Guest post by Emma Kearney.
Gene Tierney worked at Twentieth Century Fox between 1940 and 1955, most notably in the film noirs Laura and Leave Her to Heaven. In these roles, she played two poles of the femme fatale trope: the New York dame who isn’t really all that fatal and the housewife who really really is. That both of these work so well is predicated by Gene Tierney being incredibly, hauntingly beautiful — so much so that it is easy to write off her abilities and performances as being only based on this beauty. Her career effectively ended when she was hospitalized six times in three years and she was diagnosed with and treated for bipolar, called at the time manic depression. In her autobiography, Self-Portrait, published in 1979 and written with Mickey Herskowitz, Tierney writes candidly about her mental health symptoms and treatment, including electroshock therapy which permanently altered her memory.
The book opens with her reflecting on a suicide attempt in December 1957. She stood on a ledge, outside her mother’s New York apartment, for twenty minutes, contemplating jumping. When she eventually decides to return to safety, the precipitating factor of her decision was the thought “I don’t want to end up on the pavement like so much scrambled eggs, my face and body broken. If I was going to die, I wanted to be in one piece, a whole person, and look pretty in my coffin. Vanity saved me that day.” This matter-of-fact assessment of the drama of her own life — that the charming conceitedness of a Hollywood glamour girl would save her life at the lowest moment of a suicide attempt — marks most of the anecdotes of her biography. She speaks frankly and directly about how her mania and depression affected her relationships with her partners, her parents, and her work.
The first time I fell truly in love with Tierney, before I knew any of the details of her biography, was when I saw The Ghost and Mrs. Muir from 1947. In the film, Gene Tierney plays a widow who is looking for a cottage to rent for herself and her small daughter. There’s one moment in the film where I immediately understood the magic I saw on her face. Mrs. Muir is taken to visit a cottage on the coast by a reluctant realtor and during the visit there are loud voices and gusts of wind inside the house. The realtor runs out of the house terrified; Mrs. Muir follows. But instead of being scared, she turns back towards the house, facing the house and declares, “Haunted! How perfectly fascinating.” At that moment her eyes are sparkling and intent. I was so enamored with her beauty, which has been happening to people who watch Gene Tierney movies for eighty years. But I also saw a face that I have made countless times in my life. At that moment, I saw Gene Tierney having manic eyes.
I was diagnosed with bipolar II when I was 14 and something I have always struggled with is the introspection required to name my own moods, particularly any manic mood. This feeling, of ebullience and effervescence, makes it easy to ignore the internal signs of hypomania and mania, like racing thoughts and words, irrational irritation or conclusions, or paranoia. So, rather than rely on trusting my treacherous introspection to determine if I was manic, I learned to feel the physical sensations that accompanied the mood swing. Primary of these was the wild, lit-up feeling around my eyes, that would nervously dart and crinkle.
That’s what I saw in Gene Tierney when she announced “haunted!” Declaring that I felt a kinship to her based on a face she makes for a split second in a film before I knew she and I had the same diagnosis feels like a manic and grandiose conclusion to make, but the way she describes her bipolar in her book confirmed what I saw in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Her description of her mania is still one of my favorites to explain how simultaneously magical and destructive the high of bipolar can be. She writes: “When my mood was high, I seemed normal, even buoyant. I felt smarter. I had secrets. I saw things no one else could see. I could see evil in a toothbrush. I could see God in a lightbulb.” She even mentions her eyes as a tell of her illness, when explaining the difference between the physical and mental manifestation of her manias: “My eyes might assume a wild expression when I was ill, but I was not wild within.” Her acting is sometimes derided by saying that her performances rely on her beauty, rather than any ability. But when I watch her performances, I see someone who has practiced for years controlling when to light up her face and when to mask her inner unrest.
To describe what makes Tierney magical onscreen is difficult because ultimately I am trying to describe something she does with her beauty, but I want to make it clear that this is a control, an intention, not passivity, even as it is usually based in letting other people react. When I picture her in her most iconic roles, I think of the split seconds before she speaks to someone. She pulls her chin in, smiles enough to round her cheeks but not enough to show teeth, and her eyes light up. Like she is saying, “Go ahead. This is a moment for you, the character across from me, and you, the audience, across the camera, that I am gifting to you. I know you are looking at me.” Tierney’s control of her face and awareness of being watched manifests in a specific way across many types of roles: she is believable as the woman for whom someone would cross a boundary. She manages her face and beauty in a way that makes the audience believe that Cornel Wilde would ignore all the red flags for Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven, that Dana Andrews would fall in love with a portrait in Laura, and even that Rex Harrison would seek to transcend the mortal plane to have a few moments with her in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. But more than any moment on film, I am grateful to her because of her choice of self-preservation and speaking about a stigmatized disorder with such frankness and lack of shame.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir will screen at IU Cinema on September 26, kicking off the series Sunday Matinee Classics: A Century of Tierney. Additional films this semester include Night and the City, Heaven Can Wait, Leave Her to Heaven, and Laura.
Emma Kearney is a dual degree student at Indiana University, earning her Master of Library Science and JD. Her favorite parts of movies are ball gowns and tap dancing. She is often accompanied by her loyal companion, Steve McQueen, a rascally terrier.