‘Truly, Madly’: Marilyn and the Oliviers

Truly, Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century is a new book by Stephen Galloway, looking at the tempestuous marriage of the first couple of the British stage and screen, from their initial encounter in 1934 through to their 1960 divorce. Over three decades, their passionate relationship was torn apart by mutual infidelities, professional jealousy and mental illness (Vivien was diagnosed with manic depression, which sadly was little understood at the time.)

For Monroe fans, the book offers some background and context to The Prince and the Showgirl, and its impact on the Oliviers. In early 1953, Vivien had gone to Hollywood to film Elephant Walk, where she had a disastrous affair with co-star Peter Finch and suffered a complete nervous breakdown. MGM replaced her with Elizabeth Taylor, and Vivien returned to England where she entered a psychiatric hospital and underwent electroconvulsive therapy.

That August, the Oliviers agreed to star in Terence Rattigan’s comedy, The Sleeping Prince. Producer Alexander Korda had advised Rattigan to write “a trifle about Kings and Queens” to celebrate the recent coronation. “Even in the 1950s, the story seemed dated,” Galloway observes, attributing Olivier’s choice to “a willingness to put his ambitions on hold for his wife.” The play ran from November 1953 to the summer of 1954.

Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, in The Sleeping Prince (photo by Angus McBean)

In late 1954, Olivier directed and starred in a screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. His friend, actor turned assistant director Anthony Bushell, was frustrated by Olivier’s reluctance to shoot close-ups. Olivier also had an affair with leading lady Claire Bloom, following a prior dalliance with actress Dorothy Tutin in 1953.

“Each had long stopped being faithful,” Galloway writes of the Oliviers, “and, though Vivien could no more blame Larry than herself, it hurt to see him eyeing younger women when she was no longer in the full flower of youth. She was worried about her age, concerned about her appeal and hyper-conscious of her looks, an obsession that had been building for several years.”

She went on to star in a screen adaptation of another, more substantial Rattigan play, The Deep Blue Sea, produced in the UK for 20th Century Fox. Unaware of the depth of her illness, director Anatole Litvak was unsympathetic to Vivien’s erratic behaviour, and while her performance has been praised in retrospect, it was not the hit she had hoped for.

In 1955, the Oliviers decamped to Stratford-Upon-Avon for a trio of Shakespearean plays, including an acclaimed production of Macbeth. “The actress Sybil Thorndike had long maintained that the tragedy needed a real-life husband and wife,” Galloway recounts, “and here was living proof.” However, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan derided Vivien’s performance. “He would later regret his harsh words,” Galloway continues, “but his shaft drew blood and Larry was incensed, blaming him for driving Vivien over the edge.”

Marilyn with Olivier and Terence Rattigan (photo by Milton Greene)

Meanwhile, Marilyn Monroe bought the screen rights to The Sleeping Prince, and in February 1956, Olivier and Rattigan joined her for a press conference in New York announcing their upcoming collaboration. “She seemed so nervous about meeting Larry that his pride swelled, his ego kicked in and his sex drive shifted into high gear,” Galloway writes. “Was it love or lust he felt, or a combination of both? Or was it the possibility Marilyn offered of restoring him to the pinnacle of show business power, reminding the world that his stardom still resonated, even if his box-office did not?”

Perhaps he should have heeded the advice of Joshua Logan, who directed Marilyn in Bus Stop (1956.) “She was strange,” Logan said later. “She was very much of a frightened, wounded, woodland animal who had been so humiliated and ridiculed by press men and photographers as well as thoughtless, selfish directors, that she did not really respond the way a normal girl would.”

After arriving in London in July 1956, Marilyn and her new husband, Arthur Miller, joined Olivier for a press conference at the Savoy Hotel. “It was clear,” Galloway remarks, “that, idolise Larry as she might, she knew nothing of his stage work, let alone Vivien’s; she told the reporters that her dream role was Lady Macbeth, unaware that Vivien had so recently played the part.”

Marilyn with husband Arthur Miller and Olivier

“Things quickly soured,” Galloway writes. “As the Millers and the Oliviers spent more time together, ‘Marilyn felt Larry was paying more attention to Miller than to her,’ says Michael Korda, ‘and she felt that Miller was going out of his way to be more charming to Larry than to her, even though they were married. She was very shrewd. Mostly what she thought was true.'”

“Laurence had to learn patience,” said actor Douglas Wilmer, who played an uncredited bit part in The Prince and the Showgirl. “It was no good getting annoyed with her, because it was just water off a duck’s back. When she did arrive [on the set] he said to her, ‘Why can’t you get here on time for fuck sake!’ and Marilyn said: ‘Oh, do you have that word in English too?'”

Olivier also loathed Marilyn’s ever-present acting coach, Paula Strasberg. When Josh Logan visited the set, Olivier “came at me with a venomous rush, and said, ‘How dare you tell me to have Paula Strasberg on the set? She’s a bloody nuisance!’ I said, ‘I told you that she never appeared on my set,’ and suddenly he looked at me, aghast, and said, ‘You did? How did I get the idea that she was there all the time?'”

The degree of animosity towards Marilyn among Olivier’s cronies is evident in letters written by Anthony Bushell at the time. Describing Sybil Thorndike as “a really wonderful old gal,” he added, “I will never forget her immaculate behaviour to that black-hearted trollop Monroe … Repeatedly kept waiting for two or three hours for scenes which Monroe knew perfectly well were for the two of them only, she – made up and word perfect on the set on the dot of 9 o’clock – would greet the blowsy hellion with the sort of reserved courtesy she would have extended to a Hottentot princess. It never failed.”

Bushell also recalled that “the hell-hound” fluffed one line twenty-two times. “I kid you not,” he wrote to a friend. “I thought if I had to listen to poor Laurence giving her the cue ‘a certain euphoria’ once more I should walk out and beat her to death.” As Galloway reflects, “None of this escaped Marilyn … On her copy of the script, she scribbled: ‘What am I doing here with this strange man?”

The Oliviers with Marilyn on the opening night of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge

Unlike her assistant director, Dame Sybil recognised Marilyn’s expertise in screen acting. Vivien also appreciated her brilliance – which triggered her deep feelings of insecurity. When she first saw Marilyn in the daily rushes, Vivien cried. “I didn’t think she would be that beautiful,” she told Amy Greene, wife of Marilyn’s business partner, Milton. “She has it and I don’t.” That July, Vivien had become unexpectedly pregnant and was forced to exit a successful West End production of Noel Coward’s South Sea Bubble. Coward berated her for sabotaging the show. Then in August, she suffered a miscarriage.

Filming ended in November, and the Millers returned to New York. “It was the most dreadful experience of [Olivier’s] life,” said cinematographer Jack Cardiff, one of Marilyn’s few friends on the set. “He had greatness. And all that greatness went up against a stone wall when he was working with Marilyn.”

In May 1957, the Oliviers headed to Europe for a tortuous six-week tour with the Shakespeare Memorial Company. By summer, the couple were leading separate lives, and Olivier would soon meet Joan Plowright, the 27-year-old actress who became his third wife. Nonetheless, he remained close to Vivien until her death in 1967.

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