Friday, November 6, 2009

On this Day, Gene Tierney

At the end of October I put up a post saying, essentially, that I hadn't done all I wanted to do. In a month in which I had planned to delve fully into the emotional passions involved in horror I had, to my eyes, come up short. As such, I said I was going to extend October celebrations throughout the year. Well, here's the first holdover. Warning: SPOILERS ABOUND!

On this day in 1991 Gene Tierney died from complications arising from emphysema. She was 70 years old. Tierney was both a beauty and a fine actress with more than her share of personal tragedy. If you'd like to read about her personal life there are more than a few online biographies you can turn to for information. The reason however that I was going to write about her in October was for the 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven which is a sort of spiritual Godmother to Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction. Her character even commits suicide but makes it look like murder which is exactly how Fatal Attraction was slated to end before preview audiences stepped in and became screenwriters causing nutless Adrian Lyne to gleefully change the ending of his own movie. Not so with Leave Her to Heaven which must have turned some heads back in 1945 with its tale of a woman so possessed, obsessed and heartless that she watches the helpless paralyzed brother of her husband drown and doesn't bat an eyelash. She throws herself down a flight of stairs just weeks before giving birth to force a miscarriage ... just to get sympathy and attention from her husband who she suspects is falling for her sister (she's right). And in the end, as noted above, she kills herself by poisoning and frames it on her sister. Damn.

These kinds of movies have always been popular whether the obsessed party is male (King of Comedy, The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Fan) or female (the above mentioned Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction) there's just something really creepy about someone who won't stop thinking about you! In Leave Her to Heaven, one of the first of its kind, the same maddening and mystifying traits of the stalker/obsessor are examined. Ellen (Gene Tierney) has had relationships before so what is it about this one with Richard Harland (Cornell Wilde, and no, he doesn't blog at Movie Morlocks) that sends her over the edge? Her former fiance, played by Vincent Price, is clearly in love with her and wants her but she, for whatever reason, has locked her sights onto Harland and won't veer away. From the first unilateral decision she makes, announcing to everyone after only a single outing with Harland at her family ranch that they are to be married you know there's going to be trouble. Later, when Harland, a novelist, decides to dedicate his latest novel to Ruth (Jean Simmons), Ellen's sister, he is told by their mother, "Oh no. You should dedicate it to Ellen. You should dedicate all your books to Ellen." The mother knows what Richard is willfully choosing not to see and this is her way of warning him. Foolishly, he doesn't heed the warning and the events described above, leading to her suicide, begin to unfold. But does she win? Will Richard and Ruth go to prison for murder? Yes and no. I won't completely spoil the film for those who haven't seen it (although I've come pretty damn close) but it's compelling that the movie allows the murderous Ellen a even partial victory in the end. And on top of that, she went out at the hour and means of her own choosing effectively avoiding justice for her murderous deeds.

Leave Her to Heaven is a well told tale of murderous obsession and Tierney would never again have a role that demanded as much from her as an actress. She wasn't Ingrid Bergman or Katherine Hepburn it's true, but she was a damn good Gene Tierney and in this film, more than even Laura, she showed an impressive display of acting chops. This November 20th would have been her 89th birthday.