they couldn’t hear what she said; the play was too long for her to manage; and she was still uncertain of her interpretation, worried that it would never equal Tandy’s. Cutting made things simpler, for both Larry and Vivien. And when the cuts were made, things began to go better.
When the production debuted in the West End, it was a sensation. A stampede took place on opening night, when the crowds waiting for spare tickets discovered five more were on sale. Even critics who denounced the play as seedy gave Vivien and Larry their due. “It is only Olivier, I should say, who can bring out the pathos in that hard lovely beauty of Vivien Leigh,” noted the journalist David Lewin. Added the Illustrated London News’ J.C. Trewin, “[Leigh] controls the stage finely in those last ‘strong’ theatrics when Blanche, her mind shivered, is on the way to the asylum.”
At first, Vivien relished this attention. But as she settled into her role, she began to dread the smut-seeking audiences, the ones who had heard she was playing a “nymphomaniac” and came to ogle her and the play “like apes,” as she confided to Gielgud. Her confidence was further shaken by a negative review from Kenneth Tynan, London’s sharpest and shrewdest critic, whose pen dripped acid. Vivien’s Blanche, he wrote, was “a posturing butterfly, with no depth, no sorrow, no room for development, and above all, no trace of Blanche’s crushed ideals.”
Vivien felt “bulldozed” by Tynan’s review, as one of her friends recalled. A role she had once coveted began to seem overwhelming. Stress and exhaustion were the tinder to ignite her illness. With mania came a heightened and indiscriminate sexuality that was part and parcel of her condition, and that even spilled over on Tynan, hardly the kind of man Vivien would normally have desired. The critic, who had managed to finagle his way into the Oliviers’ lives despite his harsh critiques, later recalled lying in a guest bed at Notley, the couple’s country home, trying to take a nap, when Vivien entered his room. “No sooner had I stripped to my Y-fronts and fallen asleep than I felt the sheet slowly turned back and a hand placed on my genitals,” he wrote. “It was Vivien, naked under a peignoir. I began to respond and then suddenly thought how impossible it would be to cuckold a man I venerated under his own roof — a really cock-crinkling thought. I muttered it to Vivien, who pouted a bit, but eventually rose to her feet — and tiptoed across to Elaine’s bed (Tynan’s then wife, Elaine Dundy). I hastily dressed: As I left the room, Vivien and Elaine were sleepily embracing.”
Vivien began to roam the streets, wandering at night through parts of London that were considered unsafe for a woman of her class and distinction. “She would dismiss her driver and walk home through the West End’s red light district, stopping to chat to the street-girls plying their trade,” writes her biographer Alexander Walker. “She said she felt an affinity between their flamboyant appeal and Blanche’s more pathetic promiscuity.” Playing Blanche, Vivien later acknowledged, “tipped me into madness.”
And yet when Hollywood came calling, she could not resist. Elia Kazan was reluctant to direct when producer Charles K. Feldman — who brought the project to Warners — had first approached him. He hated “to get it up twice for the same material,” he explained. “It’s unbearable to me — impossible.” But it would have been even more unbearable to let someone else do so and he ultimately signed on. While Brando was attached from the start, Vivien wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for Blanche: he was afraid she’d be under Olivier’s thumb and too bound to his original direction; and so he pushed for Olivia de Havilland, while Feldman kept fighting for Vivien.
Throughout, no one mentioned the most obvious choice, Jessica Tandy, who had created the role on Broadway. She was not a film star, of course; but there may have been another reason she was out of the running: She and Brando had never gotten along. Early in rehearsals, the actress had lashed out at him for being late and forgetting his lines. When he apologized, she wrote an icy, three-page response. “This kind of casualness is bound to hurt you eventually and earn you a reputation for irresponsibility which I don’t think managers or directors will tolerate, despite your unusual abilities,” she bristled. Then she knocked his acting, asking sardonically: “Do you have a stammer? Or is it just something that happens to you on stage?”
With de Havilland unavailable and Tandy out of contention, Vivien had no serious competition and was able to command $100,000 for the film, compared to Brando’s $75,000. But Williams was still dubious and blamed her for the changes Larry had imposed. “Don’t listen to Leigh about script,” he cautioned Kazan.
In fact, rather than demand cuts, Vivien asked for some of the excised material to be restored. In a long letter to the director, she brought up the subject she knew so well: madness. “One must find as many different ways as possible of expressing [Blanche’s] neurasthenia,” she wrote. “You probably know that playing Blanche is not exactly a rest cure, so if I have said anything particularly stooped [stupid], I hope you will forgive and put it down to temporary fatigue.”
Vivien flew to America in the summer of 1950 and in early August she met Brando for the first time in the Warner Bros. commissary. It was an uncomfortable encounter.
“Why do you always wear scent?” he asked. “Because I like to smell nice — don’t you?” she replied. “Me?” he said. “I just wash. In fact, I don’t even get in the tub. I just throw a gob of spit in the air and run under it.”
After that inauspicious, if comical, beginning, shooting commenced in August on one of the biggest sets ever built at Warners — 150 feet wide and 215 feet long — depicting Stella’s New Orleans home, the courtyard outside her apartment and a section of the French Quarter.
Vivien kept to herself. She had not been in Los Angeles since the early days of the war. Waiting for Larry to join her, which he had promised to do as soon as he’d completed a stage play in London, she spent time alone in her dressing room or was visited by friends like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. “Because of the strenuous emotional nature of her role, she seeks as much rest as possible when not before the camera,” noted a Warners publicist.
At first, Vivien rubbed everyone the wrong way. Her fellow castmembers, including Brando, Kim Hunter (as Stella) and Karl Malden (as Mitch), had all been in the original production and their roots were in the Actors Studio, whose Method Vivien never understood. “I don’t know what that Method is,” she said. “I’ve read Stanislavski, naturally, and it seems to me that the Method is: If you say something, you’ve got to mean it, and you’ve got to say it as interestingly as possible. But that applies to life — and acting is life, to me, and should be.”
She was an interloper, an outsider among this band of brothers, who resisted Kazan’s attempts to fit her acting style to theirs. Because of that, “for the first three weeks, I was as miserable as I’ve ever been,” the director maintained. “She’d get irritated with me, and I’d get plenty angry with her.” He urged her to think more deeply about the South, especially as a foreigner who knew little of Southern ways. Southern women, he told her, would float in and out of reality, unaware that Vivien did, too.
Gradually, the relationship between the two improved and they became friends. Vivien teasingly called him “Pasha,” referring both to his Turkish roots and his authoritarian instincts, while he found her more willing to follow his lead than he had expected. “As filming continued,” he recalled later, “we got to like each other, mainly because I thought she was such a terrific worker.” He added: “She had a small talent, but the greatest determination to excel of any actress I’ve known. She’d have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance.”
Vivien drew closer to Brando, too. When he poked fun at Olivier, mimicking him with needlepoint accuracy as he recited his Agincourt speech from Henry V, Vivien howled with laughter. The actors would get together outside work, sometimes swimming in one of their pools.
Kazan did what he could to put her at ease. He allowed a stuntman to take Vivien’s place for a key scene in which Blanche throws a bottle at a mirror, because she was superstitious; he lobbed the bottle 11 times, breaking 11 mirrors. “[Kazan] made a point of wanting us to try to accommodate Vivien since she was the outsider,” recalled Malden.
“Gadg is doing a brilliant job on Streetcar,” raved Williams, using Kazan’s nickname, an abbreviation of Gadget. “And believe it or not, Madame Olivier is nothing less than terrific!”
The rest of the shoot was “pleasant, unpleasant, tedious, dull, exciting, stimulating, boring,” recalled Brando, despite a few mishaps off-camera when he dislocated his shoulder while taking fencing lessons and then sprained his right thumb, incidents that pushed the production 19 days over schedule and raised its total cost to $1.9 million.
After three weeks on location in New Orleans, principal photography ended in September 1950. At the wrap party, the crew gave Vivien a cigarette case, while Kazan gave her a silver necklace. The film was an unadulterated triumph, reaping 12 Oscar nominations, and acting wins for Malden, Hunter and Vivien.
In December 1950, the Oliviers left for home. Eager to restore their relationship, they made the odd choice to cross the Atlantic by cargo ship, hoping the long, crawling journey and relative absence of passengers would leave them free to rediscover each other.
It was a disaster. Out at sea in every sense, with a woman who had once meant everything to him but now seemed like a stranger, Olivier felt more alone than at any time since his mother’s death. He had everything in the world: success, acclaim, an Oscar for Hamlet and another for Henry V, and one of the most beautiful women in the world as his wife; but all he could dwell on was his misery. “It is interesting how seldom life bestows equality of fortune in a man’s public and his private life,” he reflected. “Ralph [Richardson] has remarked to me once or twice that he never had known a fellow with such extremes of good and bad luck.”
A thousand miles from land, and even further from inner peace, he was in despair. “For the first time,” he noted bleakly, “the idea of suicide had its attractions.”
Excerpted from the book Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and the Romance of the Century by Stephen Galloway, former executive editor at THR. Copyright © 2022 by Stephen Galloway. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
This story first appeared in the March 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.