Locarno Blog. Gene Tierney

A tribute to a female role model which no longer exists today.
Carlo Chatrian

The Notebook is the North American home for Locarno Film Festival Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian's blog. Chatrian has been writing thoughtful blog entries in Italian on Locarno's website since he took over as Director in late 2012, and now you can find the English translations here on the Notebook as they're published. The Locarno Film Festival will be taking place August 2 - 12. Gene Tierney

We can  begin with one of those anecdotes that are the stuff of Hollywood, marking the birth of a star and mapping out a whole career. Gene Tierney had already caught the eye of Anatole Litvak when aged only 17 and, after a happy period of study abroad (right here in Switzerland, in Lausanne), had been invited by a cousin to visit a Hollywood film set. But she took her father’s advice and turned down an offer from Warner Bros in favor of starting on the stage, on Broadway. One night when she was appearing in the hit play The Male Animal, Darryl F. Zanuck was in the audience. He instantly told an assistant to make a note of her name. Later that night, so the story goes, the all-powerful Fox mogul was at the Stork Club in Manhattan where, seeing a beautiful girl dancing, he instructed the same assistant: “Forget about that girl in the play. Sign this one instead.” The new girl turned out to be the same one as before, Gene Tierney, and from that moment Zanuck wanted her under contract, whatever it took.

The anecdote is usually cited as an early indication of the actress’ skill at playing the very different parts that she would be offered by Zanuck, who had been so taken with the exotic note in her features. For me, however, the story also reveals another trait with which Gene Tierney was gifted—or perhaps burdened: her seductive charge was so strong as to overwhelm every other talent. No matter how hard she tried, submitting to tests and following classes in acting technique, Tierney was never acknowledged for her performances but as an irresistible icon of attraction, to the point where those features of hers—so singular, and so singularly beautiful—became both a weapon and a prison. Unlike other female stars (Gardner, Hayworth), Tierney was not curvaceous, but she had high cheekbones below two extraordinarily lively, blue-green almond-eyes, with an enigmatic smile set off by her slightly protruding front teeth—which, her contract stipulated, were not to be tampered with.

Tierney was emblematic of a new kind of woman emerging in the movies in the 1940s. A woman who seizes her prey with her eyes and not with words, tempting men to become hunters. A female icon, sure of herself but also trapped in her role. Unfailingly elegant, even when playing the daughter of a humble taxi driver (Where the Sidewalk Ends, 1951); fragile, even when her social status is assured (Whirlpool, 1949), perfidious, as if her beauty were its own punishment (Leave Her to Heaven, 1945).

Just as in Laura (1944), rightly her most celebrated film, Gene Tierney is first an image, captured forever in a painting, before being an actress in the flesh. A propos, it may be worth recalling that Otto Preminger, who replaced Rouben Mamoulian as director on the movie, decided to substitute the original painting by Mamoulian’s wife with a photograph of Tierney by Frank Polony which was then painted over by hand. The alluring power of the “fake” painting was such that it was later used again in at least two other Fox productions.

There is something of the photogenic charm of the silent era in the face and presence of Gene Tierney. It is indeed no coincidence that, with a few happy exceptions, such as the exuberant personality that Ernst Lubitsch managed to  bring out in her by dint of much criticism, in Heaven Can Wait (1943), she herself deliberately reduced her range of facial expressions, leaving it to the rest of the cast to reveal her power. As comes to the fore in her stunning work for Preminger, Tierney is a magnificent mirror, reflecting men’s tensions, desires and fears. The temptation to read the story of Laura Hunt as a metaphor of the actress’ own life is always strong. A multi-faceted diamond, shaped by the many people through whose hands she passed, Tierney personified the elusiveness which was an essential ingredient in so much classic American cinema, and from the mid-40s—in part because of her troubled private life—she stuck firmly to that keynote. In the end she played her characters with a detachment somewhere between melancholy and fatalism and in the process became very much like a painting, an item that can be purchased but not handled, lest it be damaged.

Gene Tierney does not seem to interpret her roles so much as allow them to resonate within herself, catalyzing a reaction between her elegant, clean-lined features and the dark depths which were taking over her personal life. The lowest common denominator of her romantic affairs, from the future President Kennedy to Aly Khan, was their early failure. It seemed as if something was always predestined to go wrong, echoing the real tragedy which Tierney experienced when her first-born daughter was born with multiple disabilities because of a bout of German measles during pregnancy. By a terrible irony of misplaced fandom, she had probably caught the disease when an admirer broke quarantine, so determined was she to meet her.

The critics may occasionally have been scathing about her acting at the time, but today her presence remains so striking that a single still is enough to convey the  magic of her unforgettable face. Her presence was perfectly in tune with her way of being on set, with that stunned gaze, apparently taken by surprise and seemingly reaching out towards whoever is speaking. Today Tierney can be seen as one of the actresses who were both created and condemned by Hollywood, as if the system required that such remarkable beauty deserved an equally singular punishment to even things up: the way in which she gives life to her characters, never at the centre of attention even when they have the main part, merely accentuates the fascination they exert. A female role model which no longer exists today.

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