Breakouts and Outbreaks: Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

Back in the day of the old, assembly-line studio system, movies were a matter pop-culture in a way that we can no longer imagine. It is a craze that exists now only in the pages of history. In the midst of the Great Depression, films were an escape from the traumas of life all across America. In 1939, the golden year of Hollywood, David O. Selznick produced the grand masterpiece of cinema, Gone with the Wind. The novel was deemed, by author Margaret Mitchell, to be immune to cinematic adaptation. It just couldn’t be successfully done. The project remained in limbo for a while, oddly enough, the biggest obstacle the film had to overcome was finding Scarlett.  The story holds that Vivien Leigh happened to be in the right place at the right time with her, then boyfriend, Laurence Olivier. Selznick happened to see Leigh in the studio, in front of a backdrop and knew immediately that he had found Scarlett. This story is of course a fictionalized account; however, it is true that her casting made international headlines. A star was born.

Gone with the Wind is a seminal film for many reasons. Its run time alone certifies the ambition and scope of the film, and its success resounds beyond the fact that it is the single most successful film ever. But all of this hinges on the performance of Vivien Leigh. It would be an understatement to say that she pulled it off. There are two key elements to her performance: development and likability.

Scarlett finds herself, at the beginning of the film, trapped in the haven of a blissful southern existence, naïve and innocent. By the end of the film she exists in another world altogether. In between she changes from floating through life to fighting for survival. The two are polar opposites, to pull this off believably, Scarlett had to hit rock bottom, the scenes in which this transition is completed occur in the mid section of the film. Beginning with her declaration to “never go hungry again,” and continuing with her taking control of Tara, shooting the robber and finally, mandating the sweatshop style work ethic, she becomes a new woman. This transition is grounded in her declaration and her new-found motivation, this is the turning point. Interestingly enough, there is a second turning point following the death of her second husband. This time, instead of making a verbal declaration to God, she makes the decision to hold on to what she has for dear life, regardless of the costs, even if it means causing the death of her husband and submitting to Rhett Butler. These are the three Scarletts in the film: the Scarlett of pre-war naïve innocence, the fight for survival Scarlett, and the be-better than everyone else Scarlett. Pulling off all three is an impressive feat in and of itself, but Leigh visualizes the transitions believably as well, a vital addition to the films’ achievements.

The second, and more controversial side of the story, is the likability of the character Scarlett. Upon release, it was widely accepted that Scarlett was not supposed to be liked, that her actions, particularly pertaining to the second and third version of Scarlett, were selfish, not lady-like, and rather offensive. A more modern interpretation would be to see her as a woman who did what needed to be done. Either way, the film begs the question: at what point does survival outweigh ethics? I bring this up to show exactly how risky the performance is, it’s legitimately controversial. This is created by the sheer intensity of Leigh in the latter half of the film and the third character transition, in which we are introduced to a fourth Scarlett. Following Rhett’s famous monologue, she declares herself to be a fully independent Scarlett, and Leigh, in the matter of only a few moments, solidifies the entire transition believably. “Tomorrow is another day.”

While a talent such as Vivien Leigh was sure to be noticed on a grand scale eventually, with or without Gone with the Wind, this is still the film that brought her to the world of cinema. And while my fondest moments of the film stem not from Leigh’s performance so much as Clark Gable’s and Hattie McDaniel’s, the fate of the film rested in the power of Leigh’s performance. It is a stunning achievement that lit up the screen seventy-one years ago, in the heat of golden age cinema.  Alas, that time has passed, look for it only in books, no more a dream remembered, a world where the casting of a star was international news, and the movie theater provided blissful escape for only a dime. That, is a civilization now gone with the wind. With the one of the greatest breakouts in history, Vivien Leigh never went hungry again.

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  • She certainly was good in this movie, but the film itself was very disappointing to me. A lot of my problems hinged on the character of Melly. To be plain: no one is that much of a saint. Secondly, I found the entire love triangle involving Scarlett tiresome and boring. Like most 3.5+ hour movies, “Gone with the Wind” could have used some editing.

    Leigh is brilliant, though. McDaniel was even better.

  • The movie is okay, but I hated her performance. Her character was also obnoxious. Gone with the Wind is a perfect example of how popularity back in that time can make a film famous. There are so many other films that are ignored because of this movie and Casablanca. That’s why I would never give both of them four stars.

    Also Vivien Leigh’s performance in this wasn’t as bad as her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. That is truly an awful performance and the worst I’ve seen in that time period. She won oscars for both though.

  • Andrew R.

    @Brandon Cooley-No offense, but are you crazy?

    Leigh’s performances in GWTW and Streetcar are two of the best ever by a lead actress. She deserved both her Oscars.

    Regarding GWTW itself, I love it, but it shouldn’t have beat Wizard of Oz.

  • Jose

    G, I agree with you on the movie and how the love triangle was so tiresome.

    Brandon, the thing about her character was that it was supposed to show why its bad for women to try to gain independence and all that stuff, I though it worked in getting the message across (not that I support that idea though)..

    Andrew, Wizard of Oz? Really?

  • Andrew R.

    Yes, Jose. Wizard of Oz.

  • Vince

    It should have gone to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

  • Davin

    My point in calling her controversial and addressing the likability is there to assess the fact that she is obnoxious and selfish, and that is, arguably, the way she is supposed to be. For that reason, I can’t find reason in calling her performance anything less than ballsy and brilliant, Brandon. I would also encourage those of you who don’t like the movie to watch Frank Capra’s “You can’t take it with you,” and then watch GWTW shortly after. You will notice that while Capra’s picture is great, it is heavily dated, whereas GWTW is visually encompassing and truly has not aged a single day in 71 years, that’s why I think it irrefutably deserved to win. But hey, that’s just me.

  • @Davin. I’ll watch You Can’t Take It With You and report back to you on that, however It Happened One Night came out in 1934 and was directed by Capra and it is much better than Gone with the Wind in my opinion.

    To everybody that says Vivien Leigh is a good actress, watch any other movie with a lead actress made in the 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s and you’ll probably see a more convincing and believalbe performance than her’s in A Streetcar Named Desire. The performance in GWTW is just overated, while in A Streetcar Named Desire it was awkward and pathetic.

    In terms of acting back in that time period there are many other actors that deserve more praise than she does. I prefer Marlon Brando, Orson Welles, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Joseph Cotten, and Gregory Peck to name a few.

    The best performance of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s is Ray Milland in the Lost Weekend, but it’s forgotten and unfortunately the average moviegoer hasn’t ever heard of him. The reason why I don’t like actors like Humphry Bogart or Vivein Leigh is because they attract attention today because of their popularity back then, even though they were just average in the first place.

  • Davin

    The point of watching You Can’t Take it With You is not to compare quality so much as to compare how dated the film comes across. The same could be said for It Happened One Night, while it may be a better film (as a matter of opinion, of course), it certainly has dated by comparison to GWTW.

    I guess I just disagree with your judgement of their acting, I considered labeling A Streetcar Named Desire her finest work. Although I do appreciate Ray Milland in Lost Weekend as well. As for Bogart, just watch his work in In a Lonely Place.

  • William L

    Consider some of the other actresses who wanted to play Scarlett, Paulette Goddard & Bette Davis. Homely Davis as a Southern belle in “Jezebel” requires a tremendous “supension of disbelief.” Leigh was one of the great beauties of the silver screen. Her delicate face & figure contrast well with the hardships she struggled to overcome, emphasizing the strength of her will. For all of the characters who accept Scarlett’s image of herself, there are others, Rhett & Hattie McDaniel’s character, who criticize her to her face, often humorously. Scarlett, then deflated, often realizes her defects but usually prefers not to give them up.
    Gable was reluctant to play Rhett, because he thought he could not live up the expectations of people who read the novel. He seems perfect in the role; I cannot imagine any other actor playing it as well.

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