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Mesmerising Leigh
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Mesmerising Leigh

There is something impossibly enchanting to modern eyes about the goings-on in Hollywood in the earlier part of the last century, from the opulent gowns worn by leading ladies to the chiselled looks of the men, and the plotlines that recall a more innocent time.

Perhaps it is that the films were better, perhaps the actors truly were more talented. Or perhaps it’s that in the age before every tiny detail of a star’s life ended up on the sidebar of The Daily Mail website, it was simply that there was an air of mystery – the illusion of glamour was merely better maintained.

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Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier and Vivien Leigh by Unknown photographer (30 May 1937) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Either way, during a career spanning nearly three decades, the British actress Vivien Leigh epitomised that glamour, in roles memorable and not, along the way winning two Oscars and marrying theatre royalty.

To mark the centenary of her birth, in India in November 1913, Leigh’s career is celebrated in a small but packed photography exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a quiet display, tucked away in a corner, but there’s a treasure trove of content to look at.

The first thing you see when you walk onto the room is a large version of the infamous ‘Gone With the Wind’ poster, Scarlett and Rhett in a passionate clinch, against the backdrop of Atlanta burning.  It’s a stirring, unforgettable poster, and the performance may forever be Leigh’s main artistic legacy.

But in fact, the display is about much more, from a look at the fabulous dresses and hats that she wore in her heyday, to stills of the film version of Terrence Rattigan’s ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ featuring an older but no less mesmerising Leigh, to a photo of the young actress as Anne Boleyn in ‘Henry VIII’ in Regent’s Park, taken by Norman Parkinson in 1936.

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Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton in ‘That Hamilton Woman’ by Laszlo Willinger (1941) © Laszlo Willinger / Kobal Collection

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There are, naturally, several shots from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, with Leigh giving Blanche’s trademark look of defiant sadness, next to a mouldering Marlon Brando.  More intriguing, at least for aficionados of entertainment nostalgia, is the array of programmes and magazine covers from the 1940s and 1950s. There’s Leigh, staring winsomely into the distance, in Antony Beauchamp’s photograph for the cover of the Sketch magazine; there’s Leigh and her then-husband Laurence Olivier, the picture of domestic bliss (with their cat, named New Boy), on a colour magazine cover from 1946. There’s Leigh in any number of hardly remembered roles, glaring at Rex Harrison in the poster for a ‘Storm in a Teacup’, or as a lady-in-waiting on the film on which her affair with Olivier began.  And before Elizabeth Taylor, we see Leigh looking stern and poised as Cleopatra, and resplendent as Emma, Lady Hamilton for Look Magazine in 1941.

‘Gone with the Wind’ fans will appreciate the selection of colour images of Leigh as Scarlett; running with her skirt hitched up at Tara, staring deep into Ashley’s eyes, or dancing in her mourning dress to the incredulity of all Atlanta. And there’s Scarlett adorning the front cover of Time, which reported on the 300,000 Atlantans who watched Leigh at the premiere.

In almost all of the pictures, Leigh appears flawless, neat eyebrows raised, hair smooth and luscious, her confident expression easily taking the spotlight from her male companions, even in a 1939 photograph of her and Laurence Olivier for Ladies Home Journal, despite the actor being positioned in front of his soon-to-be blushing bride.  Interestingly, the few photos from her first marriage to barrister Leigh Holman show a very different Leigh, fresh-faced and innocent, and elegant but not glamorous; surely a fleeting time for her.

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Vivien Leigh as Cynthia in ‘Fire Over England’ by Howard Coster (1936) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Even if you know next to nothing about Leigh, that shouldn’t put you off. This is a charming little display, about a departed age of fame, a time when the closest you could get to a star would be to read a magazine with their picture or watch their play or film, long before the era of the celebrity tweeter, confessional interview or reality show appearance. Looking at these photographs, from a time when a star really was a star, you can’t help but miss it.

Starring Vivien Leigh: A Centenary Celebration

To 20 July 2014, National Portrait Gallery, London. Admission free.