Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Vivien Leigh biopic? No, no, and no.

The trailer of "Grace of Monaco" has come out.

As I'm waiting for this film, I notice that in recent years Hollywood has been making biopics about screen legends, with some strange casting such as Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Lindsay Lohan and then Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Taylor... (there are also rumours about Naomi Watts playing Marilyn).
So I have fears that there will be a biopic about Vivien Leigh.
Here's why I'm against the idea:

1/ It is generally difficult to portray actors.
Depicting a literary character on screen is not easy, because readers have their own visions of the character, but at least the character doesn't exist and can be imagined and interpreted in multiple ways. It's more difficult to portray a real person, and then another level to portray actors, because when people come to Daniel Day-Lewis and say that he doesn't know what Lincoln sounded like, he can say "but neither do you", actors who portray other actors can't say that. Actors are too 'familiar', we can still watch their films, so when seeing such biopics, we scrutinise the manners, gestures, facial expressions, ways of walking... and, more than that, demand the actors in the biopics to capture the essence, the qualities of those they're portraying. Tackling film legends is also more demanding than, say, talkshow hosts, because we love film stars, perhaps even worship them.
Take Jennifer Love Hewitt as Audrey Hepburn for instance. There are some actresses who have Audrey's qualities, such as Anne Hathaway or Natalie Portman. Jennifer Love Hewitt doesn't have a blend of elegance and grace with a boyish, natural, lively, refreshing, 'crazy' look of Audrey, even her walking in the opening scene of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is completely wrong.
Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe does a better job, she gets right the voice, manners, facial expressions, gestures... In fact, she's a much more talented actress than the star she portrays. The tragic part is that she lacks the special factor that makes Marilyn Marilyn. Marilyn shines on screen, captivates the audience and makes everyone else disappear, Michelle Williams is the kind of ordinary girl who never stands out.
Cate Blanchett is perfect as Katharine Hepburn. Very, very few people can do so.
For the time being, I can't say anything about the casting of Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly. Nicole has enough poise, but I haven't seen enough to recognise Grace's essence.

2/ Nobody looks like her.
Is there more to be said? Look at her face! 
Let me quote her Larry: "Apart from her looks, which were magical, she possessed beautiful poise; her neck looked almost too fragile to support her head and bore it with a sense of surprise, and something of the pride of the master juggler who can make a brilliant manoeuvre appear almost accidental. She also had something else: an attraction of the most perturbing nature I had ever encountered." 

3/ It's difficult to imitate her manners, facial expressions, gesticulations, ways of talking..., (almost) impossible to capture her elegance, mischievousness, cat-like quality...
People who impersonate her also have the danger that they may end up being ridiculous.
In "My week with Marilyn", Julia Ormond looks nothing like Vivien and doesn't seem to bother to act like her. 

4/ Portraying Vivien Leigh means at some point the actress must play some of her roles, at least Scarlett O'Hara and/ or Blanche DuBois, her 2 Oscar-winning performances.
Much more challenging than when one portrays someone like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn or Hedy Lamarr, it requires immense talent. No, it's mission impossible.
I can't think of anyone that can do her justice. Some people on the internet suggest Julia Ormond, Rachel Weisz, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley...- I am appalled. 
After all, why watch someone else playing her when we can watch her films instead? 

5/ A biopic about her would obviously exploit her tragic life, her bipolar disorder, her turbulent relationship with Laurence Olivier...
Might include the stories of her as an adulterer, bisexual, nymphomaniac...
Generally, I tend to keep a certain distance from people I admire, in spite of my obsession, and don't want to hear details about a favourite actress's private life, especially her sex life. I don't even read Vivien Leigh biographies, and if I buy Kendra Bean's book, it's more because of the photos.
Remember my objection to Naomi Watts playing Diana? According to reviews, the film exploits Diana's life and paints her in a very ugly light. I fear that the same thing may happen if anyone makes a biopic about Vivien Leigh.

Just leave her alone.

PS: Wikipedia says Morgan Brittany portrayed Vivien Leigh 3 times. Seriously? I can't find any video on youtube. Can anybody find anything?


  1. I disagree. I think that many great actresses out there would be able to do her justice, and Im sure theres SOMEONE that looks like her. I look very similar to her.
    A biopic would have to be respectful of her mental illness, but I think it can be done - look at A Beautiful Mind. Its truthful, but very compassionate.

    1. I can see what you mean.
      "A biopic would have to be respectful of her mental illness"- true. "look at A Beautiful Mind. Its truthful, but very compassionate." That's a very good example. I don't think it cannot be done at all, but it's difficult and there is a danger that the filmmakers may exploit her sex life, blame Laurence Olivier or present Vivien Leigh as not-nice-as-people-think or end up being confusing like "The Iron Lady" that in the end I don't know what they want to say. It can also be like "My Week With Marilyn"- the filmmakers may base their depiction of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier on the common perceptions people have today and reinforce these views rather than explore the different aspects of their lives and personalities.
      Let me say it again, you think it can be done, and I don't disagree, but those possibilities exist. Guess I'm just being negative here- I simply think that biopics are difficult, especially biopics about film stars, because we're too "familiar" with them. And as far as I know, very few biopics about film stars can be considered successful.
      You say "Im sure theres SOMEONE that looks like her". Well, of course there are people who look like her, if we're only talking about facial features. I was also thinking of her facial expressions, gestures and manners, and above all, the spirit, the essence, the x factor that made Vivien Vivien. Michelle Williams is admirably good in her performance as Marilyn, but she lacks that certain factor. Is it important? It isn't when we're trying to be objective and examining the actress's acting abilities alone, and Michelle Williams deserved her Oscar nomination. But if I can be a bit more subjective and take it a bit more personally, then I think she's not convincing as Marilyn Monroe.
      "I think that many great actresses out there would be able to do her justice". Perhaps. I'm being negative again, apparently, but I can't think of anybody- anybody who can convincingly portray Vivien, and Vivien as Scarlett O'Hara and/or Blanche DuBois.
      But then again, this can be related to my general view- when I like a writer, I read their works, perhaps their letters, diaries, etc. but not biographies written about them.

    2. Still, thanks for stopping by and writing a comment. I appreciate it.

  2. Really great article, the points you raise aren't just problems with a potential film about Vivien but are relevant to the constant tide of biopics that seem to come out in Oscar season, this year's Alan Turing - Cumberbatch film for example.

    I do think though that there is a great movie waiting to be written about Vivien, there's not many biopics which I think are great movies rather than great performances but two that spring to mind are Raging Bull and Social Network. They're commentaries on universal themes, if a Vivien film followed their lead we could have a film that shows the "Golden" Hollywood era for what it was, the things Vivien went through and experienced could be a branching point for so many relevant themes, more than nearly any other actress. In the hands of someone like a Fincher or Scorsese (extremely unlikely I know) we could see a truly great movie.

    1. "The Imitation Game" you mean? It hasn't come out in my place. The rating on Rotten Tomatoes is pretty high, 84%.
      There's another biopic made recently I'd also like to see, with Eddie Redmayne portraying Stephen Hawking. Have you watched it yet?
      Looking back, I suppose I was a bit too excited when writing this post. But well, it's already on the internet, and I'm too lazy to rewrite the whole thing. Haha.

    2. Well it looks like your worst nightmare's come true and they're going to remake it with Rosamund Pike. She's a decent actress but as you say, even putting Vivien's unique looks aside she isn't anywhere near as good an actress.

      Also like you, I'm worried it will be extremely salacious and play up all the demons in her life. I'd hope for something like "The Aviator", which didn't shy away from showing Howard Hughes' demons but at the same time showed how he still did extraordinary things and even triumphed over them at times.

      If it followed the biopic template of the Social Network or what I think the new Steve Jobs film will be and have wider themes I'd be very excited. Instead I fear it will be purely a vehicle for Rosamund Pike to try and win an Oscar in 2017.

    3. Oh no. My 1st reaction to your comment was "Whaaat, are you joking?". Why Rosamund Pike? Why why why?
      The Aviator is a great example. Still, I have great doubts about the idea of a Vivien Leigh biopic. Have you read Kendra Bean's review of My Week with Marilyn? Here's the link if you haven't:

    4. I actually saw My week with Marilyn on a plane years ago and found it really annoying but didn't know why. That review verbalised what I hated about it, the way they made out Vivien Leigh to be some vacuous, jealous shrew was disgraceful.

      I must say I don't know much about Vivien's life, I've only seen her in a handful of films where she was amazing. I think a biopic only has merit if the script has something to say thematically rather than mine the character's misery as a substitute.

      That was my major problem with "The theory of everything". It was just Hawking's private life thrown up on the screen. I didn't know much about Howard Hughes, Ray Charles, Mark Zuckerberg, Jordan Belfort, Jake LaMotta, Ron Kovic or even Tina Turner before I saw the films about them. Not only did I learn about the character's achievements but they all said something about the human condition or social issues, I think a well intentioned movie about Vivien could follow in the same vein.

      They were all great films made by superior film makers though and I'm sure this won't be the case with this one, even if it does win Rosamund her Oscar.

    5. I don't know, but I came across this article and was horrified:
      The depiction of Vivien Leigh in My Week with Marilyn I must confess I don't quite remember. But that of Laurence Olivier, he looks like an asshole in it. My main objection to the film, other than the casting of Michelle Williams for Marilyn Monroe and Julia Osmond for Vivien, is how all the actors seem to be assholes in 1 way or another and the only nice, sensitive, considerate, understanding one is Eddie Redmayne's character, the author of the book on which the film's based. That is ridiculous.
      The Theory of Everything was all right. We've got a great performance from Eddie Redmayne, who does deserve the Oscar, but the film is weak, not as good as, say, The Imitation Game.
      Who's going to direct the Vivien Leigh biopic? And who's the screenwriter?

  3. This is exactly what I was just saying to a friend in discussing the possible biopic with Rosamund Pike! I'm glad someone agrees with us; beautiful article. To be perfectly honest, you are probably more liberal than I am when it comes to the idea of other actors/actresses playing past actors/actresses that you like! I didn't even like the cameos in The Aviator.

    Vivien Leigh has a certain way of talking outside of her films that is very hard to capture, and I think any actress, no matter how posh and British would struggle to imitate her real accent. I am tolerably certain that no one will do her justice, except herself, and I hate to think of other miscast actors playing Laurence Olivier or anyone else who was close to Vivien.

    1. Oh, but Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn is as good as we can get, and I'm not saying that because she's my favourite actress and 1 of the best ones working today.
      Kate Beckinsale's no Ava Gardner, but the performance doesn't seem like, well, an insult.
      Perhaps I say this because Vivien Leigh's my favourite actress, but it seems to me that portraying her would be harder than portraying Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth and even Katharine Hepburn. Her accent is, as you say, hard to get right; imitating her mannerisms easily makes one appear ridiculous; Vivien is a bundle of contradictions.
      However, I guess there's very little point in discussing a project that has just been started or perhaps hasn't. We just have to see how it turns out in the end. Who knows, we might be surprised (though I very much doubt it).