in Actors, Models, and Directors

Gene Tierney: A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

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When Otto Preminger offered Gene Tierney the lead to “Laura” (1944), she told him he was making a mistake. The film is about a detective who falls in love with the portrait of a New York socialite whose purported murder he is investigating. For the image of a woman to be that entrancing, the script demanded an actress of outstanding beauty, which Tierney felt she was not. She suggested Hedy Lamarr. With her European exoticism, Lamarr was compared to Greta Garbo, which would not have deemed her entirely right as Laura, complimentary as the comparison was. ( Laura is American, as was Tierney, and like Laura, Tierney was an East Coast Brahmin. She had attended boarding school in Switzerland followed by Miss Porter’s, spoke fluent French, and had dated a war hero by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She was also more beautiful than she gave herself credit for. Directors being the dictators that they are, Preminger was adamant with his offer. Lucky for us.

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Because it’s Tierney, we see why detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) can’t get a night’s sleep. What happened to the girl next door? he wonders. In inquiring the victim’s friends and relations about her life, McPherson attaches a story to the face above the hearth, and it’s a very American story: through connections that a combination of looks and brains garners, a starry-eyed youngster fresh off the bus rises above the crowd, her gowns slinky and her home a jewel box of a flat with furniture visions of pink and peach even when in cinema black and white. Nothing otherworldly about Laura. She could have been McPherson’s high school sweetheart. Girls from Alaska to Wyoming migrate year round to a megalopolis across the coast to have what she’s got. And it’s the ultimate tribute that when the girl is gone, men are still falling in love with her. One real-life Laura, Marilyn Monroe, regarded the film her favorite of all. Monroe had watched it at least 15 times. ( Over 50 years after her nude body was found lifeless from an overdose of sleeping pills, every written word, movie, and TV exposé on her continues to be a valentine.

How aberrant it is to be stuck on someone who is now ashes in an urn or in repose in a coffin. Is that even love? To admire a portrait on a wall or in a magazine is one thing… at least we know we are merely drawn to the comeliness of an image, and one most likely altered by the sleight of a paint brush or a camera… but when we decipher words to the image, the secrets behind those lips and the dreams behind those eyes, then we have a person. Affection arises; however, at our own risk. Whether the individual is of the past or of the present, a life story is often edited according to our fancies. Some parts are omitted and others are fabricated. Romancing someone who is alive but whom we know only through these secondhand accounts is no less surreal than romancing the dead.

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We cannot forget the hysteria over Elvis Presley. Footage of fans who scream upon each thrust of his pelvis is on youtube. In a concert later in his career, a woman interviewed choked with emotion as she broadcasted her “love” for Elvis. She claimed to own all of his records and to have photo albums filled with cutout pictures of him. I can only imagine her grief when he died. She probably shed more tears for Elvis than she would have a husband, the latter being a relation of whose fallibilities she would have been well aware. Allegations of substance abuse and sexual proclivity for underage girls have surfaced in the wake of Elvis’ passing, none of which are completely shocking given the King’s courtship of a 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu and the carnival he later became with his puffed eyes behind dark shades and slips into narcotic-fueled rants onstage. The man was a walking pharmaceutical of barbiturates, amphetamine, and tranquilizers. On top of that, he drank and he smoked. Yet for all the signs of self-destruction, those who frenzied over Elvis only saw what they wanted to see: an arch angel from the stratosphere of celebrity, in sequined wings and chrome hair, who descended upon them to trumpet blasts that filled an amphitheater like clarions in the firmament.

And now we’ve got Bill Cosby. The most beloved father of 1980s sitcoms, he was Fat Albert to me during the previous decade. The cartoon aired on Philippine television. I would watch Fat Albert and his gang of ragamuffins find content in friendship no matter their dilemma. They were a dorky lot – faces in the shape of Mr. Peanut, buckteeth, and dazed eyes as if they were sleep walking through life. Fat Albert’s red sweater over a pachyderm belly identified him as a sun around which the gang orbited. Their odd appearance made me feel they were my buddies, too. Each episode ended with a trim and clean-cut Bill Cosby, himself in a red sweater (Fat Albert as an adult, perhaps) relate a moral learned from the story that had just transpired. Altruism, cooperation, respect, patience… he spoke of them all with a voice as soothing as a lullaby. A junkyard never seemed more fun. 40 years later, the media are exploding with revelations that the guy is a serial rapist. A mere month prior to the headlines, a female co-worker told me that as a girl, she had written a fan letter to Cosby asking him to adopt her because she thought he was the coolest dad in the world.

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Gene Tierney joins the list of famous personalities consumed by an image. That visual wonder of a countenance masked a reality of schizophrenia; institutionalization; 27 shock treatments; and birth to a daughter deaf, partially blind, and mentally handicapped. It also gave critics an excuse to undermine her talent. As Pia Lindstrom, the daughter of Tierney’s contemporary, Ingrid Bergman, said of her mother on the 60th anniversary of “Casablanca” (1943) ( “When you are very, very beautiful like that, you don’t have to act quite as much in a certain sense. People read into your beauty their own emotions.” Lindstrom was not dismissing Bergman’s brilliance as a thespian; rather, she was stating a fact about an audience’s opinion of a beautiful woman – that she is decoration. Bergman’s artistry, said Lindstrom, usurped youth’s effulgence when the latter was no longer a viable option.

Unfortunately, health and psychological maladies prevented Tierney from proving herself in her later years. She did, however, win the praise of Martin Scorsese for a character she played while still in her prime. He pegged her the most underrated actress of her generation on account of her performance in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), the film for which she earned her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. (She lost to Joan Crawford for “Mildred Pierce.”) Tierney plays Ellen Berent Harland, a woman so jealous of her husband’s growing attachment to her sister that she orchestrates her own suicide to make it appear as a murder committed by the sibling. Ellen is a crackpot with the anatomy of a mannequin. Given what we now know of Tierney, we can’t help equating the role with her. She may not have been a killer, but it is disconcerting that such a heavenly creature could have had such a hellish life.

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So goes the spell of an image. They say a picture paints a thousand words. That’s about as long as this blog posting, and I’ve only scratched the surface of Gene Tierney.

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