Truly Madly review – the deadly desire of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

·5-min read

Biographer Stephen Galloway’s purple prose does its best to give a romantic sheen to a famously troubled relationship

Lovers love a burbling plethora of adverbs: in Truly, Madly, Deeply, Juliet Stevenson tells Alan Rickman that she loves him really truly madly deeply passionately remarkably deliciously and, after a pause for thought, juicily. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh worked through the entire adverbial gamut, initially as furtive adulterers and later as figures of almost viceregal splendour, but what Stephen Galloway emphasises is the almost lethal madness of their infatuation.

Afflicted by what was then called manic depression, Leigh alternated between fits of derangement and alcoholic slumps, repeatedly stripping naked to frolic in the garden or invade the bedrooms of disconcerted house guests, then attempting suicide if there was a swimming pool handy. During one blow-up in what Galloway daintily calls their “froufrou abode”, Olivier hurled her at a marble tabletop, which left her with a gash on her temple and convinced him that they were “quite capable of murdering each other”. In some empurpled paragraphs, Galloway does his best to romanticise these paroxysms. Olivier, he asserts, was “drunk with desire” for Leigh’s “transcendent beauty” and he describes their first illicit encounters as if with his eye to a peephole: “hands, lips, limbs reached for each other with an urgency neither could control”.

Loving madly, in their profession, meant loving histrionically. Leigh abandoned her first husband, Galloway suggests, because she felt miscast: marriage was like a boringly over-extended theatrical run. She and Olivier mimicked the couples in the Shakespeare plays they performed. First came Romeo and Juliet, in which Olivier was more athletic than amorous, then Antony and Cleopatra, which was sabotaged by Leigh’s kittenish mewing. Closest to home was their pairing in Macbeth, where they exposed the strain of an increasingly fractious partnership as well as their skill at killing off professional rivals.

A pinch of kinky camp added spice. Clark Gable, Leigh’s co-star in Gone With the Wind, arrived on set with a phallic sock that his wife, Carole Lombard, knitted to keep the marital member snug. As a less virile equivalent, Olivier asked Leigh to send him her underwear and while stranded far from Hollywood he reported that he was “sitting naked with just my parts wrapped in your panties”. He claimed to love her with “a special kind of soul”, yet when she overdosed on sedatives he sent a letter in which he uncelestially ordered her to bend over, lower her drawers, raise her skirt and await chastisement: “Smack! Smack! Smack!”

Prevailed upon to make an after-dinner speech in Zagreb, she slathered the local worthies with a glossary of abusive four-letter words

Their games lurched into pathological farce after Leigh began to hallucinate, succumbed to screaming fits on aeroplanes and spat obscenities at her lover Peter Finch while entangling him in “great passionate embraces”. A shrink at a Surrey asylum administered electroconvulsive therapy; another cast-off lover, himself only recently released from a psychiatric hospital, prescribed exorcism, with moody lighting, incense and mystical chants to cast out the devils that possessed her. Galloway is left wondering whether Olivier and Leigh enjoyed an “affinity of heart, mind and soul” or were overcome by a “devouring sexual greed”. The conundrum is solved dialectically; he concludes that passion is bipolar and “at times can seem like a mental illness”.

All this frothing tends to blur the more public significance of their match. Galloway’s ecstatic, agonised couple were national symbols, enjoying a venerability that no celebrities today command. As Henry V, Olivier cried God for England in wartime and as Admiral Nelson in That Hamilton Woman he simultaneously fought off an invasion, though his actual military service consisted of giving orotund pep talks, with hot air as his weapon; at his medical exam, “he broke all records for blowing out a lot of breath for a very long time”.

A child of the Raj, born in Darjeeling where her father was a cavalry officer, Leigh had her own imperial pedigree and was content for a time to play Olivier’s decorous consort. But during a Shakespearean tour of eastern Europe, she dropped the protocol. Prevailed upon to make an after-dinner speech in Zagreb, she slathered the local worthies with a glossary of abusive four-letter words, delivered while she maintained her ladylike composure; knowing no English, her victims nodded and applauded as she told them how boring they were. For once, Leigh gave a performance as dangerous as those of Olivier when he risked life and limb in his gratuitous acrobatic stunts on stage.

Late in their careers, Olivier and Leigh undertook a calculated self-desecration. He personified the squalor of post-imperial Britain in John Osborne’s The Entertainer and she bravely portrayed two Tennessee Williams heroines – Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and the sexually needy socialite in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stonewho grieve over their lost allure. Here, rather than in the patriotic zeal of Henry V or the feudal folderol of Gone With the Wind, lay their greatest achievement: having outlived Galloway’s “romance of the century”, they dragged the declining century from romance into seedy, dejected realism.

Truly Madly: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier and the Romance of the Century by Stephen Galloway is published by Sphere (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply