This was a tough one.
There are so many great choices, wow, are there great choices! I could easily make a case for just about any performance by these actresses I love: Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Vanessa Redgrave, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet. Some of my specific runners-up included Olivia DeHavilland in THE HEIRESS, Maria Falconetti in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULVARD and Marion Cotillard in LA VIE EN ROSE. But ultimately my favorite female performance in a drama is a perfect match of great actress and role:
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND.
|Original caricature of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND (copyright 2011)|
I was a latecomer to this classic film from 1939. For some inexplicable reason, perhaps its length, I had never seen GONE WITH THE WIND all the way through until about a decade ago. I finally got the chance to view it in its entirety during a business trip to Santa Monica in the late 1990’s. The movie was being revived at a theater on the Third Street Promenade and I had a free afternoon so I decided to finally take it in. As I sat listening to the sweeping overture that preceded the movie I knew I was in for a treat. What I didn’t know was that I would walk out at the end of those four hours and immediately go back in and buy a ticket to see it again. I did so because I had to see Leigh’s marvel of a performance again right away.
Obviously a legendary film like GWTW has so much to recommend. It’s a great story and an important one, politically and socially. David Selznick’s incredibly detailed production is still a marvel from its lush cinematography to its exquisite costumes to Max Steiner’s hauntingly romantic score. The movie was expensive and expansive but also incredibly intimate. The story never loses focus on its lead. And Vivien Leigh holds our interest as Scarlett the entire time. She mesmerizes us, bewitches us, just as Scarlett does to all those who meet her.
The character of Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most complex characters ever put up on the screen. She is a walking contradiction: both woman and child, sometimes selfish and other times selfless, often caring, too often vicious. Scarlett, like her name, burns with a fire that no one can extinguish. Her lusts, her passions, her temper, they’re too hot for anyone to handle, especially in the quaint and cordial old South. To find an actress to play such a mercurial and complex character, producer Selznick had his work cut out for him. He auditioned hundreds of actresses, finally settling on Leigh. She was an unknown, a Brit whose only real experience was on the stage. But Leigh was a natural for the medium of film. She became an instant star. Leigh brought intensity to the role of Scarlett that blazes throughout. Why, the inferno that takes down Atlanta couldn’t hold a candle to her.
It is astounding to me that Margaret Mitchell’s book became such a bestseller and that the movie is so beloved by the masses because at the center of the story stands a woman who is in many ways a monster. She dishes out pain and drama wherever she goes. She is hurtful, spiting, and very possibly sociopathic. Yet we understand the motives behind her actions because Leigh invests so much commitment in them. It draws us in, like moths to the flame.
And of course it is entirely intentional that the great love of Scarlett’s life is with a man whose name is as fiery as hers. Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is Scarlett’s only equal: a man who is as stubborn and as selfish as she is. They’re perfect for each other but also disastrous together. Scarlett needs a complementary color to counter her excesses but the cool Ashley isn’t up to the task. Only Rhett is, even though it renders their relationship as dysfunctional as any portrayed on the big screen before or since. That we care for these two is a testament to Leigh and Gable both. They find deep wells of humanity in their character’s bad behavior. And they also play up the maverick qualities that Mitchell wrote for both of these firebrands ahead of their time. Rhett recognized that the way of the old South was a fool’s nostalgia. Scarlett is a smart cookie too, thinking for herself and defying the rigid rules of the time. They’re smart, accessible actors who compel us towards them.
Leigh wears every emotion on her sleeve as brazenly as Scarlett wore that dress made from the drapes, using her incredible eyes and a cocked eyebrow to draw us in to the inner workings of her character. Scarlett may not want to listen to the advice from Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) but Leigh’s eyes let us know that she takes her slave’s word as gospel. Scarlett may defend Ashley endlessly but Leigh’s eyes let us know that she’s bitterly disappointed by all of his weaknesses too. And even though Scarlett hisses at Rhett, Leigh’s arched eyebrow clues us in to the fact that she just can’t wait to be taken upstairs and kissed. And often. And by someone who knows how.
The role of Scarlett was gigantic and Vivien Leigh made it even bigger. It is a performance that excites me, frightens me, and leaves my jaw on the floor every time. I only wish that I had seen it sooner.
Now it’s your turn. There are so many amazing actresses and performances to choose from. What’s yours?