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The Unique Beauty of Gene Tierney

An essay by Michael Atkinson

from movieline Magazine, December 1994

Among faces, Gene Tierney's is a tournament rose, an opaline study in serene, sexualized perfection, a mad musky Egyptian daydream of cat thoughts. It's a face that, yes, could make you half-believe in the human ideal, make you pass into a foggy romantic movie-trance of studio key lights and shadows with edges so soft you could lay your head down in them and sleep for a week. All you want as you're looking at her, all you think you'll ever want, is to get close enough to smell the lilac vapors rising from her shoulder.

Tierney's beauty lies somewhere between homespun Everygirl and Oriental exotic, shy high school sweetheart and man-eater. Her eyes smile before her lips do. But if the lips we see here parted in a smile, you'd be witness to the sweetest overbite in Hollywood history. This is a face built to be gazed upon. Perhaps that's why Laura was Tierney's breakout film. Deadpan cop Dana Andrews spends the whole first half of the movie falling in love with her portrait. When she shows up in the flesh, Andrews is shaken to the core--we are, too. Laura is hardly just a murder mystery; it's a meditation on the brute force of a beautiful face.

Why do the porcelain depths of her cheekbones make your knees weak? Why does the gentle teardrop shape of her eyes (note: no eye shadow) dizzy us? For a time, in the late '40s, armies of hormones all over the world were pining for Tierney like saplings reaching for sunlight. She seemed to know it too--look at those eyes--and not to give a damn.

The quality of Tierney's loveliness remains both timeless and utterly unique--there's no one today who looks even remotely like her. Simply the shape of her face, like a narcissus bulb waiting to sprout, sets her apart. But more than that, there's a clarity to her face, a decidedly unembarrassed matter-of-factness: I'm probably the most beautiful woman you've ever seen--face it, from here it's all downhill. The cruel sugar of Tierney as seen here is several years away from the woman who went mad and was hospitalized. It's hard to believe, looking into these eyes. But it's hard to believe that even the most mundane of human circumstances affected her. Like the image-smitten Dana Andrews, we're lost in the dream.

Michael Atkinson
movieline Magazine
December 1994

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