Friday, November 6

Gene Tierney

Her boss, Fox head honcho Darryl F. Zanuck, referred to her as the most beautiful woman in the history of movies.  That's quite a statement considering the bevy of beauties he bedded and hired for his famous studio.  Perhaps Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and others may have taken exception to his comments but I think it goes without saying that Gene Tierney was exceptionally beautiful.

It was an imperfect beauty, as well, in that she had crooked front teeth (which she adamantly refused to have fixed) and a bit of an overbite but it all worked for her.  She had beautiful cheekbones, an ethereal manner, a gorgeous speaking voice and a serenity about her that endlessly fascinated me.  I have never mentioned her as one who occupied a position as my favorite actress but she is unquestionably in my top 10.

She is renowned for starring in four sensational films in consecutive years.  Two of them were mentioned as part of my 50 Favorite Films and one of those is among the best film noirs ever and the other was Fox's most financially successful film of the 40s... and that is really saying a mouthful.  These films alone made her world-famous... to this day.  There were a few other things that put her on the front pages of the newspapers of the day but we'll allow them to spill out as we get into this.

She was born into wealth in 1920 Brooklyn.  Her father was an insurance broker and her mother a gymnastics teacher.  Gene inherited their good looks.  She lived occasionally with wealthy grandparents in Connecticut and thought, like all her friends, she would marry a boy from Yale and live in Connecticut.  She was educated at some of the finest schools on the East Coast and also attended a Swiss finishing school.  There was never a thought in her head about acting.

When she was 17 she accompanied her parents to Los Angeles where they visited Warner Bros, one of her father's clients.  Gene's beauty attracted the attention of some of those in the commissary while they were lunching and she was offered an immediate screen test.  She passed it with flying colors (who knew?) and the studio wanted to sign her but her father, unaware that she even had the test, refused, citing her age.

Father and daughter struck a bargain once they returned home.  She would put acting on hold until she turned 18 and if she still wanted to act after her coming-out debutante ball, he would finance her so that she could act on Broadway.  Movie acting did not impress him.

It all went according to plan.  Her father actually spent some time driving his daughter to interviews and to agents' offices.  He was a crack salesman and it was difficult for people to say no to him.  At the same time there was a play looking to hire a cast.  It was an Irish play and the Tierneys were Irish.  She was hired.  After it closed she appeared in a few more plays.  Movie offers came pouring in and her aggressive, rather controlling father, suggested she accept one from Columbia.  She moved to Hollywood, acquiring a good sense of what life was like for a young starlet (including the rush from Howard Hughes, whom she casually dated for a short while).  But nothing much came of the short time at Columbia and she returned to New York. 

She got a good role in the play, The Male Animal, and one of those performances was caught by none other than Darryl F. Zanuck.  He was so captivated by her that he instructed his minions to sign her to a contract.  In time she would proudly say that, unlike a number of women employed at Fox, she never slept with him.  Furthermore, many of her fellow actresses intensely disliked Zanuck but Tierney wasn't among that crowd either.  She felt he stood by her, had her groomed for stardom and gave her great roles. 

First up was The Return of Frank James (1940) with Henry Fonda playing outlaw Jesse's older brother.  She developed a crush on him and would work with him twice again in the years to come.  She was horrified when she saw the dailies and thought her voice to be too squeaky.  She took up smoking as a way to deepen her voice.  (You'll hear more about that decision in the final paragraph.)

That dirty lil Elly May

I found her a curious choice for John Ford's Tobacco Road (1941).  Elly May (and the whole movie actually) was such a dirty thing.  The same could be said for her follow-up role as the bandit queen in Belle Starr.  Gene Tierney should never be outdoors, caked with dirt, her hair a mess, making a mess of English.  This is a woman made for fancy clothes and drawing rooms in beautiful mansions. 

Speaking of clothes, she began dating a thin-lipped, languid Cossack by the name of Oleg Cassini.  At the time he was a not-so-well paid clothing designer at Columbia.  Despite strenuous objections from her family and Fox, she married him in 1941 not long after meeting.  Their marriage was always troublesome.  Although their second divorce was in 1952, there was a divorce and remarriage in 1948.  On the good side, as she became more powerful as an actress, she had it written into her contracts that he would design her clothes, irrespective of what other designers were hired for other actresses in the films.  It didn't hurt his career and it didn't hurt hers.  As one sees her films of the 40s, one is immediately struck with how well she was dressed.

It was around this time that Tierney began suffering from an eye problem which would render her eyes itchy and red and watery.  It was always unexpected and if she was filming, she would have to stop, sometimes for a week or more, until the problem went away.  Years later she learned it was called angioneurotic edema and was associated in some ways with mental illness.  She would laugh it off and say how oriental it made her look.  But perhaps Fox took advantage of that because she was soon playing Asians in two films... The Shanghai Gesture and China Girl.  Neither was particularly successful and the former, in some circles was derided, but I liked them both.  In Shanghai she was the daughter of a wicked gambling house owner and everyone in it was a rather bizarre character.  Tierney and George Montgomery were a gorgeous twosome in China Girl, about war-torn Burma.

Around this time she and her father were involved in a lawsuit.  At the beginning of her career her father set up a foundation to handle her earnings.  She rarely had any money, she said, but she was surprised when one day she wanted to get an accounting of the money and found out there was none.  Her father also divorced her mother and married a family friend, so the days were not so kind to Tierney.  But they were to get worse... much worse.

After completing Ernst Lubitsch's enchanting comedy-fantasy Heaven Can Wait (1943), Tierney discovered she was pregnant.  Before she got too big, she elected to dance and meet with soldiers at the famous Hollywood Canteen... the only time she would ever do so.  It was later determined that she contracted German measles while at the Canteen.  Her daughter was born severely disabled and, among other issues, it caused more cracks in the marriage.  (The event itself was part of the murder plot in the 1980 film, A Mirror Crack'd.)  Tierney and Cassini also had a second daughter in 1948.

For a woman sorely in need of some good news, it began when Jennifer Jones dropped out of the lead in Laura (1944).  The girl in the portrait would become the role with which Tierney would become most identified.  Several weeks ago I asked a friend in his 40s if he knew who Tierney was.  He said I know she played Laura.  There are very few actresses more suited to a role than Gene Tierney was to Laura.  She made that film and it made her.  Although it was not the first Tierney film I saw, when I went back and caught her prior work and I came across Laura, I thought it was sensational... a brilliant film noir... beautiful filmed... a cast of exceptional actors at the top of their games... and a haunting musical score.  If you need to know more, do it here.

She followed it up with a so-so war story, A Bell for Adano, but the reason I always found it worth noting is because Tierney was a blonde... and still so beautiful.  That same year, 1945, she appeared in what I think is the best role she ever had as the murderess in Leave Her to Heaven.  To be clear, I think Laura is the best film she ever made but Tierney's acting chops were never sharper than as Ellen Berent in Leave Her to Heaven.  In my opinion, it is one of the top three movie villainesses ever.  She managed her only Oscar nomination for it.  It's one of my top 50 favorites, along with Laura.

Her finest role in Leave Her to Heaven

In 1946, she made a film I've never much cared for, Dragonwyck.  It took place in a big ol' spooky mansion and was dark, gloomy and almost as full of itself as Vincent Price was as the lead actor.   I don't think I mentioned boring.  It was boring.  I intend to catch it again one day and see if I feel the same.  More interesting is that Tierney had an affair with first-time director Joe Mankiewicz while she was again separated from Cassini.  More interesting is that an on-set visitor was John F. Kennedy, newly out of the service and about to embark on a career as a congressman.  The two began an affair. 

Tierney had filed for divorce and as she did, her Hollywood friends thought that she should form a warmer attachment to Tyrone Power with whom she was about to start a new film, their second of three.  But she couldn't see anyone other than Kennedy.  She felt way more for him than she did Mankiewicz and she hoped they would marry.  No doubt his powerful family stepped in.  It might have been the actress part or even the fact that Tierney hailed from a long line of Republicans.  The likelihood of his telling her he could not marry her is that she was be a divorced woman.  It broke her heart.  Interesting, too, how later on Oleg Cassini would become fashion consultant, dinner date and friend to Jacqueline Kennedy.

I have just reviewed her movie with Tyrone Power, The Razor's Edge (1946) and also her 1947 romp with Rex Harrison, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir so we will not further detail them, except to say that they, along with Laura and Leave Her to Heaven are those four films I spoke of that will always keep Gene Tierney's name among the Hollywood elite of the 1940s.

In 1948 she made a cute comedy with Power, That Wonderful Urge, and then appeared in three decent film noirs, Whirlpool, Night and the City and Where the Sidewalk Ends, all in 1949 or 1950.

I thought her role in  the 1951 comedy The Mating Season as a  bride dealing with her new maid who is, in fact, secretly her mother-in-law was a piece of comedy genius.  Thelma Ritter was the lynchpin but Tierney seemed to have a knack for comedy.   Close to My Heart, also 1951, was a sentimental tale about adoption that I have always held near and dear.  She was especially strong in the face of a gang of escaped prisoners in The Secret of Convict Lake with Glenn Ford and Ethel Barrymore.  Her final film for the year was On the Riviera and I will add it's the only Tierney film I have never seen.  The only film I can tolerate of her costar Danny Kaye is White Christmas.

The only reason for mentioning Way of a Gaucho (1952), with Rory Calhoun receiving top-billing, is that it was the last on her Fox contract.  It's a shame their association ended with such a nothing film.

She went to MGM to star in two films with two of that studio's top stars.  Plymouth Adventure (1952) is the first film I recall seeing her in.  I didn't know it at the time but she had lost that 40s youthful look and yet I was still drawn to her.  The story of the Mayflower's voyage to the New World co-starred Spencer Tracy and the two had an on-set romance.  The following year she starred as a Russian ballerina opposite Clark Gable in Never Let Me Go.  They hit it off so well that he asked for her to costar with him in Mogambo but Tierney was experiencing problems with concentration and left the production.  Grace Kelly replaced her.  Interestingly, Kelly would soon be Oleg Cassini's fiancée.

She became involved with Prince Aly Khan, the recent ex-husband of Tierney's friend, Rita Hayworth.  Their liaison lasted a year or so and Tierney reported it as a very painful time for her.

One of her two 1954 movies was a mess of a film The Egyptian (back at Fox) and even though Tierney and Jean Simmons were the top-billed female stars, Zanuck's new squeeze, Bella Darvi, was the female lead.  She also appeared as Van Heflin's wife in a good color noir, Black Widow, although Ginger Rogers had the lead.

Tierney had suspected for some time that something was simply not right with her.  She had been having bouts of depression that she didn't seem to be able to control and her concentration was getting worse.  She began The Left Hand of God in 1955, a war film starring Humphrey Bogart, and she fell ill.  Bogart had a sister who suffered from mental illness and he recognized the signs.  He was very kind to Tierney, feeding her lines and encouraging her to
seek help.

She consulted a psychiatrist and he thought she was sufficiently ill enough to have her admitted to a psychiatric hospital in New York.  She later transferred to a similar facility in Connecticut and after some 27 shock treatments, she fled the facility but was caught.  By December 1957 she had been released and visiting her mother in a New York high-rise and the police coaxed her in from a window ledge.  The event caused her parents to admit her Menninger's Clinic in Kansas.  She did well there and was discharged a year later.  She was soon discovered working in a ladies' dress shop.

By 1958, Fox came to the rescue by signing her to star opposite her former costar Clifton Webb (he was in Laura and The Razor's Edge) in Holiday for Lovers but the stress was too great for her and she was replaced by Jane Wyman.  Not that the public knew about this and she remained out of sight for five more years.  One bit of news came about in 1960 when she married oilman Howard Lee and she moved to Houston where she would live for the rest of her life.  Lee had just gotten a divorce from Hedy Lamarr.  Tierney and Lee would remain happily married until 1981 and she credited him greatly for her continued recovery.

In 1962 it was announced she would have a small role in the political drama Advise and Consent starring her first leading man, Henry Fonda.  She was as good as she ever was.  In 1963 she had another small role as Yvette Mimieux's mother in Toys in the Attic, playing a wealthy society lady in love with her black chauffeur.  Her final film was as Brian Keith's imperious wife in 1964s The Pleasure Seekers.  She looked fabulous but it was a thankless role in a silly film.

She appeared on television twice in 1969 and made the TV movie
Scruples in 1980, her last appearance.  By all accounts, she had survived her long brush with mental illness although by her own account, she remained vigilant on the subject.

I suppose it is fitting that this is published today because lovely Gene Tierney died 24 years ago today in Houston at age 70 of emphysema.

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Another actress mentioned in this posting

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