August 4, 2021

the secret disease that dragged all his life

Ryan Murphy has managed to get out of the gallery another phenomenon after the success of Glee Y American Horror Story, delving into the racism and machismo of the film industry in the late 1940s with his new series, Hollywood. The 7-episode proposal premiered last Friday, May 1 in Netflix, crowning itself as one of the platform’s most viewed premieres in its first days in service, demonstrating the voracious hunger that exists for the darkest anecdotes of the world of cinema.

And if well Hollywood tells the idealized story of an industry that was not, giving the green light to a film starring a young African American and opening the way to the homosexual community, there is a character that we all could recognize: Vivien Leigh. Portrayed by Katie McGuinness, the unforgettable Scarlett O’Hara from gone With the Wind appears as that actress who began to pass into oblivion stalked by the demons of bipolarity. But was he suffering from a mental illness as the series shows when Dylan McDermott’s character comes to his aid? Yes, and his story is much sadder than that short sequence.

Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (Public Domain Image) / Katie McGuinness in ‘Hollywood (courtesy of Netflix)

Exactly on December 15, it was 80 years since the premiere of gone With the Wind, with a premiere in style in Atlanta, Georgia, thanks to the standing ovation received at a test screening that producer David O. Selznick made in front of a surprise audience. Selznick will always be remembered as the great architect of this marvel in film history, the one responsible for buying the rights to the novel, the one who waited two years to make it until he could ensure the availability of Clark Gable Before his right whim that he was the only one who could play Rhett Butler and the one who said yes to his great protagonist, Vivien Leigh, despite the fact that the great Hollywood ladies of the time were more than available for the role of Scarlett O’Hara.

Some 300,000 people attended the premiere on December 15, 1939 at Loew’s Grand Theater, with celebrations lasting three days and a frenzy that gripped citizens as they watched the parade of stars and arriving limousines. The furor was such that even the governor of Georgia declared that state holiday. The film was a critical success, winning eight Oscars, and today remains the highest grossing in history when its earnings are adjusted for inflation. And part of her freak was her. Vivien Leigh, one of the most acclaimed women of the golden age of cinema.

This British, who was then a stranger in Hollywood, was born on November 5, 1913 and took the character on December 10, 1938 when they were filming the scene of the Atlanta fire. Selznick had conducted more than 1,400 interviews with different actresses when he had the likes of Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn applying for the role. But the producer had been tracking Vivien for several months after seeing her in the theater and after meeting her he knew that he had his protagonist.

However, what many viewers are probably unaware of is that Vivien was as tenacious and whimsical as the most iconic character of her career, although in her case it was not due to a fictitious characteristic to recreate the image of a strong and determined woman; rather, it was the fruit of the personal hell that he lived all his life. Vivien suffered from bipolar disorder.

At that time, mental illness was not discussed as openly as it is now, much less a disorder so complicated that affects 2.6% of the US population over 18 years of age, and more than 1 million people in Spain. Today there are medications that help to cope with periods of mania, depression or exaltation (among other sensations), but the sad thing about Vivien’s story is that during her 53 years of life, the illness was known as manic-depressive psychosis and his only alternative was to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. At that time, this therapy was not applied with the same care as now and there are those who assure that it was common to see burns on his temples.

Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier for That Hamilton Woman (Public Domain Image)

Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier for That Hamilton Woman (Public Domain Image)

To better understand its history we must go back to the meaning of this disorder. Although it occurs in different types -from the most to the least severe including cyclothymia- it is an organic disorder due to a poor functioning of the brain structures responsible for regulating mood“, as described by the Madrid Bipolar Association. And it can present with mania or hyperthymia, which includes excess activity, decreased need for sleep, a feeling of euphoria, hallucinations, among others; or depression, where the lack of illusion, dejection, sadness and hopelessness, decreased self-esteem and even wishes to die predominate. In summary, it differs greatly from anxiety disorders as it is an organic problem, and the sufferer cannot easily control it without drugs, understanding, support, or psychotherapy.

Vivien always knew that she wanted to succeed as an actress, and despite her illness she did everything possible to achieve it. His determination was such that he abandoned his daughter, fruit of his first marriage with Herbert Leigh Holman when he was 21 years old, in the care of his ex-mother-in-law, an aunt and later a convent. The girl, named Suzanne Farrington, lived in Canada and her father had legal custody. During their childhood, it is believed that they saw each other very rarely. Thus she continued her rise to the top of Hollywood and with the help of her second husband – and lover for years – the great Laurence Olivier, crowning herself as one of the power couple of the time.

Some believe that Vivien developed the disease after suffering an abortion in 1940; however, she had been displaying erratic behavior from time to time for years. But it is true that, as his success grew, so did his illness. Over the years, he gained a reputation as “difficult” due to his extreme mood swings and spontaneous outbursts, to the point that the entire industry knew it. The actress’s biographer, John Russell Taylor, states that “his moments of mania were more physically violent “ in the 1960s, shortly before his death in 1967. “It was capable of destroying every object within its reach and severely injuring those who tried to contain it. “

Vivien had an admirable dedication to her profession despite her illness. Years after the success of gone With the Wind, Director of A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan was also amazed at her tremendous dedication. “He would have walked on broken glass if he believed it would help his performance. ” He said. But, according to Viven, that character that earned her her second Oscar for Best Actress was key in her final relapse. “It drove me to madness ” he said on one occasion.

Unfortunately, Vivien turned to drinking to cope with her toughest days but ended up having a breakdown during the filming of Elephant Walk in 1954, and the studio immediately replaced her with the “other” star of the day, Elizabeth Taylor. After that disaster, he moved away from the big screen and focused on the theater, although there are many stories about his fights and violent attacks against Olivier and other colleagues in most of his later works.

He spent the rest of his life years on stage, half of them with Laurence Olivier until their divorce in 1960, and he only made four more feature films. His last performance on the big screen was in 1965 with Ship of Fools, where he could no longer control his illness. One of the anecdotes claims that he hit Lee Marvin so hard with a shoe that he left a mark on him. Still, Leigh carried on her role, marveling at her director, Stanley Kramer, who later said in the book Vivien Leigh de Hugo Vickers: “She was sick, but her courage to go ahead and finish the movie was almost unbelievable. ” However, despite its magnetic presence, it is painful to see it in that film. His performance is crude, erratic and shows the internal ordeal he suffered.

Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin in Ship of Fools (1965)

Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin in Ship of Fools (1965)

In the last years of her life she reconciled with her daughter and had a relationship with actor Jack Merivale, who cared for her until his death on July 8, 1967. Vivien Leigh died of chronic tuberculosis that she contracted in the 1940s. claiming his life at age 53.

It is difficult to accurately imagine the personal hell that he must have endured suffering from an incomprehensible disease at the time and in front of the public eye. And even worse, no drug treatment at your fingertips. Even so, The great thing about his story is that, despite the internal torment, he became a Hollywood legend, sentencing his innate talent and becoming an example of determination and perseverance.

However, I can’t help wondering if his legacy would be even brighter had he not suffered from the disease; Or if that struggle against herself turned her into that tenacious and determined woman who managed to leave an indelible mark on the cinema 80 years ago.

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