Vive la Vivien


The Amorist has always worshipped at the dainty feet of Vivien Leigh. No other actress has embodied such a lethal cocktail of beauty, fragility, steeliness, vivacity and charisma. To look at Leigh was to be instantly mesmerised and ever so slightly fearful of how far you might fall for such a woman. The mental illness that tormented her also gave her a glittering wayward edge that made seduction an art form. 

 For the past week the auction house Sotheby’s has had a fabulous set of Cecil Beaton prints of Leigh on their gallery walls,  (in the run up to sale of Leigh’s personal effects on September 26th), gazing out coquettishly at the admiring throng. It’s hard to judge where she seems most ravishing: in costume as Anna Karenina or Cleopatra, or just as her radiant self with Laurence Olivier.  


The Amorist was asked to a dinner in Leigh’s memory (and in aid of the Old Vic Theatre) on Wednesday night, where other sworn devotees of Leigh surfaced. She was delighted to find that Kim Cattrall – aka funny, sexy Samantha from Sex and the City – also idealises the Gone With the Wind star. Cattrall’s favourite Leigh movie? A Streetcar Named Desire, since you ask.


Back here at Amorist Towers, we prefer the classic melodrama Waterloo Bridge.  Who isn’t a sucker for narratives about nice girls who have to become prostitutes for entirely understandable reasons? I refer you to Bobbie Gentry’s immortal ballad 'Fancy', where a starving girl from Louisiana is advised by her dying mother, 'Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, they’ll be nice to you,' and ends up with 'an elegant Georgia mansion/And a New York townhouse flat.' 


Waterloo Bridge has a less cheery ending. Vivien Leigh plays a sick and impoverished ballerina who’s disowned by her wealthy fiancé’s family after he goes missing in the trenches, presumed dead. She’s nursed back to health by her flatmate who gets the cash from turning tricks. Leigh feels so guilty when she uncovers this selfless act of friendship that before long she’s a prostitute too. Then who should she encounter – on his way home from the battlefield – but her handsome, lost love! She knows she can’t tell him the truth, so (spoiler alert) she throws herself under an ambulance on Waterloo Bridge. Cue a whole lake of tears and the lingering sense that he (the fiancé, played by Robert Taylor) was a bit of a prig if he couldn’t forgive her, and unworthy of such devotion.

If the Amorist could take just one moment of Vivien Leigh’s screen history with her, it would be the scene in Gone With the Wind where Rhett Butler says to Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, ‘You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.' To look at the gorgeous young Vivien Leigh was to know for certain that she wouldn’t go to the grave lacking kisses.


These and other portraits of Leigh by Cecil Beaton are on view at Sotheby's until 26 September.


The difference between sex and love is that sex relieves tension and love causes it.
Woody Allen