The 1939 movie Wuthering Heights epitomizes golden-age Hollywood romance. However, the process of making the film was another matter entirely. It was a miserable set, in large part because Laurence Olivier, the brilliant British actor playing Heathcliff, hated his co-star, Merle Oberon, and regularly undermined her. But he would have hated any co-star who wasn’t his girlfriend, Vivien Leigh, whom he had failed to get hired for the part and with whom he was wildly in love.
As any movie buff knows, Leigh was about to become a star in her own right in another 1939 film, Gone With the Wind (also a miserable set). Olivier and Leigh had left their respective spouses and children for each other and would marry in 1940. They were the supernova show-biz couple of their day, paving the way for Liz-and-Dick and Brangelina. With Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and the Romance of the Century, Stephen Galloway, former editor of the Hollywood Reporter, has written an astute biography of that marriage, with wonderfully dishy details of productions such as Rebecca and A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Oliviers’ fabled partnership reached its peak on stage in the 1940s and ’50s before ending in chaos in 1960. The biggest factor in the marriage’s collapse was Leigh’s bipolar disorder, which was little understood at the time and ineffectively treated. Medical understanding has evolved immeasurably since Leigh’s death in 1967, and Galloway reexamines her mood swings, public mania, infidelity and alcohol abuse in light of psychiatric advances.
In the early days of their relationship, Leigh was the more likable of the two. Olivier had enormous talent, but he was shallow and deceitful. However, he did “truly, madly” love Leigh, and he tried his best to help her before her unfathomable behavior finally confounded him. Leigh died at only 53 of tuberculosis. Olivier, afflicted by multiple painful illnesses, lived until 82, and Galloway’s account of his last years is moving.
Olivier dominated the English-language stage and reinvented Shakespearean cinema. Leigh’s film acting remains incandescent, although her indifference to Gone With the Wind’s racism receives due criticism in this book. Anyone who loves the dramatic arts will be engrossed by Galloway’s perceptive history of this iconic duo.