From Petersburg to New Orleans – focus on: Vivien Leigh

Watching Vivien Leigh on a screen will immediately make a woman want to dig into her costume drawer and carefully pick out any piece of clothing made of silk, lace or (fake) fur, throw it over her shoulders and accessorise it with a vintage brooch, a hat, a long skirt and heels. She will then strut around her living room or kitchen, find a fancy glass, fill it with juice for lack of champagne and take small sips. Or… is that just me?

Anna Karenina (1948) brings Tolstoy’s novel – a story about genuine love being limited by the rules of society and leading a broken woman to loneliness and suicide – to life thanks to Leigh’s unforgettable honesty when placed in front of the camera.  Anna, who is married to Count Karenin and is the mother of a young boy, falls in love with Count Vronsky. While her affair becomes public quite quickly and is known by all those who matter, her husband refuses to divorce her and herewith shames her for life. 

Leigh’s beauty, goodness and subtle transitions from day dreams to smiles that distract her from her unhappiness stop us from blaming her for what she has done wrong, which I imagine is what Tolstoy wanted us to feel. Her husband, though cold and more obsessed with his work than his wife (does he really mean it when he tells her he “loves” her?), shows his humanity when he realises his wife’s betrayal. It is a beautiful thing that Count Karenin is not only portrayed as an evil husband, but also has a sensitive side. To show this is to recognise that humans are incredibly complex on the inside and can sometimes only be released when a writer expresses this complexity through text and dialogue. Again, this is the beauty of drama.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (the novel’s opening line)

“Had I been a Roman, how I would have loved the Gladiators. All that blood!” (Anna’s friend, at the horse race)

It is interesting how in black and white films, light and dark cannot always be deciphered. This became clear to me while watching A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), when it is found out that Blanche Dubois (Leigh, outstanding) constantly tries her best not to be seen in natural light. As her beau Mitch (Karl Malden) confronts her and forcefully places her right under a light bulb, she can no longer hide her age or her past. This leads her to the climax of the nervous breakdown the viewer has been witnessing, and to two strange employees of what we can only imagine being a mental institution (literally) picking her up and taking her away.

The role of Blanche is one which I can only imagine an actress would be honoured to play. The forced restraint on a bubbly and glamorous woman, again because of society’s guidelines, and the pain caused by the loss of a loved one, years after the said loss has happened, pour out of Blanche’s (and Leigh’s wonderful) eyes, at first only slightly, and then at times incessantly. As she tries to contain herself, she finds herself losing or inventing parts of her memory and jumps as soon as someone touches her or talks about violence (in particular when Mitch simply wants to impress her with his abs and asks her to “punch” him in the gut)…

Unfortunately, Desire – the reason she lost her loved one, the streetcar which brought her to her sister and that which drives the masochistic love between Stella and Stanley (Marlon Brando) – is what Blanche can never escape and what leads her to her mental collapse.

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