Tomorrow would be the 100th birthday of the woman I would argue embodied U.S. popular culture in one film more than any other person. Great story, great hype, great role, great performance, great movie and ever-expanding, often-controversial ripples through American social history.
The woman was a Briton, Vivien Leigh, whose winning of the Scarlett O’Hara role in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, opposite Clark “The King” Gable’s Rhett Butler, was on a publicity par with the choosing of royal brides. She then went on to adapt Margaret Mitchell’s hugely popular fictional heroine into the archetype of cinema star turns. Box Office Mojo says GWTW is still the top-grossing movie of all time, when ticket prices are adjusted for inflation.
Leigh’s Scarlett is rated as the greatest female movie character in an AMC poll, and I can’t think of a male actor who accomplished what she did. Certain male characters became glorious over the course of multiple movies, so that’s not a relevant comparison. But even those men who, like Leigh, gave their characters immortality through a single film — Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone — did not have to deal with anything like the production pressures and public anticipation that Leigh mastered.
Leigh later married Laurence Olivier, who was widely considered the finest English-speaking actor of his time, but she led a famously troubled personal life, and she became the subject of many biographies. She was one of those actresses who are so beautiful people discount their acting ability, but her portrayal of the aging, tragic Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire should have dispelled all that. She won Academy Awards for both Scarlett and Blanche.
By the way, if you are a big and wealthy Vivien Leigh fan, be sure to be at Bonhams in New York City on Nov. 25. They will be auctioning a pale blue negligee Leigh wore under a fox fur in a crushing scene near the end of Gone with the Wind. They’re expecting it to sell for some $60,000, but don’t be shy. Rhett would have bought it for her.