For anyone who’s been partaking in Noirvember this year, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered the subject of Will Scheibel‘s latest book, Gene Tierney: Star of Hollywood’s Home Front. It seems only fitting to end the month with an interview with Scheibel carried out over email about the star study and why Tierney deserves to be as recognized for her talent as her beauty.
Rachel Bellwoar: Heaven Can Wait was my first Gene Tierney film, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was the film when I started putting a name to the face. Can you remember the first time you encountered Gene Tierney and/or the film that made you want to check out her other roles?
Will Schiebel: Yes, the film was Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), and I vividly remember watching it for the first time. I grew up in Peoria, Illinois, and was working at the public library one summer when I was in high school. This was also around the time I was first getting into film—and film history and criticism—and I was trying to track down some of the major examples of film noir, a term I had just learned. I checked out an old VHS copy of Laura and watched it on my thirteen-inch television set. Even in this inauspicious exhibition environment, I was hooked by the low-key, black-and-white cinematography, the mystery, and the dreamy style of it all. That film led me to the Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945), which I saw on what was then the American Movie Classics channel. Tierney’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and here was where I saw what an extraordinary talent she was.
Bellwoar: How would you explain what the difference is between a star study and a biography?
Schiebel: A star biography aims to tell the star’s life story, chronicling the who, what, when, and where. Tierney actually published an autobiography in 1978 titled Self-Portrait, which is now out of print, and author Michelle Vogel published a biography from McFarland & Company in 2009. By contrast, a star study seeks to analyze how the star’s image was historically established, what meanings have been ascribed to it, and why it remains meaningful as a social construction. This work usually involves close readings of the star’s films, focusing on their performances, roles, and screen persona.
Bellwoar: While biographies often try to pin down the truth about their subject’s life, in your book it’s just as important what people thought was true about Tierney, whether from hearing gossip or reading press stories. In what ways (if any) did that impact your research process?
Schiebel: Getting my methodology straight from the beginning was productive in setting parameters around what was and wasn’t going to be useful for my purposes (the decision in some ways was made for me when I learned early on that the Gene Tierney collection at Wesleyan University’s Reid Cinema Archives would be closed to researchers for the foreseeable future!). If material on Tierney would have circulated in the 1940s or informed certain strategies for promoting her to the public, then it was going to help me more than her personal effects. I therefore turned my attention to the trailers and pressbooks for her films, studio-written biographies, publicity stories in fan magazines and trade journals, interviews in and commentary by the popular press, and film reviews. The go-to places for this kind of research include the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and the George Eastman Museum, but I also benefitted from the Syracuse University Libraries and the Media History Digital Library.
Bellwoar: Gene Tierney: Star of Hollywood’s Home Front both begins and ends with a discussion of the portrait of Tierney as Laura in Otto Preminger’s Laura. Compared to other actresses, why do you think Tierney’s looks have tended to overshadow her (many) fantastic performances?
Schiebel: Tierney isn’t alone in this regard, and I think that’s because of the sexist assumptions about film stardom that were prevalent in the 1940s and continue to a lesser degree today (i.e., female stars are held to certain beauty standards first and foremost, while male stars are celebrated for their “serious” dramatic work). There is also the assumption that a beautiful star couldn’t possibly be taken very seriously as an actress. What makes Tierney’s career an exemplary case of these double standards is the legend that persists about her beauty, and the cycles of critical appraisals that reassert rather than interrogate the promotional claim first made by her boss, Twentieth Century-Fox’s head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, that she was “the most beautiful woman in movie history.” And there were probably a variety of factors contributing to the received wisdom that she was a lesser actress. Tierney never worked as a freelance star nor achieved recognition as what Richard Dyer calls an “independent type” (e.g., Bette Davis, Joan Crawford). She never studied a particular school of acting like the Method, nor was she a singer and dancer. Unlike her contemporaries such as Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe, she never formed her own production company, and she disappeared from Hollywood in the mid 1950s when she underwent psychiatric treatment. By the mid 1960s, she had virtually retired from acting.
Bellwoar: Do you think Tierney would’ve become as big a star if her career had broken out after the war in the ’50s, versus the ’40s?
Schiebel:: It’s hard to say, and writing a historical project, I tried not to speculate about her life or her career. Her image and its meanings were shaped by certain beliefs, ideas, and cultural conditions that World War II brought on, but I think the relationship between her stardom and the war is based more in a correlation than a causation. She was already getting a lot of attention for her roles in Sundown and The Shanghai Gesture, both released in 1941, before the U.S. entered the war (Sundown even got her on the cover of Life magazine). So, she was already taking off then, and maintained her star status from the war’s end to the early 1950s.
Bellwoar: A lot of discussion around Laura tends to focus on its status as a noir classic, which is why I really appreciated you looking at it through the lens of Laura as a woman in the workplace. What about that aspect of the film do you find the most interesting?
Schiebel: The popular memory of Tierney is of the femme fatale, a film noir character type associated with inscrutability, luxury, and a kind of dangerous sexual exoticism. When people think of Gene Tierney, they often think of the glamorous image of Laura in the painted portrait, the film’s iconic prop. Yet, this nostalgic view of “old-fashioned” feminine beauty (framed by straight male desire, made passive and containable through objectification) attributes Tierney’s value to her reputation as “the most beautiful woman in movie history” rather than to her work as an actress or the many other meanings her image held for audiences in the 1940s. The ironic thing about Laura is that it’s literally about a similar sort of mythmaking project. Laura is actually a working professional with a life of her own, who gets made into a socialite and femme fatale by the possessive characters surrounding her in the film, deluding themselves into believing they know and understand her.
Bellwoar: I also really enjoyed chapter three, which looks at the fantasy and gothic films Tierney did, in terms of Hollywood dealing with mortality post-WWII. What made you want to dedicate a chapter to Tierney’s genre entries, and was it difficult figuring out how to organize the book?
Schiebel: I knew I wanted the book to stay primarily in the 1940s, the period during which Tierney was a major star and appeared in her biggest, best remembered roles. But since I wasn’t writing a biography, I didn’t feel compelled to organize the chapters according to a liner historical chronology. Instead, it made more sense to structure the book according to cultural-historical issues relevant to the formation of Tierney’s star image: women’s war work and subsequent demobilization, motherhood during the “baby boom,” and postwar psychiatric treatment. When I looked more closely at Tierney’s maternal roles, the subject of Chapter 3, I noticed how her films in this context shared an interest in the spiritual world, which was important to 1940s genres like fantasy and Gothic horror.
Bellwoar: If you could recommend one deep cut from Tierney’s filmography, which film would you choose?
Schiebel: I’d have to go with Mitchell Leisen’s romantic comedy The Mating Season (1951), a film that to my knowledge is not commercially available in the U.S. on DVD or Blu-Ray. Gene Tierney and John Lund play newlyweds from upper- and working-class families, respectively. The film co-stars Miriam Hopkins as the mother of the former and Thelma Ritter as the mother of the latter, who both move in with the young couple. Drop what you’re doing next time it comes on Turner Classic Movies and you won’t be disappointed. It’s wonderful.
Bellwoar: It sounds wonderful! Coincidentally, that was the film I most wanted to look up after finishing your book. Those three actresses in one film — it’s almost too good to be true. Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Will!
Gene Tierney: Star of Hollywood’s Home Front is available now from Wayne State University Press.