June 2009

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Peter Finch & Vivien Leigh

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

One lunchtime in August 1948, Peter Finch was doing Molière on the shop floor at O'Brien's glass factory in Sydney when Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh turned up.

Olivier and Leigh were the king and queen of the British theatre. He had been knighted for conspicuous enunciation in tights and she had won an Academy Award for her Scarlett O'Hara. Married since 1940, the golden couple were touring Australia to stiffen the post-war cultural sinews of the Commonwealth and raise money for the cash-strapped Old Vic theatre company.

With his expressive cheekbones, resonant voice and luxuriant wavy hair, Finch was Australia's most promising actor. A veteran of outback tent shows, a Dad and Dave film, army service in the Middle East and a role in Rats of Tobruk, he wowed the factory workers and sandwich-munching secretaries. Vivien and Larry thought him marvellous. If ever he was in England, he should get in touch.

Three months later, Finch arrived in London and Olivier put him on contract. By then, all was not well with the royal marriage. On their return from Australia, Vivien announced that she now loved her husband "sort of, well, like a brother."

Soon after, while playing Blanche duBois, her manic-depression became a full-blown pathology. She slept with everyone and anyone, suffered delusions and started to go completely starkers. By the time she won an Oscar for Streetcar, she was beyond even Hollywood's pale. To get her out of sight, she was offered the lead in Elephant Walk, to be shot in Ceylon. The male lead would be Peter Finch.

There had been earlier rumours of an affair but things came to a head during the filming. Both were drinking heavily and they spent the nights together on a hillside under the stars. The script called for Leigh to escape a giant anaconda and a herd of stampeding elephants. It was too, too much. She slipped into paranoia, began to hallucinate and trailed after Finch, calling him Larry.

Olivier was summoned, "anxious to see the state of the union". He abdicated his wife to his protégé and returned home, "in a soft coat of numbness".

The shoot was cancelled and Leigh replaced with Elizabeth Taylor. The lovers ran off to the south of France, held hands at Stratford and drove poor Larry to his wit's end. Vivien was, after all, Lady Olivier.

It was all too fraught for Peter, too. He went on to A Town Called Alice and, ultimately, his own Oscar, posthumously, in 1977, a category first. By then, the curtain had long fallen on the fragile beauty that had been Vivien Leigh.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The return of deficit economics

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Cold comfort

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Haiku hikers

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Hollywood ending


More in Encounters

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Rupert Murdoch & Kamahl

Mark Oliphant & J Robert Oppenheimer

John Monash & King George V

John Howard & Uri Geller


Online exclusives

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?