Beginning after the 1920’s and lasting well into the 1960’s, the Golden Age of Hollywood gave rise to the history of cinema we know today, one whose classic films and movie stars still loom larger than life, their fame far surpassing even the brightest of today’s stars. Some of the most iconic films in Hollywood history came out in these years including Rebel Without a Cause, Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Roman Holiday and they created movie stars like Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable and Bette Davis who far surpassed their on screen legacy. Though we don’t really know these old world stars, they existed in a time when the picture and the world of Hollywood cinema still held a certain mystique that has worn off with the current commonness of the silver screen.
Though there are still many charismatic stars that inhabit the big screen today, it’s no surprise that the Hollywood star system that used to craft the celebrity image to perfection gave way to luminous stars that enchanted the public with their honed persona. Of course, because of the often times vast difference between the star and their image, it’s no surprise that the scandals that rocked Hollywood seemed so much more dramatic back then.
Whether it was the tabloid drama of Ava Gardner’s supposed man-eating ways or the rumored lobotomy that screen starlet Frances Farmer was said to have endured while institutionalized, the lives of the following Hollywood ladies have managed to turn even more dramatically in real life than they did on the big screen.
5. Frances Farmer
Born on September 19, 1913 in Seattle, Washington, Farmer’s early promise has made her an unforgettable screen legend but she is perhaps more well-known for her tumultuous life than her catalogue of films. After winning an essay contest for her controversial essay “God Dies” at age 18, Farmer went on to study drama at University of Washington and starred in many productions before she was offered a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures in 1936. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before Farmer’s unwillingness to play the media game gave her the reputation of being difficult to work with. In 1942, Farmer’s contract was cancelled and her marriage to actor Leif Erickson ended in divorce, throwing her into a haze of erratic behaviour that ended with nine months in a psychiatric ward. While Farmer’s then diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic didn’t stick, future institutionalizations led to shock treatment, a rumoured lobotomy and accusations of savage mistreatment by Farmer at the hands of her caregivers. While Farmer returned to the stage and small screen in 1957 for a few years, she passed away in 1970 at the age of 56. Though she seemed to find some semblance of peace in her later years, Farmer is remembered best for her performance in Come and Get It (1936) and was immortalized by Seattle Band Nirvana in the song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.”
4. Vivien Leigh
Born as Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913, Vivien Leigh felt the fire of fame in her bones from a young age. Starting out her studies at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Leigh married at 19 and began her career on stage where she met the famed actor Laurence Olivier, whom she promptly fell in love with. After gaining speed in her craft and beating out Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn for the lead in the highly anticipated film Gone with the Wind, Leigh and Olivier divorced their spouses and married in 1940. However, it wasn’t long before Leigh’s struggles with bipolar disorder began to show, and after suffering a miscarriage in 1944 she began to abuse alcohol and received shock therapy in an attempt to regain control. After some time away from the limelight, Leigh regrouped to star in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1949 and won her second Best Actress Oscar for the most highly lauded performance of her career. However, the pendulum swung back and Leigh suffered another breakdown, which ended her marriage to Olivier in 1960. The actress enjoyed a few more good years on the London stage, but she passed away soon after in 1967 at the age of 53. While Leigh’s professional and personal life was filled with upheaval, her turn as Scarlett O’Hara is one of the defining moments in the history of Hollywood cinema.
3. Ava Gardner
Considered one of the most beautiful women to ever patron the cinema and possessing the tempestuous persona to match it, Ava was born into the financially strapped Gardner family on December 24, 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina. Though she initially attended secretarial school, Gardner left for Hollywood in 1941 after her brother-in-law sent a photograph of her to MGM studios and she was given a film contract. Gardner worked a variety of bit parts and married actor Mickey Rooney at the age of 18, but due to a tumultuous and abusive relationship, the couple split in 1943 and she soon became involved with Jazz musician Artie Shaw, which led to another drama laden short term relationship. It was in 1946 that Gardner hit big with The Killers and soon after she met the love of her life in Frank Sinatra, who left his first wife and married Gardner in 1951. Unfortunately, the relationship was beset with heated rows, cheating allegations and a downswing in Sinatra’s career, which put stress on the relationship until the couple divorced in 1957. While Gardner took off to Spain for a few years before she passed away in London in 1990, movies like Mogambo (1953) and Night of the Iguana (1964) have entered the oeuvre of revered Hollywood films and made Gardner among the most famed of old Hollywood names.
2. Marilyn Monroe
Born as Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926, Marilyn Monroe is one of the most iconic sex symbols of all time but lived a life that far exceeded the influence of her films. Growing up in foster homes and a victim of sexual abuse, Monroe was a model before she won a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1946 and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, unleashing her persona as a supercilious blonde and scintillating sex symbol. Winning fame with movies like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “How to Marry a Millionaire”, Monroe embarked on a passionate union with baseball player Joe DiMaggio before their 8-month marriage ended in divorce in 1954. Though Monroe received good reviews for her dramatic turn in Bus Stop (1956) and married playwright Arthur Miller the same year, she was beset with emotional tribulations and the marriage ended in 1960 after which Monroe became dependent on alcohol and prescription drugs. Towards the end of her life, Monroe had numerous affairs including relations with President John F. Kennedy, but she disappeared from the limelight and was found dead of a believed barbiturate overdose on August 5, 1962, with questions still looming about what really happened to her.
1. Elizabeth Taylor
With her violet eyes and double row of eyelashes, Taylor would have existed as a Hollywood legacy anyways, but her tumultuous personal life has only added to the magnetism that is Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Starting out at a young age, Taylor became an acting phenom when she starred in National Velvet (1944) at the age of 12, and went on to star in a litany of Hollywood favourites like A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Cleopatra. Of course, it was Taylor’s personal life that gave fire to her famed persona with a marriage history so lengthy it’s comprised of bullet points. While Taylor married eight times in her life and was a prominent figure in the tabloids, it was her two marriages to English actor Richard Burton from 1964-1974 and 1974-1975 that captured the public’s attention, most notably for the alcoholism, affairs and intense passion that characterized their tumultuous unions and even led to the couple being condemned by the Vatican for ‘erotic vagrancy’. While Taylor passed away in March 2011 at the age of 79, her development of the American Foundation for AIDS Research has made her a hero, and her life story and performances have made her one of Hollywood’s most notorious screen stars.