Monday, June 1, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Media: The Unstable Gene Tierney

[First published in 2008.]

I had to smile at the opening scenes of Otto Preminger's 1949 film noir Whirlpool, which reveal socialite Gene Tierney as a kleptomaniac. Because, let's see, in recent months I've watched Tierney as a "dead woman" (Laura), a neurotic widow in love with a ghost (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), a gambling addict and alcoholic (The Shanghai Gesture), and the coldest homicidal lunatic bitch of, perhaps, all time (Leave Her to Heaven). Kleptomania, and, later in Whirlpool, suggestability at the hands of an unsavory hypnotist, are pretty mild in the overall Gene Tierney scheme of things.

Will it surprise anyone to learn that Tierney actually had her own tragic instabilities? She was out of movies for a long while after the age of 35. She is said, probably with accuracy, to have been depressive and bipolar. She underwent more than two dozen shock treatments. She had to be talked off a ledge. At one point during her therapy she was instructed to work as a salesgirl in a department store (whose nutty idea was that?) and was of course spotted, creating a media furor.

Some of her downward trajectory may stem from circumstances surrounding the birth of her first daughter by then-husband and fashion designer Oleg Cassini. Tierney contracted German measles from an over-zealous fan who snuck out of military quarantine to attend one of the star's personal appearances; this resulted in her daughter being born premature, severely underweight, deaf, partially blind, and retarded. (This is such an ultimate "wages of stardom" story that Agatha Christie could not resist using it in her novel The Mirror Crack'd.)

Tierney also had a wild love life, encompassing Cassini, John F. Kennedy, Tyrone Power, Prince Ali Khan of Pakistan (Rita Hayworth's ex), Howard Hughes, and second husband W. Howard Lee (a Texas oil baron who was Hedy Lamarr's ex). Her legendary beauty might have had something to do with that. As with so many entertainers, her life was ultimately a mess (albeit a lucrative one). But she was a gifted performer, too, and her unstable quality is very effective in all the movies that I mentioned.

Whirlpool is a lesser entry in my ongoing Otto Preminger viewing. Even his great directorial skill can only do so much with a storyline that is, as the Time Out Film Guide rightly says, "daft." The film is also slightly hobbled by a weak central performance by Richard Conte as Tierney's psychologist husband. Conte could do villains ("Mr. Brown" in The Big Combo), but not noble intellectuals.

But, on the plus side of the ledger, there is Jose Ferrer as the hypnotist David Korvo. Ferrer was newly arrived from the Broadway stage -- this was only his second film -- and although it is oftimes said that the only good acting technique is the kind that disguises itself, Ferrer is a blast to watch here precisely because of his palpable and undisguised technique. It is well matched to the charlatanry of his character, true, but there is also a sheer joy in showoffiness like that of a nakedly virtuosic violinist. Ferrer is especially good with his voice; every syllable he utters has a precise function and lands just where he wishes it. I grinned throughout this performance, which of its kind could scarcely be bettered.


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