Blanche DuBois. Hamlet. Scarlett O’Hara. Heathcliffe. Has any celebrity couple created more memorable characterizations that linger in the public imagination than Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier? In addition to their prolific work on stage and screen, modern audiences may not be aware they were also two of the first global celebrities. Obsession with movie stars is a relatively new phenomenon, and the concept of a Hollywood “power couple” became popularized in the Twentieth Century with the advent of television and proliferation of international tabloids. In 1937, When Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh left their respective spouses to start a life together they were on the verge of stardom, starting an affair with the potential to ruin their burgeoning careers. Instead, they became even more famous and continued to captivate audiences for decades.
Stephen Galloway’s dual biography, Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and The Romance of The Century is a worthy addition to film history libraries, using insight gained over decades not to judge or excoriate its subjects, but to view their accomplishments and struggles through a new lens, encouraging readers to look at how much they were able to accomplish despite insurmountable personal issues and extremes of emotion. This empathetic, studiously researched volume is a self-described “study of passion…the kind that engulfs, overwhelms, and sometimes destroys.” What emerges is a well-rounded, balanced portrait of two personalities who continue to captivate fans with their work and their lives. With his fascinating new book, Galloway allows his readers the chance to get closer than ever before to this eternally enigmatic couple.
Truly, Madly begins with an account of the stars’ childhoods: Olivier’s tempestuous relationship with a cruel father, and Leigh’s sense of abandonment growing up in a strict Catholic convent school. Both had complicated relationships with family, with early tragedies shaping their need for love and security, issues replayed throughout their lives. Both were relatively successful when they met, they fell wildly in love and left their first marriages at a time when divorce was uncommon (only 5,000 couples got divorced in the UK in 1937). But their passion was too all consuming for them to care what others thought. They sought the validation they lacked through each other and their work as actors, but would rarely find satisfaction in both at the same time.
Galloway’s depiction of Sir Laurence Olivier particularly exemplifies this lifelong battle between the personal and professional. No matter how considerable Olivier’s contributions were to making Shakespeare accessible to Twentieth Century audiences, with notable performances in Hamlet, Henry V, and Richard III, he was eternally searching for perfection, often at the cost of his personal life. For a man praised as one of the greatest actors of his time, he appears to have constantly struggled with his sense of self. Toward the end of the book Galloway relates a heartbreaking quote from Olivier to his son Richard: “I’ve played over 200 parts in my life and I know them all better than I know myself.”
In an effort to make sure readers get a three-dimensional portrait of his subjects, Galloway provides analyses of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh’s work in an effort to provide insight into their personal relationship, while highlighting their individual contributions to the fields of acting and directing. While chronicling Leigh’s performances, Galloway makes the prudent decision to address concerns present day readers may have about Gone With the Wind. He notes that backlash towards it isn’t a new idea, for even in 1939 it received criticism, from major newspapers criticizing its glamorized portrayal of slavery to Clark Gable threatening not to attend the movie’s segregated premiere. In the author’s opinion, the ultimate blame rests with producer David O. Selznick who “failed to ignore the book’s most vexing problem: its romanticized view of slavery […] Gone with the Wind set a false image in stone.” While acknowledging the tarnished reputation of the film, he emphasizes Leigh’s major contribution: her performance as a “forward-looking figure in a backward-looking film” moved the needle forward for complex female characters in film. This balanced perspective and willingness to evaluate history critically that maintains momentum in this biography despite its considerable length.
The most noteworthy aspect of Truly, Madly is the author’s treatment of Vivien Leigh’s well publicized struggles with mental illness. Galloway wisely resists the urge to pathologize his subject post-mortem. The opinions of doctors interviewed for this book are measured and included in an effort to expand the reader’s scope of vision past thinking in absolutes: “Her symptoms, according to some of the psychiatrists consulted for this book, were consistent with bipolar, though it would be foolhardy to diagnose her from a distance.” The author never allows his descriptions of her symptoms, long undiagnosed, to overshadow her talent or become the defining factor of her life. It is rare and refreshing to see mental health written about with such nuance in a Hollywood biography, with such respect for its subject, and for that Galloway’s work stands in the top tier of film history books.
Engagingly presented and thoroughly researched, Truly, Madly is a fascinating exploration of how the art of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier was inextricable from their personal relationship and public personas. Their relationship was far from perfect, alternately lifting them up to higher planes of creativity and threatening to tear them down. So was it worth it? In the last chapter, Galloway reserves his opinion, but leaves readers with some food for thought. Lest we be too quick to judge their tumultuous, passionate relationship about which much has been conjectured, he cautions us: “Passion sears, it scalds, it convulses, it disrupts. It creates and destroys in equal measure […] And yet without it, would either Vivien or Larry have soared to such heights?”
by Stephen Galloway
Grand Central Publishing
Published March 22, 2022