Skip to main content

Passion and Madness: The Doomed Love of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in 1937's "Fire Over England." It was the start of a doomed romance.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in 1937's "Fire Over England." It was the start of a doomed romance.

The Year Is 1940

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh have just got married, to great public acclaim. They are the most famous couple in Hollywood, possibly in the world.

She has just finished playing Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, the most sought-after role in cinematic history, and received a Best Actress Oscar for it. He has just finished playing Heathcliffe in William Wyler's classic, Wuthering Heights, opposite Merle Oberon, for which he received a Best Actor nomination.

They are very much in love.

At the 1940 Academy Awards Ceremony

At the 1940 Academy Awards Ceremony

They were two of the brightest acting talents of the 20th century. They met when he was 29 and she 23. They were both married to other people, but didn't care. Their love affair entranced the public imagination. They stayed married for 20 years through glory, nymphomania, madness and depression. They were the golden couple of the postwar period but their happiness did not last. Their relationship was poisoned and ended in infidelity, insanity and ultimately divorce.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, 1948

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, 1948


Laurence Olivier was born in Dorking, Surrey, in southern England, on 22 May, 1907. After showing a great natural talent for acting in school productions, he trained from age 17 at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts in London and then joined the Birmingham Repertory. His star rose rapidly and within a year he was one of the company's established leading men, playing Hamlet and Macbeth.

During his career, he played over 120 stage roles and appeared in nearly 60 films in a great variety of styles ranging from Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and Restoration comedy to modern drama. In 1948, in an astonishing achievement, he starred in, adapted, and directed himself in Hamlet to win two Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Picture, and an Oscar nomination for Best Director. He was made a knight by the British Crown in 1947 and then Baron Olivier in 1970. By the end of his career, he was regarded as one of the foremost actors of the English-speaking world.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, 1939

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, 1939


Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India on November 5th, 1913, the daughter of a British cavalry officer. The family moved to England when Vivian was 6 in 1920, and she made her first stage appearances in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest whilst still at school in London. Having decided on a career as an actress, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London. Shortly before actually beginning her studies she got married to Leigh Holman, a barrister 13 years her senior and in 1933, she gave birth to a daughter, Suzanne. She changed her name at this time, using her husband's first name as her surname and altering her first name from Vivian to Vivien.

She and Laurence Olivier appeared together on stage in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream and in 1937 they appeared on screen together in the well-received Fire Over England. The story of Vivien's casting as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind in 1939 reads like a fairy tale, stepping in at virtually the last minute after producer David O. Selznick had poured $50,000 into a two-and-a-half-year campaign to find the perfect actress. She received a Best Actress Oscar for her commanding performance and became world famous. In 1951 came another extraordinary performance opposite Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. The movie was a sensational success, both with the critics and at the box office, and she won a second Academy Award for Best Actress.

The Press Conference, 1940

The Press Conference, 1940

The Romance

For Vivien Leigh, as a 22-year-old starlet in 1935, it was truly love at first sight when she saw the magnetically handsome and gifted Olivier on the London stage. Vivien always knew what she wanted, and usually got it and she determined that she would marry this powerful actor. The fact that she was already married was incidental. When they finally met, the attraction was mutual and instant and a full-blown passionate affair soon developed. Olivier later called their attraction "fatefully irresistible."

After living together for three years whilst finalizing their divorces, the pair finally married in 1940 in a quiet civil ceremony, witnessed only by friends Garson Kanin and Katharine Hepburn. The next day, however, was different and they held a very public press conference to announce their love to the world.

The Madness

Leigh suffered from manic depression, or bipolar mood disorder, which caused her to have regular and dramatic mood swings, although this was not diagnosed until later. The first time Olivier realised all was not well with her mental state was in 1938 when they were appearing together in Hamlet at the Old Vic. As Vivien was quietly preparing to go on stage she suddenly began screaming at Olivier without apparent provocation, before suddenly becoming silent and withdrawn. She was able to perform perfectly, and quickly returned to normal with no memory of the event. This became a common event during their marriage—irrational behaviour from Vivien, followed by melancholy, sorrow and remorse.

Vivien's Startling Beauty

Vivien's Startling Beauty

The Year Is 1950

Leigh is in the midst of a long and passionate affair with the young actor Peter Finch whom Laurence, now Sir Laurence Olivier, had discovered two years earlier. Olivier and his theatrical company were touring Australia in 1948. Olivier signed the talented young Australian, Finch, to a personal contract and Finch became part of Olivier's company, travelling back to London with his new employer, where he made his name as an actor. Finch then proceeded to cuckold his mentor and employer by bedding Olivier's wife, Vivien Leigh. Her manic depression frequently manifested itself in nymphomania and it has been speculated that Olivier was actually grateful that Finch was helping him shoulder the burden, as it were.

Around this time Vivien told Olivier that she was no longer interested in him romantically. She pursued other men and had subsequent affairs with multiple partners. Olivier, too, began having affairs, including with actresses Claire Bloom and Dorothy Tutin, as Leigh's attentions wandered. In 1950 he had to chaperone her to Hollywood to ensure that her manic depression did not get out of hand and disrupt the production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

1953, The strain shows on both faces

1953, The strain shows on both faces

Vivien Leigh Biography

Fast Forward to 1961

On January 6 Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were divorced after 20 years of marriage. In March of the same year, Olivier marries actress, Joan Plowright with whom he will stay for the rest of his life. The previous years had not been happy ones.

In 1953 Leigh travelled to Ceylon to begin filming Elephant Walk with Peter Finch but her continuously deteriorating mental condition forced her to return to England where she stayed at home with Olivier. She was replaced in the picture by Elizabeth Taylor.

She discovered she was pregnant but was devastated to learn that she had miscarried. She suffered another prolonged bout of depression and, considering her marriage with Olivier to be over, began an affair with the actor Jack Merivale. Olivier, meanwhile, had begun his own affair with Joan Plowright and asked Leigh for a divorce. Leigh eventually consented and signed the divorce papers. The marriage was over. The golden couple was no more.


Death in 1967

And now it is 1967. On July 7th Vivien Leigh was found dead by Jack Merivale in the bedroom of her London house in Eaton Square, Belgravia. She had been bedridden for 4 weeks because of a recurrence of tuberculosis which she had contracted in 1945. Her lungs filled had with fluid and she had suffocated. She was 53.

Laurence Olivier was himself hospitalised, being treated for prostate cancer. On being told the news next morning, he discharged himself and was driven to Eaton Square. He entered the flats through a side door as the Press were already congregating. Jack Merivale left him alone with Vivien and Olivier wrote later that he, "stood and prayed for forgiveness for all the evils that had sprung up between us."


An Old Man's Memories

In the end, the fantasy romance between Heathcliff and Scarlett O'Hara was too good to be true. Olivier lived another 22 years after Vivien's death, during which time he remained contentedly married to Joan Plowright. Yet at the end he could not forget Vivien. Two years before Olivier died, a visitor to his home found the 80-year-old sitting alone, watching Leigh in an old film on television. "This, this was love," said Olivier, in tears. "This was the real thing."

The Mantle of Greatness - The Life of Sir Laurence Olivier

  • Laurence Olivier - Hollywood's Golden Age
    A biography and filmography of Laurence Olivier, the award-winning actor, director, and producer, who is regarded by many as the greatest English-speaking actor of the twentieth century.


Raggie on January 30, 2018:

Great article! Jack, why bother reading something about 2 'overrated hams' you ain't interested in! As if anyone's going to take notice of your deluded,unintelligent, jealous and misinformed comments!

Jack on February 17, 2017:

Much ado about a pair of over-rated self-absorbed hams.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on April 15, 2016:

Of course I knew Vivien but little of Olivier although I do recognize his face. Very interesting read. Such a shame greatness comes with such a price. Just like satan who was the most beautiful angel, but that was not good enough, he wanted to be God.


UltimateMovieRankings from Virginia on February 17, 2011:

Great hub...your writing is is tragic how Leigh's life ended up....makes viewing her performance in Streetcar Named Desire...a whole new light

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on February 07, 2011:

Alas, poor Yorick! I'll think about that tomorrow. Two of the most memorable lines ever spoken, gunsock. Laurence Olivier was a superb actor and Vivien Leigh was magnificent in "Gone With the Wind." Thanks for filling me in on the personal details of their lives together. I hadn't realized that Vivien had such difficulties although I had surmised that Olivier was not a particularly happy man.