Gene Tierney has been a constant favorite of mine as I’ve watched more and more films from the Old Hollywood era. She starred in a couple of all-time favorite films: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Heaven Can Wait. She also has the distinction of being TCM host Robert Osborne’s favorite actress! Today, on what would have been her 95th birthday, I’ll be looking at the movie which earned Tierney her only Oscar nomination, the definitive Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven.
Gene Tierney acted in both comedies and dramas throughout her career, but the genre she’s arguably most known for is film noir. She starred in several of the most well-regarded noir films, including Laura, the film she is most recognized for. In any genre, she often played the good characters, the ones we want to root for. But in Leave Her to Heaven, she played against type as one of the most ruthless female characters in film history.
The film begins on a train, where novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) sees a fellow passenger reading his latest book. That passenger is socialite Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney), and upon first glance its not hard to see why Richard is instantly attracted to her. Ellen is immediately drawn to Richard as well, but for a different reason: he has a strong resemblance to her late father, with whom she had a very close relationship.
Though Ellen is engaged to ambitious Boston attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), she pursues Richard and soon marries him. Their marriage is blissful, but only for a very brief time. Ellen becomes more jealous of anybody or activity that takes Richard’s attention away from her. She’s especially wary of the time Richard spends with his young disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman), and resents the budding friendship forming between her husband and her cousin/adoptive sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain).
Later on Ellen becomes pregnant in the hopes that Richard will tend to her more, but instead he spends even less time with her, focusing more on his next novel. It’s at this point in the film that she oddly becomes a sympathetic character, as she becomes trapped by her expectations to be a doting wife and mother, while her husband is off doing what he pleases. Only an actress such as Tierney, who often provided a warm presence in her films, could garner some sympathy from the audience for a character that’s ultimately contemptible.
Ellen is one of the most complex characters Tierney ever played; though her actions are cruel and unforgivable, she performs these acts because of her obsessive love for Richard, not out of pure malice. There’s a moment in the film where Ellen’s mother says to Richard that “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen. It’s just that she loves too much.”
Tierney didn’t play a lot of antagonists in her career, but her role here reminds me a little of the one she played the following year in The Razor’s Edge; her character there doesn’t go quite the same lengths to keep her man away from anyone else like she does in Leave Her to Heaven, but she does come close. Though I love her best in her good-natured roles, she has proven that she really excels at playing wicked characters as well.
In discussing the great films of the noir genre, Leave Her to Heaven is often the only Technicolor film that is brought up in conversation among all the black-and-white ones. And I firmly believe its because of Tierney’s outstanding performance as Ellen. She truly elevates what could have easily been just an average film, and soon after her character’s departure you’re wishing she would come back, despite her neurotic behavior.
Gene Tierney lost the Oscar in 1946 to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, another great female role (and in a noir film no less). Regardless, she still comes out a winner, and her timeless performance continues to live on long after the film’s release.
I wrote this as a part of the Gene Tierney 95th Birthday Blogathon, hosted by my friend Simoa at The Ellie Badge. Click the banner below to read more posts celebrating the great actress!