This short biography of actress Gene Tierney will help you enjoy the November 19, 2010 “Meet Me at the Movies” screening of Laura (1944). Tierney’s role as Laura Hunt made her a movie icon and one of the most popular movie stars during the 1940s. To movie goers for generations to come, she’ll always be “Laura…the face in the misty light.”
Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, thought Gene Tierney was the most beautiful woman in movie history. During the 1940s, Tierney’s face was on the covers of countless magazines; women copied her look and wore clothes and accessories inspired by her movie roles.
From the moment she first appeared on the big screen, Tierney was a star. The critics weren’t always taken with her performances, but audiences loved her mix of exotic and girl-next-door beauty. She had a slight overbite, which Tierney refused to correct, when she came to Hollywood. In fact, she had it written into her contract that she had “control” of her teeth and hair. A clause like that may seem odd to us today, but during the reign of the major Hollywood studios it was unusual for an actor or actress to have those kinds of exceptions written into their contracts.
Tierney was far from a diva or prima donna when it came to performing on the set. Known for her professionalism and kindness with both cast and crew, her first husband, Oleg Cassini said Tierney wanted everyone around her to “be happy.”
Gene Eliza Tierney was born in Brooklyn, NY, on November 19, 1920. Tierney’s father, Howard Sherwood was a successful insurance broker. Her mother, Belle Lavina Taylor was a former physical education instructor. Gene had an older brother, Howard Sherwood Jr. and a younger sister, Patricia.
The Tierney family eventually settled in Connecticut where all seemed ideal. Gene attended the best private schools in the state. At the age of 15, she spent two years attending the Brillantmont school in Lausanne, Switzerland. At Brillantmont, she learned to speak fluent French, a skill she would display in several future film roles.
Tierney’s film career might have started earlier had it not been for her father. In 1938, Gene and her family took a trip to Hollywood. On a tour of the Warner Brothers studio, she was “discovered” by Anatole Litvak. The studio wanted to give the seventeen-year-old a contract, but her father didn’t think the salary was very good and that ended that, or so it seemed.
Instead of going to Hollywood, Tierney struck a deal with her father. She would pursue an acting career on the legitimate stage. It was Howard Tierney’s belief (and hope) that his daughter would soon tire of a career, marry well and settle down. But that was not to be.
Tierney’s stage debut was inauspicious at best: she carried a pail of water across the stage in What a Life! (1938). Larger roles soon followed and influential critics like Brooks Atkinson from The New York Times took notice. Her real break came when she played Patricia Stanley in the Male Animal (1940). Her reviews were terrific and all of Broadway was at her feet.
One evening, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox studios, attended a performance of The Male Animal. He thought Tierney had movie star potential and soon she was on her way to Hollywood.
Tierney’s first movie was The Return of Frank James starring Henry Fonda and directed by Fritz Lang. The movie was a hit, but Tierney’s performance was panned. The Harvard Lampoon went so far as to call her “The Worst Female Discovery” of 1940. Tierney took that slight in stride, but she didn’t like the way her voice sounded. She said she sounded like an “angry Minnie Mouse.” Someone suggested she take up smoking cigarettes to lower the register of her voice. Smoking did lower her voice, but it would also contribute to health problems later in life.
Tierney may not have impressed the critics with her acting ability, but the public was enthralled with her beauty. As the new Hollywood “it girl,” Tierney made five movies in 1941, including Tobacco Road directed by John Ford, Sundown directed by Henry Hathaway, and The Shanghai Gesture directed by Joseph von Sternberg. Nineteen forty-one was also the year Tierney defied her family and studio by marrying a young fashion designer named Oleg Cassini. She and Cassini eloped against the advice of her parents and the brass at Fox.
The next year, Tierney starred in four movies, including Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake opposite Tyrone Power, Fox’s top male box office draw.
In 1943, Tierney starred in Heaven Can Wait with Don Ameche, directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. The classic comedy filmed in Technicolor showcased Tierney’s radiant beauty. In the movie, her character aged from a young teenage girl to a middle-aged woman and mother. It was her performance as Martha Strabel Van Cleve that convinced Otto Preminger that Tierney had the right qualities to play the title character in the new movie he was producing.
During the filming of Heaven Can Wait, Tierney discovered she was pregnant. On October 15, 1943, Tierney gave birth to a baby girl, Antoinette Daria Cassini. Born premature, Daria had several handicaps: she was deaf, partially blind, and severely retarded. This devastated Tierney and may have been the beginning of her struggles with mental illness.
After the birth of her daughter, it wasn’t a surprise that Tierney was reluctant to get back to the studio for the next assignment they had lined up for her. The role of Laura Hunt did not appeal to Tierney. Originally conceived as a vehicle for Jennifer Jones, producer Otto Preminger wanted Tierney and lobbied Zanuck hard for her services.
Hired as the producer, Preminger constantly clashed with Rouben Mamoulian, The Mark of Zoro (1940), the studio-assigned director. After viewing early footage that Mamoulian directed, Zanuck fired him and hired Preminger to both produce and direct. Preminger had directed several films before, but none had brought him any great success or acclaim. Laura was based on a novel by Vera Caspary, a popular novelist and screenwriter, A Letter to Three Wives (1949).
Set among New York’s Park Ave. set, the movie is populated with society’s “upper crust,” if you will, a group that fascinated Preminger. Casting Tierney as the mysterious Laura was a risk. The audience had to believe that she was able to captivate all three of the male protagonists. The director was sure he had made the right choice and felt the same about casting Dana Andrews as detective Mark McPherson. At this point in his career, Andrews was still playing second leads. Zanuck’s first choice for the role was John Hodiak. Laura gave Andrews his first big role and it made him a star.
When the film was released in late 1944, it was an instant hit. Tierney was more famous than ever. And she would be forever identified with the film and its haunting musical score penned by David Raksin.
Laura was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for Best Director (Preminger) and Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb). Preminger and Webb lost that year, but cinematographer Joseph LaShelle won for his masterful black and white photography.
Tierney’s performance, as well as Andrews’s, was neglected at Oscar time. Today Tierney’s performance is appreciated as one of the best of the actress’s career.
The American Film Institute named Laura the fourth best film in the mystery genre in 2008.
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