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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Damn You, Scarlett O’Hara’
“Damn You, Scarlett O'Hara: The Private Lives of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier” recounts the sundry affairs of two of Hollywood’s biggest personalities. As imagined by authors Darwin Porter and Roy Moseley, working under the Blood Moon Productions imprimatur, Olivier and Leigh were like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie if every tabloid rumor encircling them were actually true.
The credits say Mr. Moseley had a long-standing relationship with Leigh, and the final pages include a bibliography that clearly helped shape the narrative. But even tabloid junkies will cast a cynical eye over the procession of details assembled throughout the dense book. The private conversations recounted here sound mawkish and barely believable. The authors gain intimate knowledge of both the players and motivations behind their actions in a way that seems suspicious.
Being gay in Hollywood circa 2011 can be a real career risk, especially for leading actors. So it seems curious that actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood would engage in such bald bed hopping with a prying press eager to pounce. According to the book, Olivier’s early years teemed with homosexual romps, some planned, some forced upon him. He even shared an unsavory attachment to his older brother.
Olivier’s acting career came in fits and starts, with one stage success quickly followed by a letdown or outright failure. The book charts his acting progress, from a raw talent in dire need of sculpting to an artist who would be knighted for his theatrical prowess.
Leigh’s pre-fame days involved jealousy over friend Maureen O'Sullivan’s speedier route to fame and a voracious sexual appetite her first husband couldn’t hope to quench. Leigh’s mental state, always rickety, would suffer when fame - and the role of Scarlett O'Hara - entered her life.
What’s missing from “Damn You, Scarlett O'Hara” is a narrative flow that could turn the cavalcade of gossip into something more than a tabloid magazine on steroids. What’s worse, the authors fail to make Olivier and Leigh worthy of our emotional investment. They both seem like cardboard characters with bold, often ugly emotions written across their beautiful faces.
“Damn You” makes plenty of outrageous claims - mostly of a sexual nature. To hear the authors tell it, you’d be hard-pressed to find a stereotypically straight actor - male or female - in Hollywood. Even celebrated he-men, including Marlon Brando, are cast as sexually ambiguous if not downright bisexual.
But in some situations, the authors slow down to show they aren’t quite sure what happened and let the various parties have their say. The transparency is rare but appreciated. “Damn You” can be a dazzling read, the prose unmannered and instantly digestible. The authors’ ability to pile scandal atop scandal, seduction after seduction, can be impossible to resist.
Film devotees will gobble up the inside tales within, from Olivier’s reaction to working on “Wuthering Heights” (he hated it) to the arduous casting process that led to Leigh becoming the iconic Scarlett O'Hara.
“Damn You, Scarlett O'Hara” is never dull but it does wear the reader out long before its final passages. The shock value disintegrates around the midway point, and even when we read about the couple’s spy games at the dawn of World War II - both for Britain and around Hollywood (actors Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant were targets) - it’s just another outrage to pile on the rest.
Olivier, considered by many as the greatest English-speaking actor, and Leigh, the beauty who set hearts aflutter in “Gone with the Wind” clearly had their demons. And other biographies and interviews have hinted about the more curious aspects of their lives. “Damn You” runs with those themes, inflating them into a tapestry of sin that’s both exhausting and improbable.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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