Through Thursday, Film Forum is screening John Stahl’s LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), starring that mesmerizing, buck-toothed beauty, Gene Tierney (1920-91), undoubtedly the best actress of the all those gorgeous ’40s glamour girls – Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr, Linda Darnell, Betty Grable, Jeanne Crain. She certainly had a greater range than any of them and, as Ellen Berent, a father-obsessed belle dame sans merci who’ll stop at nothing to get her own evil way, she acts with a cool impassivity that’s a forerunner to Catherine Deneuve’s later hypnotically oblique blank-canvas work for Luis Bunuel in BELLE DE JOUR and TRISTANA. We never are really clued in to the root of Ellen’s basic bad seed-ness, and her uncanny cool composure cracks only once when she expresses loathing for the unborn child she carries at one point declaring, “I hate the little beast. I wish it would die!” an exclamation which had a twenty-something guy sittting behind me once at a screening, doubtlessly accustomed to all manner of modern slasher trash, utter a shocked, “Yikes!”
EVIL, EVIL ELLEN BERENT
1945 audiences lapped up this heavy dose of Freudian bad behavior, and the film was 20th Century Fox’s top grosser of the ’40s, earning over $5 million. Matching Tierney’s lacquered perfection is the movie’s production itself, with vividly intense Technicolor cinematography by Leon Shamroy, which took that year’s Oscar, and art direction featuring fussy, pristinely decorated interiors right out of a HOUSE & GARDENS magazine of the period. Young Daryl Hickman actually gives the film’s best performance as a hapless victim of Ellen’s machinations, who dies a harrowing drowning death in a scene that’s won kudos from everyone from then studio head Darryl Zanuck to today’s Martin Scorsese, a tireless champion of this lurid noir.
Read my interview with Hickman in the current GAY CITY NEWS:
For her performance, Tierney received her only Oscar nomination, but the film she most deserved it for came two years later, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, in which she effectively ages and gives a lovely romantic performance of real charm and range, opposite Rex Harrison as the ghost in his best, unusually sexy screen portrayal. Under Ernst Lubitsch’s direction, she was sweetly funny in HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943); John Ford elicited a startling, literally earthy performance from her as Ellie May Lester, happily grovelling and rutting in TOBACCO ROAD’S 1941 hillbilly dirt, and, in Edmund Goulding’s THE RAZOR’S EDGE, she was uncompromisingly cold, conniving and selfish in a W. Somerset Maugham-written role Bette Davis was once considered for, before George Cukor, the film’s original director, put the kibosh on that idea. Goulding, with his canny bisexuality, was able to draw a very distinctive bitchery out of her – watch the way she shrieks, “What?!” when she learns of her beloved’s upcoming marriage before slamming the phone down. It’s a much more complex, subtle portrait of feminine rapaciousness than her work in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, under John Stahl’s stolid, utterly humorless direction.
DRESSED BY OLEG CASSINI IN HIS 1946 VIEW OF 1930S FASHION, IN ‘THE RAZOR’S EDGE’
Tierney’s most famous movie is, of course, Otto Preminger’s LAURA (1944), in which she plays the archetypal, successful Manhattan career girl, whose ambitions and inner desires still speak clearly to the latest generation of SEX AND THE CITY female go-getters. Her Laura simply has it all: beauty, intelligence, a carefully honed sophistication, a fully absorbing job, and a raft of men besotted by her, from eminent celebrities and charming gigolo wastrels to blue collar cops and even that ultimate Gotham accessory, stalkers.
POPPY IN JOSEF VON STERNBERG’S ‘THE SHANGHAI GESTURE’
She was at her most beautiful in her first scene, playing Eurasian bad girl, Poppy, in Josef von Sternberg’s swooningly camp THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941), looking more delectable than anyone else ever did in an upswept coiffure, gowned by then-husband Oleg Cassini, and sitting in Mother Goddam’s house of sin, murmuring, “You can almost smell the evil in this place!” In this early stage of her career, her exotic look typecast her, as Myrna Loy had been a generation before, in “exotic” roles: in SUNDOWN (in which she was Arab) and CHINA GIRL (another half-Chinese).
HALF-CASTE WOMAN, IN ‘SUNDOWN’
MYRNA LOY HAD ALREADY GONE DOWN THAT ROAD
And there was a brief stopover into Scarlett O’Hara territory with the Technicolor BELLE STAR (1941), in which she played the legendary hoop-skirted Southern bandit and looked like Vivien Leigh’s sister.
GONE WITH THE WIND? NO, IT’S GENE TIERNEY AND LOUISE BEAVERS IN ‘BELLE STARR’
In Mitchell Leisen’s delightful THE MATING SEASON (1951), she again displayed her considerable comic chops in the kind of fluffy, misunderstood housewife role Doris Day would later make a more heavy-handed career of.
WITH WALTER PLUNKETT, COSTUME DESIGNER FOR ‘PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE’
As she aged out of pretty young things, Tierney displayed impressive force and authority as a ruthless Egyptian princess in THE EGYPTIAN (1954) giving Edmond Purdom and Victore Mature hell, that film’s one decent performance, and was wrily no-nonsense/don’t fuck with me as the barely resigned wife of a philandering Brian Keith in THE PLEASURE SEEKERS (1964), holding her own against the nubile twitterings of a new generation of starlets: Carol Lynley, Pamela Tiffin and the ferociously porno young Ann-Margret.
In a 1965 update of the famous powder room sequence from LAURA, taking over the role of the older woman played by Judith Anderson, losing her man to a younger girl, she took a more aggressive approach than Dame Judy did, with her maquillage blandishments and single cutting line. Tierney merely hauls off and bitch slaps the always inept Carol Lynley before declaring, “Don’t you dare feel sorry for me, you little tramp!”
THE NEW BREED: ANN-MARGRET
Tierney’s offscreen life was, in a word, turbulent, from her well-heeled Brooklyn beginnings, early success on Broadway in THE MALE ANIMAL (1940), which enslaved NY critics Richard Watts and Brooks Atkinson, and caught producer Zanuck’s eye, bringing her to Hollywood. There were rocky love affairs with Howard Hughes, Tyrone Power, Spencer Tracy (during a break from Katharine Hepburn, location filming THE AFRICAN QUEEN), John F. Kennedy and Prince Aly Khan, who took up with “Laura,” after things went kaput with Rita Hayworth’s “Gilda.” Khan’s father objected to him marrying another movie star, preventing Tierney from becoming America’s second princess.
INTERNATIONAL JET-SETTER, WITH JACQUES FATH AT THE BESTIGUI BALL OF THE CENTURY, VENICE 1951
WITH MILLINER, LILY DACHE
She suffered from mental depression and nearly threw herself from a building on Christmas Day 1957 before being admitted to Menninger Clinic. Agatha Christie based her story of THE MIRROR CRACK’D on a tragic incident in Tierney’s life. She was doing volunteer work at the Hollywood Canteen when a stranger, a lady fan, kissed her. Her daughter, Daria, was born prematurely and severely mentally retarded after that, and it was only later discovered through a letter from the strange woman that she had had rubela when she embraced Tierney, which was transferred to the fetus the actress was carrying.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY GEORGE HURRELL
Tierney’s legacy, of course, more happily lives on through her films, and new generations are ecstatically discovering the actress. She is absolutely worshipped in France, with a cult approaching that of Audrey Hepburn’s, frequent movie revivals and three lavishly illustrated books about her. As a photograph seller on Ebay – go to den7 if you want to see what I have- I can also attest that her allure remains as potent as ever, with an army of collectors avid for images of those soaring cheekbones, tilted eyes, leonine raven mane, lithe, elegant body, and, of course, that absolutely devastating overbite.
DIVA SUMMIT: OLEG CASSINI, GENE, RITA HAYWORTH, BRUCE CABOT OUT ON THE TOWN. GENE WEARS THE GRAPE MOTIF EVENING GOWN CASSINI DESIGNED FOR HER IN ‘THE SHANGHAI GESTURE,’ A PERSONAL FAVORITE