Vivien Leigh: How Elephant Walk lost its star in Ceylon
“Like a moth to the flame, the exquisite pained beauty of Vivien Leigh passed before us and burnt up in a fiery denouement. Doomed and delicate, haunted and frail, she lived her magnificent life in a veiled sadness, her sublime beauty – the rose and petal lips, the cat green eyes, the incredible, exquisite face, its own perfection.” – Eve Berliner, Eve’s Magazine, Summer 2012
No disrespect to Elizabeth Taylor, but I can’t help feeling that the film Elephant Walk (1954) would have been a more powerful and psychologically engaging cinematic experience had Vivien Leigh been able to complete her role alongside her lover, Peter Finch. But it was not to be for her enduring bipolar disorder (earlier known as manic depression) ultimately rendered her unfit to work.
Those diagnosed with bipolar disorder experience swings in mood from periods of overactive, excited behaviour known as mania to deep depression. Between these highs and lows stable periods can occur. Some sufferers also see or hear things that others don’t (visual or auditory hallucinations) or have strange, unshared beliefs (delusions). When discussing Vivien Leigh, this incapacitating illness must always be borne in mind, her often bizarre actions put into context.
Vivien, born as Vivian (sic) Mary Hartley in Darjeeling in 1913 (her father was English, her mother probably part-Irish, part-Indian) was first noticed for her performance in the play The Mask of Virtue (1935). At this time she was married to barrister Leigh Holman. Laurence (“Larry”) Olivier, on the path to becoming one of the most respected actors of the era, was married to actress Jill Esmond. Olivier watched Vivien in the play, congratulated her, and they began an affair after acting as lovers in Fire over England (1937). They moved to Hollywood, and in 1939 Vivien won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).
In early 1940 Esmond agreed to divorce Olivier and Holman agreed to divorce Vivien, making possible Olivier’s and Vivien’s marriage later that year. In 1942 the Oliviers returned to England from Hollywood. In 1944 she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in her left lung. In 1945, while filming Caesar and Cleopatra she discovered she was pregnant but suffered a miscarriage. She fell into a deep depression, verbally and physically attacking Olivier.
In 1947, aged 36, Olivier became the youngest actor to be knighted. In 1948 the couple embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand to raise funds for the Old Vic Theatre. Vivien had to surrender her role to an understudy for a week, the couple quarrelled and assaulted each other, but most importantly they encountered Peter Finch in a performance of Molière’s the Imaginary Invalid on the floor of a Sydney glass factory.
Finch, brought up by a succession of families from England to India, travelled in Ceylon aged nine with his paternal grandmother before joining another relative in Sydney and eventually becoming an actor. Olivier encouraged Finch to come to London, got his agent to represent him, and put him under contract to his production company. Sensuous, with a magnetic personally, Finch was deeply attracted to Vivien, as she was to him. Inevitably, they began an affair in 1948. Olivier once said he “lost Vivien” in Australia. A potential complication was that both Olivier and Finch were bisexual, but this did not lead to a ménage à trois.
In 1951 Vivien won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. She wasn’t there to collect the award but at home in England, drinking, weeping, and having delusions of strangers trying to seduce her. There were spells of melancholia when she just stared at Olivier, but there were also spells of her manic personality, characterised by lavish parties.
In 1952 Paramount Pictures purchased the rights of the Ceylon-based novel Elephant Walk by Robert Standish (pseudonym of novelist Digby George Gerahty), published in 1948, and wanted to cast the lead actors. Olivier received a call from producer Irving Asher offering husband and wife the lead roles. But Olivier was already committed to theatre director Peter Brook’s first film, The Beggar’s Opera (1953).But Vivien, then aged 39, was free and willing.
The director was German-born William Dieterle, who earlier in his homeland career starred in many films made by him. He always wore a large hat and white gloves on set, the latter a lingering mannerism from his days as an actor and director of such films as Sex in Chains (1928), when he needed to quickly change roles without dirtying his hands. By early 1953, the production period of Elephant Walk, McCarthyism had arisen and Dieterle’s subsequent career went into decline, perhaps because he had supported Berthold Brecht. Indeed, the production was delayed for three months as the State Department would not allow Dieterle to travel to Ceylon.
As Olivier couldn’t become involved (alas! what an undoubtedly intriguing alternative version of the film that would have been), the problem remained regarding an actor to fill his role. “With great enthusiasm,” comments Michelangelo Capua in Vivien Leigh: A Biography (2003), “Vivien proposed Peter Finch to Paramount for the lead role, making it clear that she was not attached to him out of professional admiration or friendship but by something more. At two a.m. Vivien hurried to the house of Peter and Tamara Finch [Tamara Tchinarova, a reputed ballet dancer] in a state of euphorical hysteria, offering him the role in the film. Vivien convinced him in less than an hour that accepting the part in Elephant Walk would be a great opportunity. Then they talked about the script until dawn.”
Just one week later, in January 1953, they flew to Ceylon, Olivier requesting Finch at Heathrow “to take care of her”, not specifically stating that he meant she was afraid of flying. “Don’t worry,” replied Finch, “I will.” And he certainly did, far beyond the fear of flying.
“When their plane arrived at its destination,” writes Capua, “Vivien and Finch [remember he had encountered the island as a child] were enchanted with its natural beauty and by the local culture, which evoked many memories of her childhood.” Memories apart, inexorably the exotic ambience fuelled their already intense love affair, probably the most dazzling and spellbinding to have occurred among stars during the history of location filming in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
Vivien’s unconventional behaviour on the production began several days after her arrival. During make-up, a Ceylonese assistant responsible for calling actors to the set came to check if she was ready. In awe of her beauty he couldn’t help but stare at her. She started shaking. When he departed the make-up artist asked what was wrong and she replied, “I’m so frightened of black eyes. I’ve always been frightened of black eyes.”
Providentially, Vivien’s Elephant Walk experience, referenced with subjective emotion in Olivier’s autobiography and in a detached manner in Vivien’s and Finch’s biographies, has been augmented by Bevis Bawa’s first-hand descriptions in Bevis Bawa’s Brief (2011). Their sense of humour is engaging, but more profound is the way he treats Vivien as an ‘ordinary’ person: “I spent hours in my chair at the Galle Face Hotel where she stayed, which was in the direct line from the lift to the cashier’s desk which she appeared to visit more frequently than most people. She fortunately did not trip over my feet but did drop a swizzle stick out of her bag when looking for her traveller’s cheques.”
Gallant Bawa launched his considerable frame in a dive to the floor to retrieve the stick and said to her: “I believe this is yours”. “She thanked me as any lady would, but her smile, which was a combination of her film and stage self, made me feel like Sir Laurence, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Peter Finch and the whole motley lot rolled into one.”
Considering the relatively short shoot, and the heavy demands of a film production, Bawa spent much time with Vivien and Peter during the production, as well as Olivier during his stay. There is a misconception that Vivien was a couch star. In fact most observers, including Bawa, were astonished by her levels of energy. Moreover, Bawa conveys her desire to experience the country in some small way:
“We were in the middle of dinner at the Muslim Hotel in Kandy when she said, ‘I am climbing Adam’s Peak tonight. I must get to the top before sunrise.’ My heart thumped to a halt and Peter swallowed a chicken bone, ‘Don’t worry. The bedroom boy and my chauffeur have agreed to escort me.’ At lunch next day she was rather groggy at the knees but looked as fresh as ever . . . I questioned her escorts later and they told me that not even Vivien could have climbed the Peak and worked the following day, so they had taken her up Bible Rock instead.”
“One night after a gruelling day’s work she drove all the way from Anuradhapura to Kurunegala to watch a devil dancing ceremony which had been laid on for her.” The story goes that she became convinced that the devil had taken possession of her, but Bawa makes no mention of such a calamitous situation.
Other stories claim she tried to seduce a 64-year-old assistant, refused to act if Dieterle was looking at her, and always wanted to wear her costume wig tilted back. There was a growing fear of those dark eyes, night fires, the jungle, the heat. Finch and she drank heavily. Soon she became pale and emaciated. Dieterle, at his wit’s end, ordered her to rest, which made her defiant.
In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1982), Olivier recounts that although Vivien had departed for Ceylon a fortnight earlier, “It seemed hardly two minutes before my peace was shattered”. This was due to a frantic phone call from the film’s producer, Irving Asher, to Olivier’s agent, Cecil Tennant, imploring him to send his client to Ceylon as work was at a virtual standstill.
Oliver obliged in haste. Paramount declared a holiday on his day of arrival so that Vivien could go and meet him. However, she decided it would be better if he came to meet her in Kandy. “So we went for a picnic about ten miles away from Kandy,” Bawa writes. “Halfway through our sandwiches and beer, she said: ’I think I will go down and meet Larry after all.’ . . . It was a drive I’ll never forget . . . At Ambepussa we dropped in for a quick gin and tonic. We had another at Galle Face, and then aimed at Ratmalana. We arrived just in time to see Larry getting into a taxi looking very cross indeed.”
Olivier insisted she return to work immediately. “This was met by a blaze of rage that surprised even me,” he writes. “In the unhappy colloquy that followed, I thought ruefully of the wretched waste of time, effort and money that I had been party to.” When they reached the Queen’s Hotel, Kandy, Olivier found that Finch was in as much control of the situation as he would have been. He was superfluous.
Vivien’s maid claimed that Vivien and Finch had not been to bed together but had stayed up and “lain together all night on the hillsides” – which meant she staggered to work each morning, was haggard, and often forgot her lines.
Inevitably Vivien, who had an increased libido due to her illness, brought up the subject of sex during dinner, which confirmed the predilections of Olivier and Finch: “I was most impressed on how she used her fingers when eating, using only the very tips most elegantly. She suddenly started talking about sex. As I felt she was skating on very thin ice I told her I was homosexual. She laughed and said, ‘But isn’t everybody? Larry is inclined that way too.’ Peter said, ‘Good Lord, I am gay too.’ This put me at my ease as I knew I was with broad-minded friends.”
During Olivier’s visit, Bawa made husband and wife climb the hill to Minette de Silva’s house. What happened sounds contrary to Olivier’s autobiography. “Vivien and Sir Laurence, in between our climbing and panting, thought they should put on a one-act play for me. They were so brilliant that I clearly saw them as the characters they were portraying, two British cockney naval ratings talking in the crudest of language. Vivien’s voice was gruff and she occasionally spat over the rails of an imaginary destroyer. She was being scolded by the boss, and what they said to each other kept me doubled up with amusement.”
As Olivier relates: “I’d arrived on Tuesday, and having expressed my regrets to Asher and wished him all the luck that he needed – which was a superabundance of it – I got myself onto a plane on the Friday morning and was in Paris on the Saturday [to work on The Beggar’s Opera]. My situation did not really bear any more thinking about, and I managed to insulate my feelings in a soft coat of numbness.”
Capua reports: “Once Olivier left the situation deteriorated: Vivien would follow Finch everywhere calling him “Larry”. She also started having hallucinations that were obviously not caused by exhaustion. Production decided to remove her from the set and fly her to Hollywood for a few weeks of rest before resuming work at the Paramount studio.”
Luckily Finch accompanied her on the trip, for as soon as the plane took off from Ratmalana Vivien unfastened her seatbelt, stood up and screamed that one of the wings was on fire. Assisted by the flight attendants, Finch tried to calm her, but she became hysterical, beating the plane windows with her fists and threatening to jump out of the plane. Then she started to strip off her clothes, clawing at everyone who tried to intervene, until finally they managed to sedate her.
On landing at Los Angeles Finch took Vivien to the house he had rented with his wife Tamara. On the tenth day of her stay at the Finches’ Vivien went to the studios to visit the set of Elephant Walk. She told Finch she felt fine, but a few hours later collapsed and was taken to her dressing room, where she became worse, quoting to Finch from Streetcar: “Get out of here before I start screaming ‘fire’! Get out of here before I start screaming ‘fire’!”
Vivien was swiftly sent to England for treatment for if she was diagnosed with mental illness she risked being confined to an institution. Thus Paramount was forced to terminate Vivien’s contract and find a substitute actress for the remainder of the filming. That person turned out to be Elizabeth Taylor, aged just 21, yet who had attained child stardom in 1944 in National Velvet. The long shots filmed in Ceylon with Vivien were used in the film, while all the dialogue and the close-ups had to be shot once again with Taylor. So the intended version was never completed, and Cinema has been left with an unsatisfactory hybrid; Vivien’s fans with just a few long shots to appreciate.
In December 1960 Olivier and Vivien were divorced. In May 1967 Vivien had a recurrence of tuberculosis and died on July 7, aged 53. Finch suffered a heart attack and died on January 14, 1977, aged 60. Olivier died of renal failure on July 11, 1989, aged 82.
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