Book Review: Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait
Every so often an actress of a certain caliber graces the silver screen and almost instantly cements her status as the “real deal” — a genuine talent in possession of an equally alluring presence.
Vivien Leigh, like any person who spends their life in the public eye, definitely had her detractors — those who considered her talents modest at best — but there’s no denying that the British thespian had real star power, amassing a devoted following that continues to grow even to this day. And one of those fans is Kendra Bean, an American film studies graduate living in London who has done more than her share of introducing Leigh and, subsequently, her husband, Laurence Olivier, to a whole new generation of fans.
I’ve never met Ms. Bean in person, but I’ve known her as a friend via social media for close to nine years. I can recall when her ambition to write a coffee table book on Leigh was just a glimmer in her eye and a lavish goal to work towards. As the founder of the immensely popular vivandlarry.com, Bean realized her calling and recently published Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait (Running Press, 2013) right on time for the actress’ centenary year.
For avid fans of Leigh, An Intimate Portrait may not necessarily provide information they didn’t already know in the biographical department — but this five-year labour of love is a thoroughly researched tribute to the successful, if troubled, star. Where Bean is really able to provide fascinating new insight is with Leigh’s marriage to Olivier. After poring over private letters written to one another, specifically when they lived apart during the Second World War, Bean samples excerpts from these love notes, giving fans more of a glimpse into their high-profile courtship than ever before. As the first Leigh biographer to reach into the Laurence Olivier Archives, Bean allows fans to be privy to information that was once only speculated upon.
An Intimate Portrait also touches on career highlights, like Leigh’s triumphant milestone of being the first British film star to win an Oscar for Best Actress (for Gone With the Wind), and the personal lows such as when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the early 1950s. The collapse of her 20-year marriage to Olivier was devastating, as Bean describes, and the tail end of her life (up until her death at age 53 in 1967) is touched on in a respectful manner. However, where this illustrated biography really excels is in the glorious photography — some which are rare prints or never-before-seen photos that were purchased exclusively for this retrospective.
The book also boasts a lovely introduction from British stage actress Claire Bloom who worked closely with Leigh on several occasions. She reflects upon their friendship and the shared camaraderie that comes with treading the stage together early on in their respective careers. It’s these lovely little personal touches, from the people who knew Leigh best, that makes An Intimate Portrait a must-have for any fan of the actress.
And during this, her centenary year, it seems more fitting that we dwell less on Leigh’s tumultuous marriage to Olivier and her tragic emotional breakdown and more on the irreplaceable imprint she left in the world of cinema. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait reminds you that she was a complex human being, as we all are, but it also allows us to reflect on the legacy she left behind and to relive those moments through stunning, rare images from a life well lived.
Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is is currently available in Europe, with a North American release date of Tuesday, October 15, 2013. Order yours from Amazon now!