24 June 2018

Gene Tierney

We're in Bologna, Italy, at the 32nd edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato! One of the programmes is 'Immortal Imitations: The Cinema of John M. Stahl'. Stahl's films treat concealed identities, troubled yet enduring love affairs, tragic destinies assuaged by altruism and sacrifice… Highlight is Leave Her to Heaven (1945), for which leading lady Gene Tierney received an Oscar nomination. With prominent cheekbones and the most appealing overbite of her day, her striking good looks helped propel the American actress to stardom. Her best known role is probably the enigmatic murder victim in Laura (1944). In the 1950s, her acting performances were few as she battled a troubled emotional life that included hospitalisation and shock treatment for depression.

Gene Tierney
French postcard by Editions P.I., no. 49. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

The most beautiful water carrier ever

In 1920, Gene Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York, to well-to-do parents. Her father was a very successful insurance broker and her mother was a former teacher. She lived, at times, with her equally successful grandparents in Connecticut and New York. Gene was educated in the finest schools on the East Coast. Tierney played Jo in a student production of Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. After two years at a finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, she returned to the US where she completed her education.

Her wealthy father set up a corporation that was only to promote her theatrical pursuits. By 1938 Tierney was performing on Broadway in What a Life! and understudied for The Primerose Path (1938) at the same time. Her first role consisted of carrying a bucket of water across the stage, prompting a Variety magazine critic to announce that "Miss Tierney is, without a doubt, the most beautiful water carrier I have ever seen!"

Her subsequent roles in Mrs O'Brian Entertains (1939) and RingTwo (1939) were meatier and received praise from the New York critics. Critic Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune wrote: "I see no reason why Miss Tierney should not have a long and interesting theatrical career, that is if the cinema does not kidnap her away".

Before her 20th birthday, Gene Tierney was the toast of Broadway. The play The Male Animal (1940) was a hit, and Tierney was featured in Life magazine. She was also photographed by Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Collier's Weekly.

After being spotted by the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck during a stage performance of The Male Animal, Gene was signed to a contract with 20th Century-Fox. Her first role as Barbara Hall in Hudson's Bay (Irving Pichel, 1941) would be the send-off vehicle for her career. Later that year she appeared in the Western The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang, 1940) opposite Henry Fonda.

1941 would prove to be a very busy year for Gene Tierney, as she appeared in The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941) with Walter Huston, Sundown (Henry Hathaway, 1941), Tobacco Road (John Ford, 1941) and Belle Starr (Irving Cummings, 1941) with Randolph Scott.

She tried her hand at screwball comedy in Rings on Her Fingers (Rouben Mamoulian, 1942) with Henry Fonda, which was a great success. Another success was the comedy Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943) with Don Ameche as a man who has to prove he belongs in Hell by telling his life story. Her performances in each of these productions were masterful.

Gene Tierney
Dutch postcard. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Gene Tierney
French postcard by Editions P.I., no. 49. Photo: Paramount.

The hottest player around

In 1944, Gene Tierney  played what is probably her best-known role (and, most critics agree, her most outstanding performance) in Otto Preminger's Film Noir Laura (1944), in which she played a murder victim named Laura Hunt.

The following year, she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the jealous, narcissistic femme fatale Ellen Berent Harland in Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945). Though she didn't win, it solidified her position in Hollywood society. This was 20th Century-Fox' most successful film of the 1940s. It was cited by director Martin Scorsese as one of his favourite films of all time, and he assessed Tierney as one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Era.

She followed up with another great performance as Isabel Bradley in the hit The Razor's Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946) starring Tyrone Power.  In 1947, Gene played Lucy Muir in the acclaimed comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947) opposite Rex Harrison.

By this time Gene Tierney was the hottest player around, and the 1950s saw no letup as she appeared in a number of good films, among them Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950) with Richard Widmark, The Mating Season (Mitchell Leisen, 1951), Close to My Heart (William Keigley, 1951) opposite Ray Milland, and Plymouth Adventure (Clarence Brown, 1952) starring Spencer Tracey.

In Great Britain, she appeared in the film Personal Affair (Anthony Pelissier, 1953) with Leo Genn. Then The Left Hand of God (Edward Dmytryk, 1955), in which she starred opposite Humphrey Bogart, was to be her last performance for seven years.

The pressures of a failed marriage to American fashion designer Oleg Cassini, the birth of an intellectually disabled daughter, and several unhappy love affairs, including a notorious one with John F. Kennedy, resulted in a deep depression. Her daughter Daria was born disabled because Tierney had contracted rubella (aka German measles) during her only appearance at the Hollywood Canteen.

In late December 1957, Tierney, from her mother's apartment in Manhattan, stepped onto a ledge 14 stories above ground and remained for about 20 minutes in what was considered a suicide attempt. Tierney's family arranged for her to be admitted to the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. The following year, after treatment for depression, she was released.

When she returned to the the screen in Advise & Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962), her acting was as good as ever but there was no longer a big demand for her services. Her last feature film was The Pleasure Seekers (Jean Negulesco, 1964) starring Ann-Margret, and her final appearance in the film industry was in a TV miniseries, Scruples (Alan J. Levi, 1980).

Gene Tierney died of emphysema in Houston, Texas, in 1991, just two weeks before her 71st birthday. She had two daughters from her first marriage to Oleg CassiniAntoinette Daria Cassini and Christina Cassini. From 1960 on, she was married to William Howard Lee. He was originally married to Hedy Lamarr before he married Tierney.

Trailer Laura (1944). Source: Chloroform and Silver Nitrate (YouTube).

Trailer Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Source: Cliff Held (YouTube).

Sources: Denny Jackson (IMDb), Ray Hamel (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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