The first part of November marks two milestones for Old Hollywood icons. On November 5, Vivien Leigh would have turned 100 and on the 9th, Hedy Lamarr would have been 99. Both women were stars in their own right having excelled on screen and earned the praise of critics and fans alike. So in honor of these iconic women’s birthdays, let’s take a look back at their lives and careers.
Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, British India on November 5, 1913. After spending her infancy in India, her family moved back to their native England when she was 6. Her friend at school, future actress Maureen O’Sullivan, sparked her interest in acting which resulted in her attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1931. During this time she met her first husband, Herbert Leigh Holman, whom she married in 1932. The next year she gave birth to their daughter, Suzanne.
Following the birth of Suzanne, Vivien made her official acting debut in the film Things Are Looking Up, changed her named to Vivien Leigh, and also made her stage debut in The Mask of Virtue in 1935. Her life changed forever when she co starred with Laurence Olivier in the 1937 film Fire Over England. The duo began an affair that would end both of their marriages and lead to a 20 year marriage. Following this film, Vivien continued to find success on the European theater circuit and landed roles in a few films.
Her big break came when she heard about the search for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara for the upcoming film adaptation of Gone with the Wind in 1938. She immediately travelled to Hollywood where Olivier was working at the time and landed a screen test and audition for the film despite her agent insisting she was “too British” for the part. She nailed the audition and got the role that won her an Oscar.
In 1940, still riding high from her success on the big screen, she married Olivier and scored top billing in the critically praised Waterloo Bridge. She spent the next few years working with her new husband both in films and on the stage before she suffered a miscarriage on the set of Caesar and Cleopatra in 1944. It was during this time that Olivier was first exposed to the severity of her bipolar disorder, which plagued her during her life.
In 1948 the couple began a theatrical tour in Australia which generally heralded as a success despite the increasing issues Vivien was facing behind the scenes with her bipolar disorder. Upon their return to London, Vivien landed the role of Blanche DuBois in the West End play A Streetcar Named Desire and was cast in the film adaptation following the stage production’s end. The role earned her a second Oscar and further cemented her place as one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses.
The 50’s saw her personal issues come to the forefront of her life, as she suffered a mental breakdown in 1953 and another in 1956 after her second miscarriage. The issues she faced also took a heavy toll on her marriage. Despite the success she found on the stage during this period her marriage fell apart and the couple divorced in 1960. The years following their divorce saw Vivien continue her string of successes on the West End and Broadway stages and resulted in her winning a Tony for her role in the musical Tovarich. However, she suffered from a recurrence of the tuberculosis she had first contacted in 1943. She collapsed in her London home and passed away due to complications from this illness on July 7th, 1967.
Hedy Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1914. After a relatively normal childhood in Austria, she made her film debut at the tender age of 16 in the film Gold on the Street. Her big break, however, came in 1933 when she appeared in the highly sexual and controversial film Ecstasy. Following the explosion of press that followed the film’s release she divorced her husband at the time, Friedrich Mandl, and fled to Paris and then London. It was in London that she met film tycoon Louis B. Mayer, who immediately hired her and changed her name to Hedy Lamarr.
She made her American film debut in 1938 with Algiers, which earned her positive reviews. Thanks to her highly sexualized image and exotic beauty she starred in 20 films between 1940 and 1950. Her most notable during this period included White Cargo, Ziegfeld Girl, and Samson and Delilah which was the highest-grossing film of 1949. During this time she began to work with her neighbor, George Antheil, on their idea that they could prevent frequency jamming of torpedos by using a technique they called “frequency hopping”. The duo patented this idea in 1942 which was dismissed by the U.S. Navy almost immediately. However, her career declined after co starring with Bob Hope in the 1951 comedy My Favorite Spy and by the end of the 50’s she had starred in only a few television series and foreign films. However, her previous work with radio frequencies began to be used by the U.S. Navy in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However the 60’s were a period of trouble for her as she was arrested for shoplifting in 1966, the same year she was replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor in the film Picture Mommy Dead. However she published her memoirs, Ecstasy and Me, the following year.
She spend the rest of her life in seclusion despite the fact that she was repeatedly offered scripts for television shows, films, and stage performances. However a Canadian technology development company, Wi-LAN Inc., purchased 49% of her patent for frequency hopping in 1997 which helped to provide financial stability for her. Her invention has since gone on to lay the groundwork for Bluetooth devices and Wi-Fi network connections.
Hedy passed away from heart failure at her Florida home in 2000 at the age of 85. She never got to see the incredible impact her scientific work had on the world in the years following her death. History remembers both of these women not only for their stunning looks, but also for their incredible talents and contributions to the world of acting (and in Hedy’s case science). Despite their deaths, both women are held on a pedestal for their dynamic performances on the screen and stage.
About the Author: Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment, culture, and lifestyle blogger for http://directstartv.com/. His love of old movies has created a vague obsession with the stars of yesteryear. He lives and works in Chicago where he can often be found scouring the few existing video rental stores for old movies he hasn’t seen yet.