Vivien Leigh as Mary Treadwell in Ship of Fools (1965).
She plays a divorced older woman who has left her abusive wealthy husband. Having no one else in the world to turn to, she idly flirts with men on board a boat cruise to Germany, while other passengers on board judge her for her glamorous and promiscuous affectations. Her character in this film has been compared to her performance as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), since both are fading older women going through a crisis, but unlike Blanche, Mary does not delude her self with dreams of grandeur and is more jaded and self-aware.
During the filming of this movie, Vivien was very ill and on the last leg of her career, and this was to be her final role. Mary’s struggles in this film parallel Vivien’s own, and it was a role that was obviously very close to her heart. The tears in this scene are all too real and the performance Vivien gives is a powerful one of integrity and deep emotion.
In this scene Mary wonders to herself if she is to die alone because she is no longer young and attractive to men. Older women’s sexualities are often portrayed as grotesque and threatening, something to laugh at and be disgusted by, but this is not the case here. As Mary smears make up onto her face, she wipes it all off in a moment of tragic realization; realization of the harsh facts of her life, and of the futility of her constant efforts to maintain a beautiful outer shell while internally being broken by years of constant physical and emotional abuse from her ex-husband. Mary is a character that is indeed tragic and often times desperate, but Vivien portrayed her with pathos and dignity and was not afraid to show heartbreaking vulnerability in her last and perhaps best role.
“Once I visited her dressing room to find her in tears. I didn’t know the reason, and didn’t like to pry. But later I learned that rumors had reached her, hinting that Olivier had been seen dining after his show with pretty actresses a fraction of his age. The rumors turned out to be only too true.” -Claire Bloom