Gene Tierney: The Face in the Misty Light

GENETIERNEY1Still regarded as one of the most exquisite beauties to ever grace the silver screen, this striking, green-eyed brunette from Brooklyn delivered many memorable efforts in the ’40s and ’50s before emotional troubles compromised her career. Born Gene Eliza Tierney in November of 1920, the daughter of a prosperous insurance broker, Tierney knew every advantage in her youth, attending private schools in New England and a Swiss finishing school. During a Hollywood trip at 17, she caught the eye of director Anatole Litvak; however, her family rebuffed the tender of a Warner Bros. contract. Still, Gene quickly bored of a debutante’s life, and declared her ambition to act; her father only acceded after setting up a corporation to promote her as a legitimate stage actress and fund her professional training. The lovely tyro was getting small parts on Broadway by 1938; the following year, she landed a six-month deal with Columbia. However, the Tierneys were at loggerheads with the studio over suitable projects, and Gene would return to New York after the contract lapsed.

She then went back to Broadway for a prominent role in the hit comedy “The Male Animal”; 20th Century-Fox honcho Darryl Zanuck caught a performance and determined to sign her. During her first few years at the studio, Gene had unprecedented sway over the grooming process, rejecting all lobbying to doctor her look or correct her slight overbite. Following her screen debut alongside Henry Fonda in 1940’s The Return of Frank James,   Fox kept her busy, building up her profile as the performances became more confident: 1941 saw her appear with Paul Muni in Hudson’s Bay; Dana Andrews in Tobacco Road (the first of five pairings for the duo); and a title turn as outlaw Belle Starr, as well as loan-out appearances in Sundown and Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture. The following year found Gene co-starring with Fonda again in Rings on Her Fingers and Tyrone Power in Son of Fury, plus the wartime dramas Thunder Birds and China Girl. She then truly began to hit her stride with the stylish Ernst Lubitsch farce Heaven Can Wait (1943), and followed with perhaps her defining role, that of the captivating murder victim that understandably fixates investigating cop Andrews in the memorable Otto Preminger mystery Laura (1944), with Clifton Webb and Vincent Price.

Gene Tierney: Academy Award-nominated for in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)Tierney’s roll continued with her turn as the narcissistic, homicidally possessive spouse of artist Cornel Wilde in the glossy 1945 “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven; her work there made the film Fox’s biggest grosser for years standing, and landed Gene her sole career Oscar nomination. The late ’40s continued to be marked by romantic triumphs like the moody 1946 gothic Dragonwyck, the Somerset Maugham adaptation The Razor’s Edge (also ’46) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), as the young widow at odds with–and ultimately charmed by–spectral seaman Rex Harrison. As the ’50s dawned, Fox utilized her to good effect in the burgeoning film noir cycle (1949’s Whirlpool and 1950’s Night and the City and Where the Sidewalk Ends). After the release of 1952’s Way of a Gaucho, she split with Fox to freelance, with notable projects from this phase including Plymouth Adventure (1952), Never Let Me Go (1953), and The Egyptian and Black Widow (both ’54).

By the time she co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in 1955’s The Left Hand of God, however, the tumult of Tierney’s private life was taking its toll on the fragile beauty. By the mid-’40s, she’d come into conflict with her father over control of her career, ultimately taking him to court. She married fashion designer Oleg Cassini in 1941, but a pregnant Tierney contracted rubella during a WWII Hollywood Canteen appearance, causing their first daughter to be born with severe birth defects. Several unhappy affairs before and after her 1952 divorce from Cassini (including a late ’40s fling with a Massachusetts congressman named John F. Kennedy) compounded her depression, and the actress would spend the remainder of the ’50s in recurring institutionalization. With the coming of the ’60s, the improving Tierney would marry Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, and finally make a comeback as part the ensemble cast of Laura director Preminger’s 1962 political drama Advise and Consent. Content in her new union, she’d only appear onscreen twice more, for Toys in the Attic (1963) and The Pleasure Seekers (1964). Gene busied herself with a society column for a Houston newspaper and taking the very occasional TV assignment, including the 1969 cult telefilm Daughter of the Mind and the mini-series Scruples in 1980. Ironically, the smoking her handlers encouraged to lower the register of her voice contributed to the emphysema that ended her life just two weeks short of her 71st birthday in 1991.


View more Gene Tierney movie available on DVD: Gene Tierney Movies on DVD