Pretty in the Past: Gene Tierney

In Otto Preminger’s 1944 film, Laura, a police detective played by Dana Andrews falls in love with the woman whose murder he is investigating. Though he knows he’ll never meet her, the combination of other people’s stories of her and the gorgeous portrait that hangs on her wall prove impossible for him to resist.

Sep 5, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

It’s a romantic (albeit borderline creepy) premise, enlivened by some unexpected twists and turns, and made wholly believable by the fact that Laura—the object of Andrews’ desire—is played by Gene Tierney, who may just have been the most beautiful movie star in the world at that time.


Looking at her photographs, it’s hard to draw a specific bead on her appeal. That’s because no two ever seem to look alike. As distinctive and unique as her features were—Tierney possessed a chameleon’s ability to transform herself into whatever a film or photograph required. Those amazing cheekbones and charming overbite were always there, of course—nothing was ever going to take them away—but what ties all of her photos together is something beyond the gorgeous totality of her face.

It’s the fact that no matter how she’s dressed, made-up or posed, you get the sense that you’re actually looking at a candid photograph of someone who truly looked like that ALL OF THE TIME. Even dressed as an exotic fantasyland princess, she gave the impression of someone who really existed and you could possibly meet someday. She was one of the few actresses in the history of cinema who made her physical perfection seem entirely plausible.

Only 24 when Laura was made, Tierney’s rise to movie stardom was one of those things that seemed pre-ordained by birth. When she was still just a teenager, she joined her parents on a movie studio tour during their first trip to California. There they were seen walking together by Russian director Anatole Litvak, who was so taken by her preternatural glow, he offered her a screen test right there on the spot. Her conservative father refused the offer, but the idea of becoming an actress so appealed to her she eventually got him to agree to allow her to pursue a stage career back home on the east coast. Within just a few months she was appearing in her first Broadway play.

By the age of 20 she found herself back in Hollywood, where her screen test so impressed studio executives she was allowed a privilege only previously bestowed upon Ingrid Bergman. Both were deemed so naturally radiant they were allowed to be filmed and photographed without makeup, which was as unheard of then as not needing Photoshop is today. Beyond Laura, she impressed critics and audiences in a series of movies also destined to become beloved classics, including Heaven Can Wait, Dragonwyck, and—my favourite—The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In 1945, her portrayal of a psychotically obsessed wife willing to resort to murder to protect her marriage in Leave Her to Heaven won her an Oscar nomination and proved that she was more than just a pretty face.

But Tierney’s fairy tale existence proved short lived. Her first child with fashion designer Oleg Cassini was born with severe physical and mental challenges after she contracted German measles during the pregnancy. Forced to send the child to an institution, her guilt was compounded when she was approached by an autograph seeker who told her the story of the one time they had met before. It was during her only visit to the Hollywood Canteen—a club set up to entertain servicemen and women during WWII. The woman and her entire barracks had been quarantined with measles at the time, but they had snuck out to go to the Canteen just so they could all meet their favourite movie star.

Not long after that, Tierney found out that her father—now also her business manager—had squandered her money with bad business deals and left her bankrupt. Born into a family with a history of mental illness, these major misfortunes eventually led to a series of breakdowns that resulted in repeated institutionalization and several suicide attempts.

By the mid-50s, her career was essentially over (though she would occasionally act all the way until 1980). Her personal troubles seemingly robbed her of the legendary status many of her contemporaries enjoyed, but then—after her death from lung cancer in 1991—Laura proved remarkably prescient.

Dana Andrews just had one painting* to fall in love with, while movie buffs and fans of old school Hollywood glamour have thousands of photos and 38 movies to do the same. Watching those films and knowing the sad story of the actress who helped make them great, it’s impossible to not want to go back in time and try to protect her. But none of us can, which leaves a bittersweet feeling only made better by the certainty that her legacy outlived her suffering and that what was pretty in the past remains pretty in the present and will stay so long, long into the future.

*Which was actually a photograph, since none of the paintings produced for the film managed to satisfyingly replicate Tierney’s beauty.