Where In The Tree Is Vivien?

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.

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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.

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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.

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VIVIEN LEIGH holding her Academy Award for Best Actress for Gone With Wind. 1940.

Generations #2

Last week I attended the funeral of my great aunt. She was a lovely woman who squeezed every last bit of fun out of life. For a woman in her eighties she was very switched on-she had an iPad, an iPhone 5, and was even on my Facebook friends list.

She was the last of my grandparents’ generation, on both sides. With her passing, it feels like we have lost so much more than just a beloved member of the family. We have lost the last connection to the causes of which we are the effects. A link to the parts that make up our sum.

Now we move onto the next generational  level. That is the natural order of things. That is how we go on.

When she received the news that she had cancer, she decided against having combative treatment, citing her age and her health. She told me that she didn’t want anybody’s pity, and that she had had a good life. My immediate thought was that there is not a lot of people who, having been an orphan at a very young age, and being widowed twice, would look back and say that they had had a good life.

On the day of her death, she told her grown up granddaughter that she would be happy to go tonight, that the time was right.  I hope when it is my time, I can stare my own mortality square in the face with similar levels of acceptance, of reasoning, of faith.

There were no recriminations, no regrets.

Hers was a peaceful, natural end to a life filled with laughter. That makes things easier.

When we are with others, we sit in the blazing light of their presence, filled as they are with personality and vitality. And life. When their essence leaves us, we are suddenly confronted by the shadow of their absence.

If we are attentive, we can follow still the wake of their journey, track the fading trails of light as they sink over the horizon.

We can close our eyes, and feel still the warmth on our face.

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