Alec Guinness on Vivien Leigh: Golden Memories And Ash

By Telephone
May 1991

I was aware of Vivien when she was young and impossibly beautiful and inordinately ambitious. No one doubted for a moment her imminent fame: She was beautiful; she was spirited; she was, she kept reminding us, a Scorpio, and Scorpios get what they want, use it up, burn it up, leave nothing but golden memories and ash.

She must have been all of twenty when I first encountered her, but she was fully alive and utterly self-aware.

It is true that she approached her work--not to mention her life--with her own needs at the very center of her attention, but this is true of more people than most will admit. I think I admired Vivien because she admitted this about herself, and then promised that she would calm down and behave and say polite things to you once she got everything she wanted.

You always knew precisely where you stood with her. One has to admire this, and one will as you age and come to see how rare it is for someone--an artist, a star--to openly deal with you in this way.

She really possessed a remarkable, otherworldly beauty about her. Vivien and Margaret Leighton both seemed to have been carved either from the moon or from some rare or discontinued batch of Dresden. I don't know if such beauty renders these women fragile and delicate and tentative in their movements, but both of these women had ferocious wills and lovely talents, but they moved with the grace and the maddening slowness of  a geisha. Is there a code of conduct, a form of etiquette, that is attached to such beauty?

Vivien was much quoted when she said of Shaw's plays that they were like a train: You simply learned the lines and sat down and rode the train that he had constructed. Shakespeare, she said, was a vast sea, and one swam about, splashing, loving the beauty and the surroundings. And Tennessee? I asked her. 'Oh,' she said. 'You drown very early on, and die, but then are re-born and perform as a spirit who knows much too much about life and people.' I don't know if Tennessee ever heard that, or if he would appreciate it, but I think it's quite good.

It is stylish now to discredit Vivien, just as it is to claim--stupidly--that Tennessee's work no longer matters or was overrated. Vivien was wonderful on the stage and on the screen, and if you can focus on the small shelf on which her volumes of effort rest, you really are staggered: Well, I am staggered at all that she accomplished in so short and selective a career and in so short a life.

She fell apart very early and very quickly. I remember when I was understudying Larry [Olivier], there was concern for her health and her sanity, her very bearings. I never saw cruelty or coldness in Vivien--even her ambitions and her needs were dealt with charmingly and sweetly, insofar as my witness can bear. It was very sad. She appeared, at a very young age, to turn into a lovely stalk of chalk, and the chipping away had begun, and you were there to see the flaking off.

So many of us, I can attest, tried to do what we could, but there was--and is--nothing really to do. The destiny that gave her that extraordinary beauty and that talent and that magic that surrounded her came, I hate to think, with some exorbitant debts, and those debts were collected early and bluntly and swiftly.

We have to love what we love, and we have to remain loyal. So many who loved Vivien's work--on the stage and on the screen--turned against it when she was frail or when the styles shifted from her corner. I can find no reasonable defense for this. We stand on shores every bit as slippery as Vivien's when we fail to honor our passions.

I love what Tennessee said about Vivien, and I agree with him.

Let's be gentle.


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