Gene Tierney Was Born 100 Years Ago Today

Gene Tierney was born 100 years ago today. Tierney always been on the short list of noir actresses who could raise my blood pressure, but there are multiple points of interest to this star beyond her heart-stopping sex appeal — stuff that is perhaps not widely known or considered.

Much like the later Grace Kelly, Tierney was from a wealthy Irish-American family. Her father was an insurance broker. She was raised in Connecticut and was educated at posh private schools, in Switzerland, as well as Miss Porter’s. Thus, like a handful of other stars, she went to Hollywood already imbued with a good deal of poise and polish. There was no need to rid her of an accent. She made her society debut in 1938, but the concept bored her, and so she took acting classes, became a Powers model, and got some early work as a supernumerary and an understudy on Broadway. Her father formed a private corporation named Belle-Tier to promote her career (her mother’s name was Belle). During her short Broadway career, Tierney played supporting parts in Mrs. O’Brien Entertains and Ring Two, both in 1939, and made a big splash in James Thurber’s The Male Animal (1940). Her beauty turned heads. At this stage, her image graced the pages of Life, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Collier’s.

Tierney, age 19

Signed by Zanuck at Fox, Tierney stepped immediately into decent roles in first rate pictures. Given her sophisticated, Northeastern manners, it is amusing to note that many of her first pictures had rural or western settings: The Return of Frank James (1940) with Henry Fonda, the title role in Belle Starr (1941) with Randolph Scott and Dana Andrews, and Tobacco Road (1941) with Charley Grapewin and Marjorie Rambeau. I think of The Shanghai Gesture (1941) as a jumping off point, the first movie that truly exploits the potential of her smoldering sexuality.

“The Shanghai Gesture” — yow!

In 1941, Tierney married fashion designer Oleg Cassini, who designed costumes for many of her films, and later became famous as the official designer for Jackie Kennedy. So far, her life seemed charmed, but early on it would slowly start to turn. In 1943, she caught German Measles while she was carrying her first child. The baby was born blind, deaf, and developmentally disabled. The incident inspired a character in Agatha Christie’s novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. The part was played by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980 film version.

From this point, Tierney slowed the pace of her career, one of the reasons her body of work is not as voluminous as that of many other Hollywood actors of her generation. Starting in 1943, she appears in only one or two pictures a year, as opposed to the 4 or 5 of 1941 and 1942. But there is a high degree of quality. She played against type in Lubitsch’s magical Heaven Can Wait (1943), in which husband Don Ameche is the rake and she the long suffering wife. Then came Preminger’s noir classic Laura (1944) which is today her best remembered film. It reunited her with Dana Andrews of Belle Starr, to much more memorable effect! She was nominated for her work in the remarkable, shattering Leave Her to Heaven (1945), the reputation of which has grown over the decades. This was followed by the Gothic Dragonwyck (1946), which reunited her with Laura’s Vincent Price, and Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946) with Tyrone Power and Laura’s Clifton Webb.

In 1946 Tierney and Cassini separated but were reuinited within a few months. (During the window of opportunity she dated fellow Irish-American success story John F. Kennedy). In this period she starred in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) with Rex Harrison, later adapted into a popular sitcom, as well as such things as Whirlpool (1949), Night and the City (1950) and The Mating Season (1951). Plymouth Adventure (1952) was a departure — it made a much subtler use of her sexuality (I’ll be talking about her in this film in my upcoming podcast pilot, which should be available within the next few weeks, if the creek don’t rise).

Tierney divorced Cassini in 1953, and this is when things began to shift in her personal life. She briefly dated Prince Aly Khan, recently divorced from Rita Hayworth, but a planned marriage didn’t pan out. Then things begin to slip. She was cast in the 1953 movie Mogambo, but had difficulty with focus and line memorization, and was replaced by Grace Kelly. In The Egyptian and Black Widow, both 1954, she plays supporting roles, several notches down in the billing. During the filming of The Left Hand of God (1955) opposite Humphrey Bogart, she experienced the same problems as she had during Mogambo.

At this stage, Tierney sought the help of psychiatrists. She checked in to numerous facilities, underwent shock therapy over two dozen times, came close to suicide (stepping on to a 14th story ledge outside of a Manhattan apartment building), and was at one point discovered working as a department store clerk. All of this was fodder for the tabloids. One perceives parallels with the stories of Veronica Lake, Frances Farmer, and many others, although Tierney proved one of the rare ones who was able to pull herself out of it.

Tierney’s first attempted comeback, Holiday for Lovers (1958), proved to be premature, and she dropped out. In 1960 she married millionaire W. Howard Lee, ex-husband of Heddy Lamarr, and his support seems to have been the catalyst for her recovery. She made her small screen debut on General Electric Theatre (1960), and went on to do the movies Advise and Consent (1962), Toys in the Attic (1963), and The Pleasure Seekers (1964). She was slated to star in Return to Peyton Place in the Lana Turner role, but became pregnant and dropped out (Eleanor Parker eventually played the part). She was also to have starred in Picture Mommy Dead (1966) but quit due to nervous exhaustion. After a break she guested in an episode of The F.B.I. and the TV movie Daughter of the Mind with Ray Milland, both 1969. Her final credit was a recurring part on the prime time soap Scruples (1980) with Lindsay Wagner and Barry Bostwick. Around this time, she was also a frequent guest on the talk shows of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson and Dinah Shore.

Though only 60, Tierney retried after Lee’s death in 1981, spending her remaining decade at their Texas home. Emphysema took her at the relatively young age of 70, For a noir dame, it was what you might call an occupational hazard.