I shall never forget the day I saw The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in Paris. With a pounding headache and an overwhelming sense of loneliness after two weeks of studying in a strange city, I convinced myself to go stare in awe at Notre Dame before settling in at La Filmothèque du Quartier Latin, a small repertory theater that offered me salvation throughout my stay. As I sat in the dark swooning over the ghostly romance between Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, I felt comforted in exactly the way I needed — and I owed much of that to Tierney.
A New York debutante whose poise, drive, and stunning good looks turned her into one of the biggest stars of the ’40s and ’50s, Gene Tierney has long been a favorite of mine, which makes today, her 100th birthday, something I wanted to commemorate. That being said, out of all the actors I adore, she may be the hardest to discuss. As film historian Jeanine Basinger said, “The audience feels something about her presence that they can’t quite identify.” Co-star and friend Richard Widmark further hit the nail on the head: “Her personality was a little mysterious; she seemed unapproachable at first. But when you did approach her, she was just like the girl next door.”
There is indeed something wildly enigmatic about Tierney, whose quiet, almost demure demeanor added to her impenetrable and icy façade. Until, that is, her face breaks into a smile so sweet that it makes her seafoam-green eyes sparkle with a kindly tenderness. It isn’t hard to see why Tierney was so often cast as the dream girl who would wander into the hero’s life just in time to save him from his own worst impulses. With her ethereal beauty, she was presented as a goddess, a figure of porcelain with soft chestnut curls and an endearing overbite. “Producers kept trying to type me as an exotic, slinky creature,” she recalled in her autobiography. “That wasn’t me. Of all the people I have known, I am probably the least mysterious.”
Tierney was determined to be more than an alluring portrait in an ornate frame, the image from Laura that has long defined her career. She imbued her characters with her own unwavering gentleness and soulful fragility, turning each woman she played into flesh-and-blood beings with big hearts and quick minds. “I simply did not want my face to be my talent,” she wrote, admitting that her first thought when she read the script for Laura was “Who wants to play a painting?”
There is a palpable emotionality to Tierney’s acting, perhaps borne out of her many personal tragedies. She was shunned by Hollywood and her parents when she eloped with fashion designer Oleg Cassini in 1941. She then discovered her beloved father had stolen all of her money to pay his own debts and was having an affair with her mother’s best friend that soon led to their divorce. Unable to reconcile her father’s hypocrisy with his preaching of honesty and morality, Tierney painfully cut off all ties with him. Her heartache continued when she contracted German measles early in her first pregnancy and her daughter, Daria, was born mentally disabled as well as partially blind and deaf. Tierney felt her stardom was to blame when she later learned that she had gotten the measles from a fan who had broken quarantine to meet her favorite actress at a Hollywood Canteen event.
In the 1950s, Tierney’s life unraveled even more. At first unable to concentrate and remember her lines, she began to experience paranoia and hallucinations. She would sleep for days and had no appetite. Throughout the decade, she would be committed to three sanitariums, enduring cruel conditions and 32 treatments of electroshock therapy at the first two before finally finding the care she needed at the Menninger Clinic. Despite the stigma around mental health during this time, Tierney talked openly about her struggles with manic depression in the press and her 1979 autobiography.
Like Tierney herself, who fought to become an actress rather than the society wife her family wished her to be, her characters frequently had a degree of rebellion that contradicted their serene manner. These women yearn to take control of their lives, whether that means a career (The Return of Frank James, Laura), social mobility (Rings on Her Fingers, Dragonwyck, The Razor’s Edge), or personal freedom (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Belle Starr, Heaven Can Wait, Never Let Me Go). But the most ambitious Tierney character of all is Ellen Berent, the unnerving femme fatale of Leave Her to Heaven.
With a performance that is both intoxicating and terrifying, Tierney crafted the most unforgettable role of her career as a woman whose obsessive love for her husband destroys everyone around her. The calculating, violent intensity of Ellen is in sharp contrast to, say, the adorable, gum-chewing shopgirl of Rings on Her Fingers or the modest Russian housewife of The Iron Curtain or the sophisticated heiress of That Wonderful Urge. It isn’t mentioned much, but Tierney had a range that made her well-suited for numerous genres, including film noir, westerns, musicals, romantic comedies, and historical and political dramas.
Although Leave Her to Heaven is Tierney’s crowning achievement, my favorite of her films will always be The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. To me, it is the best distillation of what made the actress so enchanting. Her warmth, her spirit, her humor — it’s all there in Lucy Muir, a woman who forges her own path despite everyone (mainly men, of course) telling her what she can or can’t do. There is a moment in the film where Captain Gregg, the ghost who befriends and later falls in love with Lucy, talks to her while she is sleeping as he decides to convince her that their time together was only a dream, allowing her to go on with her life. The scene’s poignancy never fails to make me tear up, but there is one line in particular that I often cling to: “You must make your own life amongst the living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.”
Gene Tierney met plenty of foul winds throughout her life, but she became a survivor whose immense empathy and hard-won strength made her the kind of performer who had my heart the minute I first laid eyes on her. Seeing her at La Filmo that day in Paris was like seeing an old friend. It was a moment of safe harbor, just like it is every time Tierney appears on my screen. What could be a more beautiful legacy than that?
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.