Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, & Hitchcock’s REBECCA

Today is Sir Laurence Olivier’s birthday, and The Retro Set would be remiss in not paying tribute to one of the 20th century’s finest actors. We love you, Larry! 

Early in the summer of 1939, when principal photography on David O’Selznick’s soon-to-be masterpiece Gone with the Wind had finally finished, Vivien Leigh boarded a plane and headed to New York to be reunited with Laurence Olivier. She was spotted by gossip columnist Louella Parsons who promptly reported that Olivier had signed on to play the role of Maxim de Winter in the film adaptation of Daphne duMaurier’s novel Rebecca, and that “All of Vivien Leigh’s brave plans to return to England for a stage play will go a-glimmering,… for she is now mentioned for the role of the wife opposite her very good friend Laurence.”

Power producer David O Selznick  bought the rights to DuMaurier’s darkly romantic novel in June 1938, at a time when he was deeply entrenched with pre-production on Gone with the Wind. Alfred Hitchcock was assigned to direct in September of that year (it would be his first Hollywood production and put him on the Selznick payroll) and by May 1939 Laurence Olivier was  brought on board. But Olivier was still a new name, and he was cast only after Selznick’s pleading with Ronald Colman to play the part fell through, and after Hitchcock ruled out Leslie Howard (“too academic for the romantic angle”) and William Powell (whose American accent was too “dangerous”).

Yet the casting Olivier was a stroke of brilliance.

Larry as Du Maurier’s tortured murderer Maxim de Winter

Larry’s well known ambivalent attitude towards Hollywood filmmaking manifested itself in Maxim’s un-apologetically obstinate nature. The casting process deeply obsessed Selznick (Obsession? Selznick? Never…)  which is why the role of the nameless Mrs. de Winter had, by June of 1939, still not been cast.

If you asked Olivier, however, the casting was quite obvious. Vivien Leigh, his girlfriend of two years, and the lead in Selznick’s pride and joy Gone with the Wind, was going to play Mrs. de Winter. Larry and Vivien were still several months off from having their deeply passionate affair recognized by law (they were in divorce proceedings with their respective spouses) and the opportunity to make a film together, as they were both now working in Hollywood, carried away their romantic hearts with excitement.

The problem was that Leigh, fresh from her role as one the greatest film divas of all time, Scarlett O’Hara, was a hard sell for the role of the naive, reticent,  self-conscious Mrs. deWinter. And while anyone who knows Leigh’s work can readily say, yes, she certainly possessed the emotional fragility necessary for the part (Blanche Dubois, anyone?) in June of 1939 the role was simply not right for her career.

And Selznick told her so– as well as Larry– over two cables sent to their ocean liner while the couple vacationed.

According to Terry Coleman’s biography, Olivier, “Selznick went on for three hundred words, assuring her that the same care, patience and stubbornness about accurate casting that had put her in “the most talked–of role of all time in what everyone who has seen it agrees is the greatest picture ever made,”  made it necessary for him to tell her that she would be as wrong for the role in Rebecca as the role would be for her. Signed, “affectionately, David.”

He was more direct with Olivier:

“I know you must be disappointed, but Vivien’s anxiety to play role has, in my opinion, been largely if not entirely due to her desire to do a picture with you.”

After all, Leigh hadn’t been interested in the project at all until she knew Olivier was playing Maxim and they would both be working in Hollywood at the same time.

Selznick’s cable to Olivier was signed “Cordially, David.”

Vivien circa 1939. At the time, her heart beat only for Larry, and his only for her.

But there was something else.

David O Selznick had fallen in love with Olivia de Havilland’s sister, Joan Fontaine.

Their relationship, according to most modern sources, is supposed to have remained platonic, but there is no questioning Selznick’s obvious affection for the pretty young blonde. Ever the perfectionist, it is to Selznick’s credit that he did not cast Fontaine straight away– he did have reservations about her acting ability– but finally informed her that she had been cast as Mrs. de Winter and to please report for fittings straight after the Labor Day holiday, 1939.

As history has amply recorded, Olivier was far from happy about the decision. It would be the second film in a row that he was to have a contentious relationship with his leading lady (his work with Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights, off screen, was fraught with tearful arguments) and he made no attempt to hide his displeasure with Fontaine.

Although, as history has also recorded, perhaps it was less Olivier’s moody brooding on set that put Fontaine so terribly off her guard, and more Hitchcock’s capitalizing on the ill feelings on set… manipulating  them to his advantage.

Fontaine later said that “[Hitchcock] was a Svengali. He controlled me totally. He took me aside and whispered, ‘Now kid, you go in there and you do this and that.’ And then he would say, ‘do you know what so-and-so said about you today? Do you that Olivier doesn’t want you in this role? Well never you mind  you just listen to me.’ … He seemed to relish the cast not liking one another, actor for actor, by the end of the film.”

All of this is not meant to condone Olivier’s un-sporting behavior at having lost out to working with his beloved, but it is to put it in to context. Perhaps, more than anything, it is necessary to step back and understand precisely how intense the Olivier/Leigh relationship was at that particular point in time. Still illicit in legal terms, their love had been gestating and blossoming into an extraordinarily passionate affair; unhealthy in some ways, very healthy and very needed in others, the fact of which is made quite evident in surviving letters and telegrams from the 1939 period.

For example, not long before his being cast as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca, Olivier penned the following letter of excruciating remorse at having missed a phone call from her:

I was too miserable even to cry. I was dying to ring up and say, O Vivling my darling forgive me, please forgive me. I’m so sorry, Mummy darling.  My throat does ache for you so my beloved darling Vivien child, Mary child, O how I reverence you, wrap you in mental cotton wool and put you on the mantelpiece and burn candles to you.

Vivien and Larry as Romeo and Juliet

This is the sort of love we’re talking about here, and in light of this it is easier to understand the stormy nature of Olivier’s behavior. Watching the film today, with Hitchcock’s meticulously calculated long shadows and startling close-ups, the tremulous back story really serves it well. The unease between Maxim and Mrs. de Winter carries the viewer, keeping them on tenterhooks, and it is only in the final minutes of the film that the cold melts from Larry’s deep, broodish eyes and we can actually feel some genuine affection between the two.

Had Vivien been by Larry’s side, it would have taken a greater actor even than Olivier to pretend that he was, even in the smallest sense, not thoroughly enraptured with her. Because, regardless of how their relationship would end, for this period in their lives Vivien Leigh and Larry Olivier were not so much a couple as they were one.

(The pair would go on to produce Romeo and Juliet on Broadway not long after, a critical and financial failure, and then return to Hollywood to film That Hamilton Woman in 1941– a great financial success.)

For more on Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, be sure to drop by film historian Kendra Bean‘s Viv And This classy, sophisticated, comprehensive site is a gold mine of essays, photo essays, and everything under the sun pertaining to the Oliviers. Trust us: your classic movie-loving life is not complete without it!

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