Laurence Olivier: His dysfunctional marriage to Vivien Leigh and his rivalry with Orson Welles

A new book explores the emotional minefield of his marriage to the Gone with the Wind star, which didn’t stop him becoming the great British actor of his age

British film stars Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in London during World War II. Photo by George Hales/Getty Images

Laurence Olivier in the title role of Henry V, a film which was partly shot in Co Wicklow

Truly, Madly by Stephen Galloway

thumbnail: British film stars Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in London during World War II. Photo by George Hales/Getty Images
thumbnail: Laurence Olivier in the title role of Henry V, a film which was partly shot in Co Wicklow
thumbnail: Truly, Madly by Stephen Galloway
Paul Whitington

From the start, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were cast as a golden couple, the Brad and Jen of their day. He was the rising Shakespearean star of British theatre, she the doll-like beauty who’d beaten out the heavy guns of Hollywood to land the plum role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Smiling into the cameras on a hundred red carpets, they certainly looked the part, but their 20-year marriage was tempestuous and dysfunctional, a hotbed of mutual unhappiness.

In his new book Truly, Madly, former Hollywood Reporter writer Stephen Galloway uses archive interviews and the opinions of a psychologist to explore the emotional minefield of the Olivier-Leigh liaison. And it does seem a minor miracle that it lasted as long as it did.

Vivien Leigh suffered from bipolar disorder, which provoked wild mood swings, impulsive behaviour. The couple met on the set of the 1937 film Fire Over England, and began a passionate affair. Both were married at the time, an inconvenient truth that was hushed up in Hollywood because of strict studio morality clauses.

Their relationship remained secret throughout Leigh’s Oscar-winning triumph in Gone with the Wind, and Olivier’s box-office success in Wuthering Heights, and by the time they married in late 1940, Olivier had some idea of what he was in for. He had already noticed Leigh’s instability, and after they set up home together, she would alternate alcoholic slumps with naked frolics in the garden, unscheduled appearances in the bedrooms of startled guests.

There were suicide attempts, electric shock treatments, affairs on either side. And though she won a second Oscar for her portrayal of faded southern belle Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), her final years were blighted by mental and physical decline. The couple divorced in 1960, and Vivien Leigh was just 53 when she died of TB in 1967.

“I would rather have lived a short life with Larry,” she said philosophically, “than face a long one without him.” Perhaps their marriage might have been happier had they not both been involved in the same insecure profession.

It cannot have been easy for Leigh, a fine and versatile stage and screen performer, being married to a man often described as the greatest actor of his age, a director, performer, actor-manager and innovator who transformed British theatre and brought Shakespeare to the masses. She must have felt occluded by a talent so prodigious, and Olivier was not always generous to his colleagues: prone to bouts of jealousy, he indulged in mainly good-natured rivalries with John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and his American nemesis Orson Welles, with whom he had a surprising amount in common.

Brilliant but insecure, and bitterly competitive, Olivier could be treacherous if threatened. Yet he created so much, developed a peerless technique and became one of those actors to whom all subsequent pretenders are compared. Not bad for a vicar’s son from Dorking.

Laurence did not get on with his father, Gerard Kerr Olivier, an Anglican priest whose high church flourishes made him an unpopular and itinerant cleric. Young Larry was devoted to his mother, Agnes Olivier, whose death when he was 12 devastated him. Still, it was his father who decided he should become an actor, perhaps because Gerard had secretly wanted to become one himself.

As a child, Larry would watch his father perform from the pulpit: Gerard, he later recalled in his biography, knew “when to drop the voice, when to bellow about the perils of hellfire, when to slip in a gag, when suddenly to wax sentimental…”

Larry was learning, but seemed a natural actor from the get-go. When he appeared in a school production of Julius Caesar, legendary actress Ellen Terry happened to be in the audience, and wrote in her diary, “the small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor”. Olivier was 10.

After gaining a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama, Olivier joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where he honed his craft playing Shakespeare and Chekhov. His talent was obvious, but his technique was sometimes criticised. His Shakespearean turns were virile, boldly physical, his delivery more muted and naturalistic than was the norm. He wanted to speak normally and avoid the then popular singing style. “The Shakespearean actors one saw were terrible hams,” he said.

When he came to play Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1937, his performance was compared unfavourably with John Gielgud, whose musical reading of the role was considered the gold standard of its time. But Olivier brought passion and rigour to the part, and during his time at the Old Vic would impress crowds and critics with his ability to disappear behind props and make-up to become old men, kings, paupers, cads. His Richard III was particularly admired, and would later be immortalised on film.

Simultaneous with his meteoric rise through British theatre, Oliver had been experimenting with film. His voice, poise and sharp good looks positioned him well for movie stardom, but when he was invited to Hollywood to play Heathcliff in William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, he learnt a valuable lesson.

It was not a happy shoot: Olivier cordially detested his co-star Merle Oberon, and baulked at being asked to reshoot scenes, sometimes as much as 70 times. “Again,” Wyler would say, without elaboration, but Olivier would subsequently credit the director with teaching him how to act on film. Before Wuthering Heights, he had tended to “ham it up” as though playing to the second-tier balcony, but afterwards his movie performances were always grounded.

He was superb as the brooding Maxim de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), clipped and proud as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (also 1940). But meanwhile, Britain and Europe were under siege, and in 1943, Olivier returned to England to make a film that would become arguably his crowning achievement.

Laurence Olivier in the title role of Henry V, a film which was partly shot in Co Wicklow

It was the British Ministry of Information’s idea to create a film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, evoking old glories to stiffen national morale. Indeed before shooting began, Winston Churchill himself emerged from a haze of cigar smoke to give Olivier a pep talk. After initially asking John Ford to direct the film, Olivier took on the role himself, as well as producing and starring in what was to become the most important British film of its time.

Henry V’s exteriors were shot on the Powerscourt estate in Co Wicklow, and the finished film was a triumph, stirring and moving, beautiful to watch. It even did well in America when released there in 1946, to the evident displeasure of Orson Welles, who contended that the Battle of Agincourt looked as though it were taking place on a golf course. Perhaps the big man was jealous: through the 1940s and 50s, he too would take Shakespeare to the big screen, but while Olivier had a then impressive £500,000 to play with on Henry V, and a similar sum for his Oscar-winning 1948 film Hamlet, Orson had to make do with peanuts. His Macbeth (1948) was essentially a B-picture, made using discarded western sets and costumes. And Welles’ Othello (1951), took three years to shoot in snatches, as Orson had to finance the film himself by double-jobbing as an actor on other movies.

Orson watched fuming from the sidelines while Olivier was feted in Hollywood and on Broadway through the 1940s, but Larry didn’t have everything his own way. His marriage to Leigh was a source of recurring unhappiness, and in the 1950s, his career slumped as he concentrated on the life of an actor-manager and seemed to lose interest in performing.

He was on the point too of seeming old-fashioned, when against his better judgment, Olivier agreed to star in the 1957 Royal Court production of John Osborne’s play, The Entertainer. He was by all accounts electrifying as the seedy and desolate music hall performer Archie Rice, whom he played opposite Joan Plowright, who would become his third and final wife.
Having reprised the role of Archie in Tony Richardson’s 1960 film version, Olivier took on the gargantuan task of founding Britain’s National Theatre, building a formidable company of actors at the Old Vic while a purpose-built new theatre was constructed on the banks of the Thames.

Some of those young actors, like Michael Gambon and Anthony Hopkins, did fruity impressions of Olivier behind his back. But they did so out of admiration for an actor who had come to embody a national theatrical tradition. When he died, in 1989, Olivier was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to kings and poets. Anything else would have been unthinkable.

Truly, Madly by Stephen Galloway

‘Truly, Madly’ by Stephen Galloway is out now