Vivien Leigh would’ve celebrated her 105th birthday on November 5, 2018. The two-time Oscar inner made only a handful of films before her untimely death in 1967 at the age of 53. Yet several of those titles remain classics. In honor of her birthday, let’s take a look back at 10 of her greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born in British India, Leigh appeared in a number of roles on both the stage and screen in England, including a production of “Hamlet” opposite her husband, Laurence Olivier (she played the mentally unstable Ophelia, a role that would prove tragically homogenous).
She came to international attention after landing the coveted role of Scarlet O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s massive adaptation of Margaret Mitchell‘s bestseller “Gone with the Wind” (1939). Leigh was far from the first choice to embody the headstrong Southern belle who pines after a married man (Leslie Howard) while wedding another (Clark Gable) against the backdrop of the Civil War. Yet the relatively unknown thespian beat out the likes of Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball, and Katharine Hepburn (to name but a few) for the role, and won the first of two Best Actress Oscars for her efforts.
Leigh made relatively few films throughout the 1940s, as her bipolar disorder led to periods of inactivity. She made a triumphant return as Blanche DuBois, the delicate, disturbed debutante escaping a sordid past, in Elia Kazan‘s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy for the screen version of the controversial Tennessee Williams play, joining original players Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. The film earned her a second Best Actress trophy, as well as a BAFTA win and Golden Globe nomination.
Though she made very few films, Leigh was active on the stage, winning a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for “Tovarich” in 1963. She appeared in several productions directed by Olivier, including Thornton Wilder‘s “The Skin of Our Teeth” and Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”
Tour our gallery of Leigh’s 10 greatest films. Though only two earned her Oscar nominations, all contain awards-worthy performances.
10. A YANK AT OXFORD (1938)
Leigh made one of her earliest screen appearances in this amiable comedy about an American student (Robert Taylor) trying to impress the snooty Brits while attending Oxford. She plays Elsa Craddock, a young bride who befriends the new undergraduate (as well as a few other new students). Interestingly enough, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was at first reluctant to hire the then little-known Leigh, ultimately casting her to save money on flying another actress out to England.
9. SIDEWALKS OF LONDON (1938)
In “Sidewalks of London,” Leigh stars as a pickpocket who comes under the care of a struggling street performer (Charles Laughton) who includes her in his act to help keep her out of trouble. But when her talents catch the eye of a prominent songwriter (Rex Harrison), she kicks Laughton back to the curb. A surprisingly grim tale of achieving fame at all costs, the film succeeds thanks to the talents of its two stars. Also released as “St. Martin’s Lane.”
8. CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA (1945)
This lavish adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s historical play was such a massive flop it nearly ended the career of producer Gabriel Pascal, who also directs. A sort of sword-and-sandals epic by way of John Hughes, “Caesar and Cleopatra” finds the young Egyptian princess (Leigh) coming of age under the tutelage of the aging Roman emperor (Claude Rains).
7. ANNA KARENINA (1948)
“Anna Karenina” has been adapted so many times with so many different actresses (most notably by Greta Garbo and Keira Knightley) that it’s almost impossible to appreciate the power of Leo Tolstoy’s original novel. This 1948 version from French auteur Julian Duvivier is pretty faithful, casting Leigh as the doomed titular character, a Russian housewife who falls in love with a debonair army general (Kieron Moore) while married to a dull aristocrat (Ralph Richardson).
6. THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (1961)
The works of Tennessee Williams proved beneficial to Leigh: after winning an Oscar for the big screen version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” she starred in this adaptation of the famed playwright’s first novel. Directed by Jose Quintero, “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” centers on a fading movie star (Leigh) who travels to Rome and begins an affair with a much-younger gigolo (Warren Beatty in one of his earliest roles) after her husband suddenly dies.
5. WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940)
Though heavily sanitized to appease the censors, Robert E. Sherwood’s weepy play translates beautifully to the screen thanks to director Mervyn LeRoy’s sensitive direction and naturalistic performances by Leigh and Robert Taylor. Set during WWI, “Waterloo Bridge” stars Leigh as a young ballerina who falls in love with a British officer (Taylor). When she fears he’s died in combat, she abandons her promising career and turns to prostitution, later killing herself as befitting the Motion Picture Production Code standards of the time.
4. SHIP OF FOOLS (1965)
Leigh made her final screen appearance in this epic melodrama from Stanley Kramer, a sort of “Grand Hotel” set on the high seas. “Ship of Fools” centers on the lives of various passengers aboard an ocean liner bound to Germany from Mexico in 1933, just as WWII is creeping on the horizon. Among them are an aging divorcee (Leigh), the ship’s doctor (Best Actor nominee Oskar Werner), a decadent ballplayer (Lee Marvin), a Spanish activist (Best Actress contender Simone Signoret), a dwarf (Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Dunn), and many others.
3. THAT HAMILTON WOMAN (1941)
Leigh only made three films with her husband, Laurence Olivier, none better than this exquisite romantic drama from Alexander Korda. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, “That Hamilton Woman” recounts the true story of British Royal Navy officer Lord Horatio Nelson’s (Olivier) scandalous affair with the beautiful dance hall girl Emma Lady Hamilton (Leigh). It’s almost heartbreaking to see this real life couple so young and in love, considering the tragic fate that would befall them both on-camera and of. Incidentally, this lavish production was Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s favorite movie (he apparently viewed it over 80 times!).
2. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)
In adapting Tennessee Williams’ taboo-shattering stage hit, Elia Kazan (who also directed the original Broadway production) fills the screen with so much heat you might need a shower afterwards. Leigh won her second Best Actress Oscar for playing the genteel, disturbed Blanche DuBois, who clashes with her brutish brother-in-law (Marlon Brando), after moving into her sister’s (Supporting Actress winner Kim Hunter) New Orleans apartment. Despite her best efforts to start afresh with a new beau (Supporting Actor victor Karl Malden), Stella’s life quickly unravels as she tries desperately to escape her sordid past.
1. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
“Gone with the Wind” holds a dubious place in film history. On the one hand, it’s a sweeping example of Hollywood filmmaking at its best, a good story told well for nearly 4 hours. On the other hand, it’s portrayal of the Old South as some kind of Camelot fails to acknowledge the inhumanity of slavery (though Hattie McDaniel, who made history as the first black Oscar winner, is at least granted some common sense and humanity as Mammy). Yet what makes this classic stand the test of time is Leigh’s performance as Scarlett O’Hara, the resolute daughter of an Atlanta plantation owner who won’t let a little thing like the Civil War keep her down.