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    Madness in the Movies

    By Jan Wahl–

    Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier are the subjects of a fascinating new book, Truly, Madly, vividly written by Stephen Galloway. Consider this revealing passage about the two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actress (Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire):

    “Vivien was in despair when she was back on the set of Caesar and Cleopatra. Sometimes her mind was clouded. In the middle of shooting, described by many who were there, her features transfigured. She broke from Shaw’s dialogue and her brows hardened into an angry line as she in harsh voice berated her dresser with a piercing glare. This was short lived and left in five minutes, but continued sporadically. She seemed unaware of her mood altering and the horrific experience it was to everyone. Larry was lost, too.”

    It was later revealed that she suffered from bipolar disorder and recurrent bouts of chronic tuberculosis, which surely helped underly these episodes.

    Galloway continued, “To declare Vivien mad would have caused her to be locked up. The term mental illness was not yet used, and women who were labeled ‘hysterics’ could be confined for months.” 

    There is much documentation about Leigh’s fragile hold on reality, even as early as her Scarlett O’Hara days. While Olivier would hide his fears (including his bisexuality), channeling it all into work, Leigh couldn’t contain her public behavior, lashing out and dissolving in front of many. I remember the late Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., telling me these stories. Now many are in print and give us a deeper appreciation of this fine actress.

    There is much more to know about these two remarkable performers and people, Leigh and Olivier. Their passionate relationship turned into a nightmare, but that was not always the case. There were glorious years of Shakespeare, movies, romance on and offscreen, and the elites of London and America as friends, lovers, and fans. They were global celebrities, their fame accentuated by tabloids.

    In her films, the magnificent Leigh cycled between exaltation and dejection. Olivier felt empty inside but would throw it all into unforgettable performances, trying to discover the man behind the empty suit. The two were different but deeply, madly in love.

    Their performances onscreen last the test of time. Olivier in 1940’s Rebecca is a Hitchcock classic, a psychological thriller about a cold widower and his new bride. Joan Fontaine told me she actually was fearful of Olivier, onscreen and off camera, sure he wanted his Vivien to play her role. This movie has everything: gorgeous cinematography, lesbian overtones with Dame Judith Anderson, and perfectly spoken language by Daphne du Maurier, such as the memorable line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Mandalay.”

    This was Hitchcock’s daughter’s favorite of her father’s films and one of my own as well. Skip the 2020 remake. Other Olivier favorites include Sleuth and the earlier and best Pride and Prejudice, costarring glorious Greer Garson.

    Tennessee Williams was a great friend to Leigh, as detailed in Galloway’s book, until he also felt powerless to help her. 1961’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a haunting portrayal by Leigh as one of William’s aging divas, afraid of growing old while hooked up with a gigolo in Rome (Warren Beatty). Leigh breaks my heart in this film, as she does in Ship of Fools and the earlier Waterloo Bridge and with Olivier in That Hamilton Woman.

    Madness in the movies comes in as many forms as mental illness itself. There are the illusions of Grey Gardens and the darker Sunset Boulevard. Darker yet are Misery, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and A Beautiful Mind. Black Swan is about a committed ballet dancer struggling to maintain her sanity, winning an Oscar for Natalie Portman. (Sunset Boulevard should have won the Oscar for Gloria Swanson, but I digress.)

    From The Snake Pit to Repulsion to The Three Faces of Eve, we can go on with films that highlight mental struggles. Hopefully, good films on this can open up our hearts to understanding, insight, and compassion. 

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

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    Published on October 20, 2022