This afternoon I was going through the proof for my book and making small changes to the text, when I came to the part where I wrote about Vivien Leigh’s initial reaction to the news that Laurence Olivier was going to be given a knighthood. She basically told him he shouldn’t accept because perhaps it would be selling out or something (whether she was serious or not is uncertain). Vivien’s attitude toward Olivier’s meteoric success in the mid-1940s was a mixture of pride and, I think, some resentment at feeling like she was being left behind.
One thing that seemed to really grate on her at the time was being passed up for 17 year-old Jean Simmons for the part of Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet. Much has been made of this casting decision by both Olivier and Leigh biographers. When it comes to Vivien, the general attitude seems to be, “I can’t believe Olivier passed her up for that role. She was pretty upset to be told she was too old by someone involved with the film, so, see, I told you Olivier was a horrible person.”
What I don’t ever recall seeing mentioned is the idea that perhaps Vivien just wasn’t right for the part in this particular film. I’m not talking about her age or her physical beauty. I’m talking about her talent and her star status. Hamlet is all about Olivier. Ophelia is definitely a supporting role - Jean Simmons is barely in the film and when she is, she doesn’t have much to do - and Vivien was not a supporting actress. I think both she and Olivier were well aware of this. As an acting couple, they made a point of choosing particular roles that would advance their careers as artists. Is it possible that Vivien wanted to be in the film because she’d be working with Olivier, rather than because she thought the role of Ophelia particularly awesome (the same thing happened when casting Rebecca)?
This is just an idea I’ve been tossing around in my head as something to possibly insert into my text.
What do you guys think?