I recently finished reading a biography about possibly my country’s greatest actress: Vivien Leigh. Triumphant and tragic, always lovely, ever fragile, her most difficult part was that of her own life.
My post on an old movies site on Facebook provoked a conversation about her being England’s greatest actress. I was asked what it was about her that made me of this opinion, and how she faired in comparison to the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren. (The question was asked in all innocence, purely out of curiosity, as it was posed by a fan of Vivien’s who was curious as to why I hold her in such similar esteem.)
I replied that both Judi Dench and Helen Mirren are fine actresses, (Elizabeth Taylor too), but to me there seems a certain gravitas in both Leigh’s performances and in her attitude towards her craft. Most of her performances were on stage and not before a camera, and she would often say that she was an actress, not a film star. Two Oscars not withstanding.
If only her Lady Macbeth, among other roles, had been recorded!
She brought both beauty and art to her roles, but she thought that her looks obscured her abilities as an actress.
Responding to the original question in making a decision about where she ranks, we can only go off anecdotes, regard, performances and achievements.
There was a firm courage that underscored Leigh’s sometimes fragile demeanour, which becomes apparent when you learn of her long struggle with both tuberculosis,(which ultimately would claim her), and mental illness. There are accounts of her appearing on stage after undergoing electric shock treatment, burn marks still visible on her temples.
When she was making her final film, Stanley Kubrick said that it was obvious she was ill. About to shoot a scene, she would be shaking on set. Leigh would take herself off to the side, master control of herself, then come back and complete a perfect take, her trembling returning on finishing.
This final indication of dedication and braveness underlines her greatness. One man’s meat and all that, but when considering the pantheon of our great actors and actresses, for me Vivien Leigh is up there at the very top.