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80 years after it landed in theaters, Gone With the Wind is still one of America’s favorite blockbusters, and its pugnacious star Vivien Leigh is still an icon for her role as Scarlett O’Hara.
But behind the glamour and romance of the Hollywood classic, a new book about Leigh’s life reveals she was suffering in private.
In Dark Star, biographer Alan Strachan shines a light on two little-known features of Leigh’s life: her bipolar disorder, and the multiple miscarriages she suffered during her marriage to fellow Hollywood legend Sir Laurence Olivier.
Building on Leigh’s private letters, diary entries, and new interviews with the star’s friends, Strachan paints a tragic picture of the actress who died at just age 53, from tuberculosis.
Bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes dramatic mood swings between emotional highs (mania) and and lows (depression) was not well understood during Leigh’s lifetime, but the actress demonstrated classic symptoms of the condition from her childhood on.
Leigh’s mood swings, Strachan writes, earned her a reputation for being an unreasonable actress who made life on set difficult. But the actress avoided seeking psychiatric help because of the public suspicion attached to therapy in the 1940s.
“Vivien was terrified of the publicity that might possibly be shaken out by that,” Strachan told Fox News.
“She was near hysterical at the thought of having anything about her nervous condition appearing in the newspapers. It was considered something of a stigma at that time.”
Even Leigh’s mother, he writes, would chalk the actress’ manic episodes and depressions up to her “artistic temperament.”
The book also details how Leigh and Olivier began an affair while they were both married to other people, and how Leigh once crashed Olivier’s Italian vacation with his then-wife.
During Leigh’s marriage to Olivier, her episodes created distance between them, and ironically the pair would both seek out new affairs. Olivier’s own film success, which outshone Leigh’s, also seemed to make her jealous.
Strachan also dug up a new, heartbreaking chapter of Leigh’s life story: the three miscarriages she suffered while trying to have a child with Olivier. Once, he says, the actress “slipped on a very highly polished marble floor during filming and lost the baby.”
“That definitely had an effect on her.”
Towards the end of her career, as her manic periods became even worse, it was almost impossible for Leigh to make it through a movie shoot.
“She kept slipping into past characters,” Strachan said. “She would start going into Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, which she played on stage in London and then onscreen for her second Oscar.”
A three-month stay in an English mental hospital only added to Leigh’s suffering, as she was treated with electroshock therapy – a controversial treatment still used for bipolar disorder to this day.
While Olivier and Leigh divorced in 1961, they remained close until the actress’ untimely death six years later.
“She never stopped loving him,” says Strachan, who blames the split on Olivier’s “obsessive” approach to his career and lack of understanding for her condition.
Leigh was still working as an actress at the time of her death, and it’s comforting to know that in spite of everything she suffered through, audiences still appreciate her work in classic films like Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.
In fact, you can see Leigh and her co-star Clark Gable back on the big screen next month, when Gone With the Wind returns to theaters on Thursday, Feb 28th and Sunday, March 3rd for its 80th anniversary. Visit Fathom Events to find a screening near you.
[H/T: Fox News]