Saturday, 21 December 2013

Starring Vivien Leigh: A Cetenary Celebration, National Portrait Gallery, London (30 November 2013-20 July 2014)

Tucked away on the first floor landing in the National Portrait Gallery are twenty eight photographs of my first and most enduring girl crush, the mesmerizingly beautiful Vivien Leigh.  I could fill pages and pages of photographs of her at the peak of her beauty, she was so extraordinarily photogenic, it is almost criminal.  In a lifetime questioning why and how women have been judged and objectified solely on their physical attributes and rallying against the injustice of valuing women purely in these terms, it seems somewhat disloyal to include a exhibition celebrating this very British beauty.  However, while ever bone in my feminist body will always condemn objectification in all its varying forms and manifestations, I understand how the allure of beauty when these photographs were taken (and even to a great extent even today) continues to commodify women and which remains virtually unquestioned (even by many women themselves).

Leigh was more than her looks though, and despite an extremely privileged upbringing and glamorous lifestyle, including the infamous affair and marriage to Laurence Olivier, she was an incredibly talented actress.  She was also haunted by her own demons, suffering from returning episodes of depression throughout her life and was also dogged by ill heath for much of her adult life.

That she should choose to portray two characters, Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Karen Stone in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, both which tapped into the heart of her own particular darkness shows just how brave and resilient this woman could be.  In both films Leigh portrayed two fatally flawed women and this must have taken its emotional and psychological toll on the actress as they reflected her own fragile mental state and the coming to terms of her own aging and loss of looks.

The photographs on display at the National Portrait Gallery span her acting career from its roots in British theatre through to Hollywood blockbuster films and beyond and are a mix of studio shots and stills from the films themselves.  It is the studio shots which really romanticise and immortalise Vivien Leigh.  Many show how similar poses were repeated in order to show the actress at her most ravishing, while some of the film stills

capture Leigh's mix of emotional determination and coquettishness.  These photographs capture a lost era when the private lives of film stars were closely guarded secrets. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Leigh was the Queen of British Film.  She captured the heart of many fashionable photographers and the results of the their adoration of Leigh are fabulously apparent in the images chosen here.