Jun 14, 2007

Keen on Gene

I think I'm obsessed with Gene Tierney.
It happens every so often in my quest to find the most enchanting gems of classic cinema, whether I'm voraciously devouring an autobiography, sacrificing precious sleep to catch a late movie on TCM, or finding myself in the throes of conversation with any random passerby who happens to comment on my vintage slingbacks or Kate-Hepburn-inspired-hairdo: I stumble upon an actor, a director, or a film so incredible that it's a wonder I've lived a good twenty years without yet being enlightened as to its awesomeness. First it was director Blake Edwards and his slew of films that span genres and decades; then, I fell hard for Henry Fonda and the honest, compassionate, soft-spoken characters he's portrayed since the 1930s (the beautiful blue eyes may've played a part in my affection, too). Most recently it was the divine Barbara Stanwyck and her wise-cracking, no-nonsense persona, onscreen and off - Sugarpuss O'Shea, I salute you - and now, Gene.

Sweet, stoic and stunningly unfettered by her status as a Hollywood star, Gene Tierney entered the echelon of movie history in 1944's Laura, in which she plays the titular character of a glamorous society murder-victim-cum-murder-suspect. It was just her twelfth film since her 1940 debut, and Gene was doubtful of her true thespian talent, though she worked tirelessly to improve her skill. (She would often study great films that had preceded her generation so late into the night that the studio projectionist would fall asleep screening them.)

Despite her incredible beauty - she stands out even amongst her glittery starlet contemporaries like Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner - Gene was offered, and preferred, mainly dramatic roles that challenged her abilities, instead of the standard musicals or unsophisticated sex comedies assigned to Fox's younger leading ladies of the 1940s. Films like Tobacco Road, Leave Her To Heaven and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir are dark, humorless pieces that are illuminated as much by their overall impactfulness as by Gene's deft performances, and because she was neither influenced by nor dependent upon her movie career to support her financially, she had the advantage of employing discretion in the parts she selected.

Gene's film career had already lost precedence to her family life after an unsuccessful marriage to designer Oleg Cassini ended in divorce in the early 1950's, and her health soon became tabloid fodder as she surrendered to a curious and debilitating mental illness that required aggressive measures, extensive psychotherapy, and prolonged stays in various American institutions before it was nearly eradicated from her life and she was able to regain stability. Upon her tentative return to Hollywood in the 1960's, minor cameo roles were nearly all that were offered Gene, now in her 40's - and the newly-remarried mother of two accepted this fact readily, again focusing on her family and home life for the remainder of her life.

Leaving behind an impressive film legacy and a truly touching and effective autobiography, Self-Portrait, Gene Tierney died in November of 1991, just shy of her 81st birthday.

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