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Starring Gene Tierney
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Gene Tierney

Gene Tierney Profile

An exquisite beauty with gorgeous green eyes, sculpted cheekbones and a fetching overbite, Gene Tierney had the minimalist acting style of many stars of the studio-system era, which has allowed her work to age very well. In her most striking (and only Oscar®-nominated) performance in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), playing a vindictive woman who maintains a placid surface despite her stormy temperament, Tierney allows the audience to fill in the blanks regarding her character's thoughts and feelings.

The technique has a power of its own, quite different from what a more intense actress like Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck might have brought to the part. The impact of the Tierney face in repose was in itself enough to rouse strong emotions. Significantly, in her other great vehicle, the title role in the murder mystery Laura (1944), the hero falls in love with her passive, mysterious image before meeting her in the flesh.

She was born Gene Eliza Tierney in Brooklyn, NY, in 1920, into a prosperous family headed by a successful insurance broker. She attended several private schools including a finishing school in Switzerland. At 17, around the time of her coming-out party as a debutante, she made a trip to Los Angeles and met director Anatole Litvak, who suggested she should be in films. Instead, she went to New York to study theater and played small roles on Broadway plays, most notably in a well-received performance in The Male Animal (1940). Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox, saw her in that play and offered her a contract with his studio.

Tierney's film debut came in The Return of Frank James (1940) opposite Henry Fonda. She was rushed into a series of other Fox films, appearing in nine pictures during 1941-42 including Belle Starr (1941), Son of Fury (1942) and China Girl (1942). She was also loaned out to United Artists for The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and to producer Walter Wanger for Sundown (1941). Her best role of this early period came in Ernst Lubitsch's witty comedy Heaven Can Wait (1943).

After blossoming into a superstar in Laura and Leave Her to Heaven (Fox's most profitable movie of the 1940s), Tierney remained a box-office star through the 1940s in such films as the Gothic thriller Dragonwyck (1946), the Somerset Maugham drama The Razor's Edge (1946) and the supernatural romance The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). Many consider the latter film, in which she costars with Rex Harrison as a ghostly sea captain, to contain her most charming performance. That Wonderful Urge (1948) with Tyrone Power was a remake of one his earlier films, Love Is News (1937), with Tierney standing in for former leading lady Loretta Young.

Tierney's career cooled somewhat in the early 1950s, due at least in part to personal problems including a rocky marriage to designer Oleg Cassini, the birth of a daughter who was mentally challenged and serious bouts with depression. At her home studio she reunited with Otto Preminger and Dana Andrews, her director and leading man from Laura, for an excellent film noir, Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950).

Branching out to other studios, she went to Warner Bros. for a drama about adoption, Close to My Heart (1951); and to Paramount for a lively comedy, The Mating Season (1951), in which she played delightfully with Thelma Ritter and Van Johnson. At MGM Tierney served as leading lady to, respectively, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable in Plymouth Adventure (1952) and Never Let Me Go (1953). In the British-made Personal Affair (1953), she plays the wife of a teacher suspected of an affair with a student.

After a few more films at Fox, ending with The Left Hand of God (1955), Tierney retired from the screen for seven years, returning to work once again with Otto Preminger in Advise and Consent (1962), a political drama in which she played a Washington socialite/hostess. She then took small roles in the film version of the Lillian Hellman drama Toys in the Attic (1963) and the Ann-Margret European romance The Pleasure Seekers (1964). She finished out her career with a few TV appearances, ending with the mini-series Scruples in 1980.

Tierney, who had a second daughter with Cassini, divorced him in 1952. She married Texas oil man W. Howard Lee in 1960 and lived happily in Houston with him until his death in 1981. Tierney, who published a frank autobiography, Self-Portrait, in 1979, died in 1991.

by Roger Fristoe

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