Gene Tierney, 70, the beautiful but troubled actress who starred in such 1940s films as “Heaven Can Wait,” “Laura,” “Leave Her to Heaven” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” died Nov. 6 in Houston. She had been suffering from emphysema.
Tierney, one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars in the 1940s, had a tempestuous emotional life that included hospitalizations and electric shock treatment for depression, as well as a marriage to dress designer Oleg Cassini and romantic liaisons with John F. Kennedy, Howard Hughes and Aly Khan.
Though regarded more highly for her lustrous screen presence than for her acting ability, she was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a psychopathically possessive woman in director John M. Stahl’s lurid 1945 meller “Leave Her to Heaven.”
She made few acting appearances following her hospitalizations in the late 1950s. Her last feature film was “The Pleasure Seekers,” in 1964, but she made some TV appearances after that, including a role in the 1980 miniseries “Scruples.”
Born in Brooklyn, Tierney was the daughter of Howard S. Tierney, a successful Manhattan insurance broker who helped groom her for stardom. Tierney had a privileged upbringing, attending private schools in Connecticut and Switzerland. Her father formed a corporation to promote her, although they later had a falling-out over her marriage to Cassini and business disagreements.
The green-eyed, dark-haired actress debuted on Broadway for producer George Abbott in the 1939 “Mrs. O’Brian Entertains,” and Life magazine gave her a four-page spread after she played the ingenue in “The Male Animal.”
Although Hollywood had beckoned earlier, it was her “Male Animal” role that brought her a contract with 20th Century-Fox and a star buildup from studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck.
Tierney made her screen bow as Henry Fonda’s g.f. in Fritz Lang’s Technicolor Western “The Return of Frank James” (1940), which she followed with the Paul Muni period adventure pic “Hudson’s Bay.”
Her mostly silent role as Ellie May in John Ford’s uneven film version of the backwoods drama “Tobacco Road” (1941) showcased her sultry looks, as did her performance as the decadent Poppy in Josef von Sternberg’s tongue-in-cheek “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941).
Following Rouben Mamoulian’s “Rings on Her Fingers” (1942) and some more forgettable fare, she made one of her best films with director Ernst Lubitsch in 1943, “Heaven Can Wait,” as the tolerant wife of Don Ameche in the Technicolor nostalgia piece about a rake’s happily married life.
Tierney had married Cassini, then a Paramount costume designer, in 1941; the marriage lasted until 1952. They had two daughters, Daria and Christina.
Daria was born severely retarded after Tierney contracted German measles during her pregnancy in 1943. She later learned that it was contracted from a female Marine who broke quarantine to shake hands with Tierney, her favorite movie star, at the Hollywood Canteen.
It was one of the devastating blows that led to Tierney’s crippling bouts with manic depression and eventually drove her into reclusive retirement.
Otto Preminger’s 1944 “Laura,” with Clifton Webb and Dana Andrews, became a romantic/suspense classic and Tierney’s best-remembered role. The success of “Laura” led to more challenging parts at Fox for Tierney, including “Leave Her to Heaven.”
In 1946, she starred in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s directorial debut, “Dragonwyck,” and in Edmund Goulding’s film of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” with Tyrone Power.
It was in 1946 that Tierney met ex-Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy, who was visiting the set of “Dragonwyck.” They began an intermittent romance that ended, she would later write, when he confided that he could never marry her – he was a Catholic with political ambitions, she a married Episcopalian.
Under Mankiewicz’s direction in 1947, Tierney had another of her career triumphs in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”
Tierney subsequently appeared in William Wellman’s anti-Communist yarn “The Iron Curtain”; in the Preminger films “Whirlpool” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends”; with Richard Widmark in Jules Dassin’s “Night and the City”; and in Mitchell Leisen’s “The Mating Season.”
Tierney’s career declined in the early 1950s in such pics as “On the Riviera,” “Way of a Gaucho,” “Plymouth Adventure” and “The Egyptian.” After making “The Left Hand of God” (1955), she began her long period of treatment for mental illness.
She was given repeated electric shock treatments, which she later regretted, and underwent lengthy hospitalizations until November 1959.
She married Houston oilman W. Howard Lee in 1960, and that year appeared in an episode of “G.E. Theatre.” She returned to the screen in 1962 as a Washington hostess in Preminger’s film of Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent.” But her film comeback was short-lived, followed only by George Roy Hill’s “Toys in the Attic” (1962) and Jean Negulesco’s remake of “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “The Pleasure Seekers” (1964).
In 1969, she appeared in a telepic, “Daughter of the Mind,” and the following year she guested on “The FBI.” After that, she played ruthless fashion editor Harriet Toppingham in “Scruples,” the 1980 mini based on the novel by Judith Krantz.
Her husband died in 1982. In addition to her two daughters, Tierney is survived by two granddaughters, two grandsons and a sister, Patricia Byrne.