Gene Tierney was born in 1920 into a close, privileged family in Connecticut. She had a happy childhood. During a family trip to Hollywood, she was given a screen test and offered a contract, but her parents refused. She then headed off to a private boarding school in Switzerland where she became fluent in French. Upon returning home, she begged her parents to allow her to pursue her dream of acting. They agreed, provided that she audition for theater roles in nearby New York. Gene had favor and quick success. This led to a a contract with 20th Century Fox studios.
She married twice. Her first husband was Oleg Cassini, an immigrant from a noble family. (Cassini eventually became famous in his own right as a costume designer and later as owner of a fashion empire.) They had two daughters, her only children. While pregnant with her first child, Tierney contracted the German measles from a fan who was ill, but who had broken a health quarantine in order to meet her favorite movie star. This affected her unborn child who was later born prematurely, partially deaf and with severe mental deficiencies. Tierney was forced to institutionalize her daughter for most of her life.
Tierney had another serious personal blow related to her beloved father. He managed the money she earned as an actress. When he ran into personal difficulties of his own, he used her funds to cover his losses and she was forced to take him to court. In the end, although she won her case, she was left with very little. This event along with her father’s affair and abandonment of their family left Tierney estranged from him for the remainder of her life.
She also had a couple of high-profile love affairs. One with Jack Kennedy prior to his entry in politics. She was in love with him, but he would not marry her, so she called it off. Tierney was also good friends with mogul Howard Hughes, who helped her out financially throughout her life.
The personal tragedies in her life led her to a mental breakdown. Over a period of several years she was in and out of mental hospitals as she sought treatment. Tierney was subjected to numerous shock treatments and lost small chunks of her memory. At one point, she considered suicide. Eventually, she was successfully treated by the Menninger Clinic. After her recovery she returned to films briefly, but eventually retired. She married a second time, moved to Houston and lived out her remaining days happily out of the spotlight. She died at 70 of emphysema shortly before her birthday.
Although Tierney began her career in theater as many classic film actors did in those days, she quickly moved to Hollywood to work for 20th Century Fox. She made the majority of her films with this studio. The bulk of her pictures were filmed in the 1940’s and 1950’s with a few small parts in the 1960’s. Altogether she had a total of 41 films to her credit, the majority of which were dramatic roles.
Gene Tierney was considered one of the most beautiful actresses of her time. Ironically, this was a hindrance to her at times in landing good roles. Her acting skill has generally been underrated because she was assigned to many mediocre films which did not showcase her talent. Daryl Zanuck, her boss at Fox stated, “Gene must be a better actress than some people think. How else could she survive so many awful pictures?” Despite this, Tierney did win an Oscar for her role as a murderously jealous wife in the film Leave Her to Heaven.
During her years wrestling with her mental health, she fell out of demand as an actress. Eventually, she returned to film, but the roles were much smaller and less prestigious, so Tierney decided to retire. In her mind, her career had always been of secondary priority to her personal life anyway.
Dana Andrews -Andrews appeared in four films with Tierney, more than any other actor. Their most famous collaboration is Laura. Their other three films, Tobacco Road, The Iron Curtain and Where the Sidewalk Ends are also dramas. Her beautiful elegance was a nice contrast to his brooding, quiet manner.
Tyrone Power -Tierney made three films with Tyrone Power, Son of Fury, The Razor’s Edge and That Wonderful Urge. They were two of the most gorgeous people in Hollywood and their combined beauty is almost too much for the screen.
Henry Fonda -Fonda co-starred in two films The Return of Frank James and Rings on Her Fingers. Frank James was Tierney’s debut film. Rings is one of Tierney’s few comedies.
WELL KNOWN FILMS
Laura (1944) – She plays an object of obsession who is supposedly murdered. Arguably her most well-known film. Tierney was identified by this role for the rest of her life.
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)-The film for which she won her only Academy Award. She is chilling as a jealous wife determined to have her husband all to herself.
The Razor’s Edge (1946) -Based on a story by Somerset Maugham (who had many of his books adapted for film). Tierney plays a supporting role as the love interest of Tyrone Power. He ultimately sacrifices their relationship in his search for a deeper meaning to life.
MY FAVORITE FILMS
The Shanghai Gesture (1941) -A tragic drama, I love Tierney’s portrayal of a doomed heiress who is ruined by her addiction to gambling and drugs.
Dragonwyck (1946) -I’m a fan of gothic romances, whether in books or film and this one about a woman married to a wealthy landowner who is slowly losing his mind kept me enthralled.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) -Not just one of my favorite Tierney films, this is also a favorite classic of mine. Tierney is a young widow with a daughter who purchases a remote seaside cottage whose previous owner was a foul mouthed sea captain (played by Rex Harrison who also played Henry Higgins in the musical film My Fair Lady). She quickly discovers that although he is dead, he acts very much alive, haunting his home and trying to scare her away. But they soon come to a truce and she finds herself falling for a ghost.
Extra: I have read Tierney’s autobiography and can personally recommend it. It is an interesting journey through her life, both public and personal. She writes with awareness and without self-pity. Having read about her in her own words, she only grew in my esteem. Gene Tierney was truly a classy, elegant woman unencumbered with self-absorption, despite her beauty, fame, wealth and connections.
Also, check out this website dedicated to Gene Tierney.
Jealousy is, I think, the worst of all faults because it makes a victim of both parties.
The word actress has always seemed less a job description to me than a title.
Wealth, beauty and fame are transient. When those are gone, little is left except the need to be useful.
I have gone through such a times, and more, and survived. I traveled in a world that once was -Hollywood of the war and immediate postwar years. And I existed in a world that never is-the prison of the mind. If what I have learned can be summed up in one sentence, it would be this: life is not a movie.