What it felt like to play Scarlett O’Hara (1940)

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What it felt like to play Scarlett O’Hara

by Vivien Leigh

Appearing as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind” at the Alamance Theatre

A year has gone by since the night we stood watching the first scenes being made for “Gone With The Wind.” It was an awesome spectacle — whole blocks of sets being consumed by flames as buildings in old Atlanta burned, and I was a little confused by the grandeur of it and by what seemed to be a frightening confusion. That was the night I met Mr David O Selznick, the man who was producing “Gone With The Wind,” and who had yet to select a Scarlett O’Hara for the film.

In retrospect, it seems to me that the fantastic quality of that tremendous fire, the confusion I felt and the feeling of loneliness in the midst of hundreds of people, was indicative of what was to come. I could not know then, of course, what lay ahead — and if someone had ventured to predict it, I probably would have passed it off as nonsense.

Objective view

The unexpected happened; it made me, for these months at least, and whether I wished it so or not, into the character known as Scarlett O’Hara. Now the difficulty is to view that character objectively. That it was a great role for any actress was obvious, yet I can truthfully say that I looked on Mr Selznick’s request that I test for Scarlett as something of a joke. There were dozens of girls testing, and I did not seriously consider the likelihood of actually playing the part.

What it felt like to play Scarlett O'HaraYet once it was decided upon, I discovered that there was no joking about playing Scarlett. From then on, I was swept along as though by a powerful wave — it was Scarlett, Scarlett, Scarlett, night and day, month after month.

Perhaps the hardest days I spent, hard that is from the point of actual physical exertion, were during the time we made the scene where Scarlett struggles through the populace as it evacuates Atlanta.

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Naturally this could not be done all in one continuous “take,” and so for what seemed like an eternity I dodged through the maze of traffic on Peachtree Street, timing myself to avoid galloping horses and thundering wagons.

And between each shot, the makeup man — he seemed to be everywhere at once — came running to wash my face, then dirty it up again to just the right shade of Georgia clay dust. I think he washed my face about twenty times in one day, and dusted me over with red dust after each washing.

Oddly enough, the scenes of physical strain were not so wearing as the emotional ones. One night we worked at the studio until about eleven o’clock, then went out to the country for a shot against the sunrise, when Scarlett falls to her knees in the run down fields of Tara and vows she’ll never be hungry again. The sun rose shortly after two am and I could not sleep, although I had a dressing room in a trailer. We made the shot and I arrived at home at about 4:30 am, yet I do not recall that I was so terribly tired.

Instead, I think of the day that Scarlett shoots the deserter, and I recall that after that nerve-wracking episode, both Olivia de Havilland, the wonderful Melanie of the film, and myself were on the verge of hysterics — not alone from the tenseness of the scene, but from the too realistic fall as the “dead” man went down the stairs before us.

Wonderful experience

Yet when the day came that meant the film was completed, I could not help feeling some little regret that our parts were done and that the cast and the crew — who were all so thoughtful and kind throughout — were breaking up. Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Tom Mitchell, Barbara O’Neil — fine players all. We should see each other again, of course — but never again would we have the experience of playing in “Gone With The Wind!”

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