Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Born into an upper crust NY family in 1920, Gene Tierney started smoking as a young actress to help lower her voice from sounding like, as she said, "an angry Minnie Mouse". The heavy smoking would take her from us in 1991 and put her into the ground in Houston, Texas, after living a life on stage, screen and television known as one of the most beautiful women of the silver screen. To this day there are critics who dismiss her far too easily — the beauty and all. They need to sit down and take a look again at Leave Her to Heaven (1945).

At age twenty Tierney made her first film with Fritz Lang opposite Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James. Fonda was great; Tierney was noticed. A year later she worked with Von Sternberg (The Shanghai Gesture). Now that's two European geniuses all before the age of 22. Rising two years later to be with a third genius, Ernst Lubitsch in Heaven Can Wait. Otto Preminger cupped the actress in his hand to make three classics: Laura (1944), Whirlpool (1949) and Where the Sidewalk Ends in 1950. This formed the Tierney model. As an aside, if you think Jose Ferrer was something in Lawrence of Arabia, have a look at a younger piece-of-work in Whirlpool.

Tierney is now thirty years old. Howard Hughes has fallen for her but she hasn't quite reciprocated, and he will become very kind to her when it counts after a tragic pregnancy and birth.

Wedged in her twenties hide two masterpieces — if you're romantic
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) will carry you away, and of course Leave Her To Heaven is the cruelest, gorgeous, monster of an act this side of Jean Simmons in Angel Face (1952). Because of the drowning, in a rowboat, wearing shades, not lifting a finger, I'm giving the nod, just slightly, to Tierney.

By age thirty she is in, but can't quite be recalled, Jules Dassin's
Night and the City (1950). Still a terrific film. Richard Widmark on the loose.

During the forties Tierney will give birth to two daughters — the first, Daria, while she is pregnant with German measles, contracted from a fan who escaped from a quarantine so she could meet the actress. This would prove grave for the child born with birth defects and severe mental illness. The baby was only three pounds and demanded a full blood transfusion. A nervous breakdown will essentially bring the actress down, diagnosed as bipolar, and this is where Howard Hughes steps in to assist with all her daughter's medical bills.

In the mid-50s a young John F. Kennedy will become a lover but that won't keep the actress from voting against him and for Nixon in the Presidental elections in 1960. By then Tierney is trying to return to acting after a debilitating decade, and it will be another old friend, Otto Preminger, who brings her back to the screen, as almost half her full self, in
Advise and Consent (1962).

But the good old days of shocking temptress are over. Twenty-seven sessions of shock therapy, while institutionalized, hasn't helped the actress one bit.

Leave Her To Heaven, I believe the director John M. Stahl catches the essence, and then some, of Gene Tierney, as if filtered through each of her 1940-1950 performances.

Roll the camera.