What Made Them Great: Gene Tierney

Gene Tierney

Chances are, you haven’t heard of Gene Tierney and unless you’re 60 plus or a film buff, that is to be expected. As sad as this makes me, I must accept that she is never going to be celebrated in the way I think she deserves.

Tierney’s minimalist acting style and restrained star persona mean she will always be overlooked when it comes deciding those ridiculous lists of “The greatest stars of all time”(i.e. about 75 years) in favour of powerful personalities like Catherine Hepburn or Bette Davis.

But, there is a reason Martin Scorsese, a frequent and habitual denizen of “Greatest Director of all Time” lists described Miss Tierney as “one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Era”.

Born in 1920, Tierney was, unlike many of her contemporaries, raised in a prosperous middle class environment and privately educated at home and abroad, notably in Switzerland.

One of the few advantages that women had over men back then (as long as you had the cash) was that an interest in the arts was not only tolerated but actively encouraged and Tierney was able to indulge her interest in poetry quite happily and with her family’s (as well as society’s) best wishes.

It was however, when Tierney was approached by randy old film director Atole Litavak, who overwhelmed by the then 17 year old’s blossoming pulchritude, begged her to sign to Warner Brothers, Tierney refused but an interest in acting was born.

Her father, believing that a career in the movies was too vulgar a profession for his beloved daughter wished her to continue her life as society gal and find herself a nice husband. However, as would prove to be the case many times throughout her career, Tierney refused to be controlled by the men in her life and set out to learn her craft, enrolling in a small drama school. The only concession to her father was that she would act on the stage and not the silver screen.

She soon made a name for herself on Broadway; garnering attention for her performances as much for who looks (did I mention she was beautiful?). Very soon Hollywood was back on the scene, sniffing round for a bit of Tierney action and by 1940 she had made her debut, alongside Henry Fonda in Fritz Lang’s Western ’The Return of Frank James’.

This was followed by some decent work in some average films notably ‘The Shang-Hai Gesture’ and the charming supernatural rom-com ‘Heaven Can Wait’. Then came ‘Laura’, Otto Preminger’ noir about the death of successful business woman Laura Hunt and the subsequent investigation. ‘Laura’ received an absolute mauling by the critics with Tierney receiving much of the criticism but despite its faults it did solid business. There was and is still something about ‘Laura’ which chimes with audiences past and present.

Or as Roger Ebert put it

The whole film is of a piece: contrived, artificial, mannered, and yet achieving a kind of perfection in its balance between low motives and high style”

There then followed a period in which Tierney appears in some absolute zingers, ‘Night and the City’, ‘Dragonwyck’, ‘Razors Edge’, ‘Whirlpool’ and the ‘Ghost and Mrs Muir’ but her best performance, the cause of the above quote by Mr Scorsese, is the ahead of its time Technicolor Noir, ‘Leave her to Heaven’.

‘Leave her to Heaven’ is the tale of beautiful young psycho Ellen Berent, who falls in love with daddy look-a-like Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde).

Growing evermore jealous of those that are close to her new beau, Berent manipulates and plots so she can have him all to herself, even deliberately causing her own miscarriage when she becomes envious of her own sister’s close relationship with her man.

Eventually, she becomes so bonkers that she kills her new husband’s disabled younger brother in a scene so chilling that it literally give you goose bumps. It is this scene that really exposes you to the greatness of Tierney, the calm and detached expression she wears as she watches the young lad is so disturbing and creepy that it sends shivers down your spine. The stillness of her features let her thoughts behind her eyes come to the fore, enabling your imagination to run riot as to what this woman thinks, feels and is able to justify as reasonable behaviour.

I don’t believe any of the other stars at the time could’ve achieved this, as they were exactly that. Stars, not actresses and were loved for their perceived personalities more than their talent. I am not saying they were incapable but they tended to play the same roles in the same way in their movies, as that what is what the public wanted. Tierney though seems to understand the medium better than her contemporaries, realising that in cinema, less is indeed more.

Despite having the elegance, grace and beauty that is a prerequisite for the Golden Age movie queen, she doesn’t have the ego. She was a slave to the character not her own star persona.

Hepburn, Davis and Joan Crawford; all strong independent people, were never going to play characters that didn’t represent the qualities that they themselves possessed, whereas Tierney would often play brittle, irrational or controlled women.

I think sometimes the public may have perceived her to be that way herself but watch that Oscar nominated performance in ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ and tell me that is not a “strong woman”. A hat-stand, fucking crazy psychopath with a raging Electra complex maybe but none the less, an intelligent and efficient psychopath, sporting the biggest, hairiest balls you are likely to encounter this side of a Channel 4 documentary on a man with ten stone testicles.