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Vivien Leigh had a nervous breakdown while filming Gone With the Wind

It was the film that set Hollywood and Atlanta on fire. But for Vivien Leigh, who played Southern Belle Scarlet O’Hara, that was the making of “Blown by the wind” was hell on earth.

The film became the highest-grossing film of all time (it grossed $1.823 billion after adjusting for inflation) and won ten Academy Awards in 1939. But he took a significant toll on his 25-year female lead. Exhaustion and pressure from long days and nights on the film set caused her to take sedatives to calm her hysteria until one day she accidentally overdosed.

At the time, Leigh was involved in an affair with English actor Laurence Olivier. The two were head over heels in love two years before starring as Scarlett on the set of Fire Over England. Leigh had left her husband, attorney Herbert Leigh Holman, and their baby girl for Olivier – who had left his wife, actress Jill Esmond, and their baby son.

“As Car you take four pills like that you hysterical little prat,” Olivier wrote in a letter to Leigh after hearing about her overdose. He also enjoyed writing her sexy letters, including one that read, “Urrgh! Bend over – yes, pull down your panties – no, lift up your skirt – now then: clap! Clap! Smack!” like that Really Crazy: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century‘ (Grand Central Publishing), available now, by Stephen Galloway.

Vivien Leigh prepares to kiss Laurence Olivier in a scene from a stage production of "Romeo and Juliet."
Vivien Leigh with her lover Laurence Olivier, who enjoyed writing her sexy letters on the set of Gone With the Wind.
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Clark Gable worried that he wouldn't master his character Rhett Butler's Southern accent, while Leigh's sophistication made him feel like a chump.
Clark Gable worried that he wouldn’t master his character Rhett Butler’s Southern accent, while Leigh’s sophistication made him feel like a chump.

Every major female star in Hollywood – including Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn – had asked director George Cukor to star in what would become the greatest film of all time.

The role of Scarlett, Leigh hoped, would make her a legitimate actress – and on par with Olivier, who enjoyed creative ascent as a Shakespearean actor of stage and screen.

Almost immediately after filming began in December 1938, problems began with the actress, who suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Besides sudden crying and mood swings, she was plagued with other random illnesses. Her eyes itched and her skin was peeling from an allergy to the red dirt that had been imported from Georgia to recreate the southern look on the Hollywood sets.

Margaret Mitchell, author of "Blown by the wind," speaks to producer David Selznick and actors Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Olivia De Havilland.
Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone With the Wind”, speaks with producer David Selznick and actors Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Olivia De Havilland.
Bettmann Archive

To make matters worse, her period was late – and she feared she would need an abortion as neither she nor Olivier had planned on having children together. During the break on the set, Leigh invented a hideous new game called Ways to Kill a Baby. Pretending to hold a baby in her arms during the drive, she gave the infant a sweet coo before throwing him out the window.

Meanwhile, Olivier, who was testing for a film on the east coast, begged her to send him her underwear. “I’m sitting naked just my body parts wrapped in your panties,” he wrote to her. “My longing for you is so strong…”

Exhaustion and pressure from long days and nights on the film set prompted 25-year-old Leigh to take sedatives to calm her hysteria until one day she accidentally overdosed.
Exhaustion and pressure from long days and nights on the film set prompted 25-year-old Leigh to take sedatives to calm her hysteria until one day she accidentally overdosed.
Bettmann Archive
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh will be there "Blown by the wind." She later won an Oscar for the role.
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. She later won an Oscar for the role.

Leigh appeared to be heading for a complete breakdown until producer David Selznick asked Olivier to visit and calm her down. The couple happily fled to Kansas City, where they thought they would not be recognized.

“I’m so grateful to you,” Leigh told Selznick upon returning to the set. “Larry met me in the hotel lobby and we went upstairs and we banged and we banged and we banged all weekend.”

Leigh appeared to be heading for a complete breakdown until producer David Selznick asked Olivier to visit and calm her down.  The couple happily fled to Kansas City.
Leigh appeared to be heading for a complete breakdown until producer David Selznick asked Olivier to visit and calm her down. The couple happily fled to Kansas City.
Getty Images

“I am so thankful to you. Larry met me in the hotel lobby and we went upstairs and we banged and we banged and we banged all weekend.”

Vivien Leigh to producer David Selznick after he allowed her some time off with her lover Laurence Olivier

Leigh wasn’t the only one on the verge of a nervous breakdown. All staff suffered from exhaustion from 3am wake up calls and long days.

Co-star Clark Gable came to the set with his own problems because he had no say in the role since he had been loaned out by another studio. He feared he wouldn’t be able to handle the southern accent, and Leigh’s sophistication made him feel like a chump, insecure about his small-town upbringing in eastern Ohio. His spirits lifted when he received a knitted sock from his newest wife to keep his genitals warm. The instruction: “Don’t let it get cold. Bring me home hot.”

Really pissed off

Olivier started putting more pressure on Leigh, texting her that “Gone with the Wind” was going to be an obvious disaster. “Making your career a success in pictures is vital to your self-esteem and our ultimate happiness,” he wrote to the actress, who later won best actress for the role. And when she failed, he suggested, “I’m afraid you might just get — well, boring.”

Instead, Gone With the Wind changed Leigh’s life forever and propelled her to superstardom, but the exhaustion and somber moods that overwhelmed her on set were just the beginning.

She later attempted suicide before suffering an acute nervous breakdown and being hospitalized to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. She became a stranger to Olivier, the man she once adored, and died alone in 1967 at the age of 53.

https://nypost.com/2022/04/23/vivien-leigh-had-nervous-breakdown-filming-gone-with-the-wind/ Vivien Leigh had a nervous breakdown while filming Gone With the Wind

Dais Johnston

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