Vivien Leigh and the Star Archive – A Study Day
Queen Mary University of London,
7 March, 2015
by Sarah Culhane
The ‘Vivien Leigh and the Star Archive’ study day began with a presentation from Kate Dorney and Keith Lodwick, curators of the Vivien Leigh Archive. The archive was acquired by the V&A in 2013, the centenary date of the actress’s birth. With over 7,500 personal letters and some 2,000 photographs and other ephemera, the archive is a rich resource for scholars and fans alike.
Dorney gave a fascinating insight into the work of a curator, which, beyond the obvious tasks of organising and cataloguing material, also involves a public-facing element of media engagement. As she recounted, it was hoped that the VL archive would be used by critics, scholars and journalists to reconsider the narrative around Leigh and take her career ‘out of the shadow of Laurence Olivier’. There was some disappointment, therefore, when, following a visit to the archive earlier this year, an Arts correspondent for the Mail on Sunday wrote an article with the headline ‘From Larry with Lust…Olivier’s X-rated letters to Vivien Leigh seen for first time’. The article was subsequently syndicated to various other media outlets such as The Guardian and The Telegraph. A fine example of online journalism’s obsession with clickbait perhaps, but not the approach that Dorney and Lodwick had hoped for when they set about engaging with the media. Given the media’s focus on the more salacious content contained within the archive, Dorney highlighted the importance of academic events such as this study day as a way of publicly using the archive to re-evaluate Viven Leigh as not only a film and stage actress but also a business woman who was conscious of her star image and actively involved in its construction. Indeed, scrapbooks containing newspaper cuttings relating to Leigh suggest that during her career the actress was meticulously monitoring and curating her own image.
Lodwick pointed out how archived documents, such as an annotated copy of the script for A Streetcar named Desire and a detailed letter to the film’s director Elia Kazan, shed light on Leigh’s professionalism, an aspect of female stardom that is often overlooked or replaced by a tendency to reduce the actress’s craft and technique to instinctive qualities, such as naturalness and spontaneity.
In keeping with the theme of the re-evaluation of Leigh’s career, Adrian Garvey and Hollie Price (PhD candidates at Queen Mary) presented a show reel of clips from twelve of Leigh’s films, spanning three decades. The range of roles – from earlier films such as Look up and Laugh (1935) and Fire over England (1937), to the latter end of her career in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961) and Ship of Fools (1965) – were a refreshing reminder of Leigh’s performances beyond Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind, 1939) and Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951).
In the presentation after lunch, Charles Drazin, (Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Queen Mary) drew on interviews that he conducted with producer Sir Anthony Havelock-Allan for a memoir that unfortunately was never fully realised. Havelock-Allan was the producer on The Village Squire (1935, Reginald Denham), Vivien Leigh’s first credited on-screen performance. According to Drazin, Havelock-Allan had admitted to being surprised that Leigh went on to become a star, as he ‘was never touched by her’. Nevertheless, he did observe in her a keen sense of ambition, which he described as having ‘a steely quality’, an aspect of Leigh that is supported by further evidence emerging from the archive.
In her paper ‘Glimpsing Vivien Leigh in My Week with Marilyn (2011)’, Lucy Bolton (Lecturer in Film Studies at Queen Mary) looked at how Simon Curtis’s film could be read as a mini-biopic on Leigh. Played by Julia Ormond, Leigh occupies a relatively minor role within the broader narrative of the film. Through close textual analysis, Bolton illustrated how Ormond’s frumpy and ageing Leigh contrasts with Michelle Williams’s fresh and youthful Monroe. Alluding to Leigh’s poor mental health, she is portrayed as an insecure and somewhat tragic figure. This is not a film about Leigh and, as with the mainstream narrative surrounding her career, she is once again relegated to the background.
In 2013, the National Portrait Gallery ran an exhibition to coincide with the centenary of Leigh’s birth (see link). In the last presentation of the study day, the curators of the exhibition, Terence Pepper and Clare Freestone, talked through the stages involved in the organisation of such an exhibition, from the acquisition of photos and ephemera from private collections and online sources such as eBay, to the presentation within the gallery space. Although the NPG holds over one hundred and thirty photos of Leigh in its collection, the exhibition consisted of a selection of fifty different photos, film stills and magazine covers. When deciding what images to include in exhibitions centred on stars – the NPG has also featured an exhibition on Marilyn Monroe (2012-2013) and has a forthcoming exhibition on Audrey Hepburn (2015) – Pepper explained that their aim was to strike a balance between iconic images that are instantly recognisable and lesser-known photos that offer the public a new perspective on the life and career of the star in question.
The wealth of resources that can now be accessed through the Vivien Leigh archive provides plenty of scope for a timely second-take on the actress’s career, shifting the focus away from the reductive narrative that has defined her till now in order to bring new aspects to the fore.
For anyone who may be interested in exploring the lesser-known aspects of Vivien Leigh’s career, the archive at the V&A is open to the public, with access by appointment only. The archive catalogue and full details about visiting the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance’s Reading Room can be found at Archiveshub.
Sarah Culhane is a PhD candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Bristol. She is currently researching the representation and reception of female stars, active in Italian cinema in the 1940s and 1950s. She also works on the AHRC-funded Italian Cinema Audiences research project.