Kenneth Tynan once gave grievous offense to Vivien Leigh when he described her as ‘pert, sly and spankable’.
This was in a review of her 1951 performance in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, in which she and her husband Sir Laurence Olivier played the title roles. And since ‘pert, sly and spankable’ is a very fair description of the youthful Cleopatra in Shaw’s play, you might think that Tynan was complimenting her on nailing the part, with an extra helping of admiration from his own particular enthusiasm.
One thing that certainly wouldn’t have offended her is the word spankable. For one thing, it’s not just a very fair description of Shaw’s Cleopatra but also of several of her other roles, including Anouilh’s Antigone (who is actually threatened with a spanking) and of course the most iconic of them all:
Spankable was already written into the dynamics of Scarlett’s character and her relationship with Rhett Butler even before Vivien won the part after a long and much-publicized casting hunt by Gone With the Wind’s producer, David O. Selznick. There’s a hint of it in the later stages of the original Margaret Mitchell novel (1936), when Scarlett considers spanking her daughter and Rhett, by now her husband, responds ‘that if any spanking were to be done, he would do it personally and to Scarlett’. And that was also how some readers felt: ‘Scarlett O’Hara still has me puzzled,’ wrote a reviewer in 1938. ‘One minute I’m cheering for her and the next I’d like to take her over my knee and administer a sound spanking.’
And she provoked the same reaction when embodied on celluloid. Here’s a Pennsylvania film critic writing in 1940: ‘Vivien Leigh plays Scarlett O’Hara to perfection and there are times when one wishes for a hairbrush to give her a spanking, so realistically does she play her role.’ It’s a view that has persisted into later generations, as witness this slightly amended line from Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler:
(In the film, he says kissed, not spanked.) And another person sharing this opinion was Vivien Leigh herself: ‘Scarlett fascinated me,’ she said, ‘but she needed a good, healthy, old-fashioned spanking on a number of occasions.’ This was an actress under no illusions about her consummate ability to play spankable.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that spankable is an epithet an actress would want to be applied to herself, as distinct from the characters she plays. But Tynan wasn’t the only person who expressed a wish to spank her: she had already been paid effectively the same compliment by Olivier himself, only in more direct terms, at the time of their initial courtship in the late 1930s.
During the making of Gone With the Wind, in May 1939, she took an overdose. Olivier wrote on the 18th to scold his beloved ‘Vivling’, as he called her, and told her precisely what he wanted to do with her:
‘I do adore you Vivien my darling little girl. O but I ought to be soooooo cross with you. Urrrrrrggh! Urrrrrrgh! How dare you take four pills like that you hysterical little ninny … Urrgh! Bend over – Yes, take your drawers down – no, lift your skirt up – now then: – Smack! Smack! Smack! – ! – ! – ! – ! – ! – ! – ! – !*!!! Yes – Eleven! Naughty pooossey. Now you come here and I’ll kiss it and make it better.’
Other people’s love-letters rarely make for edifying reading, but this one does establish that, for all that Vivien Leigh was never spanked in a movie or on stage (her narrowest escape is a subject for another time), spanking was an accepted and apparently semi-erotic part of her life. We won’t follow her and Olivier any further into the privacy of their bedroom to find out more, but then we don’t need to. There was also an occasion, witnessed by Kenneth Tynan himself, at a mid-1950s country house party when she stripped down to her bra and panties in front of her parents.
Her mother’s response was to tell her, ‘Now, Miss, that’s quite enough of that, You mind your manners!’ Vivien replied, ‘What are you going to do, mummy? Spank me with a hairbrush?’ And in the account Tynan later confided to his diary, ‘Mum seems on the point of doing just that (what a scene that would have been!)’
And the very same house party gave him his chance, when Vivien presented herself in his bedroom late at night in a state of undress.
Tynan’s high regard for Olivier restrained him from taking advantage – he later said he couldn’t cuckold a man he hero-worshipped when they were both under the same roof – but what the incident indicates is how unlikely it is that the sexually adventurous Vivien would have primly objected to the hint that Tynan wanted to spank her.
But that wasn’t Tynan’s point: what he meant was that ‘pert, sly and spankable’ defined the whole of her range as an actress. He was calling her a limited talent, which looked all the more limited alongside her great spouse. And while Vivien may not have objected to being literally spanked, a metaphorical spanking from a critic was quite another matter: she knew she was spankable, but she wanted to be more than only spankable.
And maybe, just maybe, she was.