|A radiant Tierney in "The Return of Frank James"|
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.”
|Tierney helped sell a lot of hats in the 1940s.|
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.
|Tierney is a Technicolor dream in "Heaven Can Wait."|
|On the cover of "Life" in 1941|
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 in "Tobacco Road"|
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.
|A studio portrait|
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).
|Tierney, as Laura Hunt, surrounded by Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb|
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.