May 17, 2016

Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven (1945): A Force of Nature

This post is my entry in the Great Villain Blogathon, being hosted by Silver Screenings, Speakeasy and Shadows and Satin from May 15-20, 2016. Check out the other posts for more devilish fun.

Always an underrated actress, Gene Tierney was at her best as the monstrous, and yet oddly sympathetic Ellen Berent in the Technicolor noir Leave Her To Heaven (1945). In it she plays a woman so consumed by jealousy that she will do anything to have her way. It is as if she is an unstoppable force of nature with no consideration for the destruction she causes.

Ellen meets novelist Richard Harland (Cornell Wilde) on a train. They flirt, and part, in the lounge car but it turns out they are guests of the same Arizona ranch owner. She is there with her mother and adoptive sister, he is alone. Determined to marry Richard because of his resemblance to her father, whom she previously smothered with her obsessive love, she draws him into her web. She does this despite the fact that she is already engaged. Before he knows it, they are on their honeymoon.

Harland soon finds that Ellen is just as jealously territorial about him as she was her father. She resents the intrusion of anyone on their union, from her own family, to his longtime hired hand and crippled younger brother. Whatever it seems on the surface, her only goal is to do whatever it takes to have him to herself. Harland is horrified by her behavior; she seems compelled by a force beyond her own control.

In Ben Ames Williams' book upon which the movie is based, much is made of the power of nature. In two key sequences a life-threatening natural event, first a torrential rain storm that causes flooding, then a raging forest fire, mirrors the stormy nature of Ellen's emotions. She is presented as a force of nature, unchangeable and all-powerful. In one chilling scene, she stalks Richard and he firsts notices her presence when her shadow falls across him like a dark rain cloud.

Both Tierney and director John Stahl understood Ellen's natural instinct for protecting her self-interest with the determination and power of a predator. In a library seduction scene, Stahl instructed Tierney to act "like a serpent" and the actress responded with an appropriately slinky and serpentine performance. Even her whispery, seductive voice is carefully calibrated for trapping her prey.

Tierney inhabits her role with simmering frustration. She knows that she can't explode the way her emotions compel her to, so she adopts a mask of sanity, stalking her prey with icy calm. The placid exterior is an act of social survival, because when she occasionally slips and reveals her true self, she sees how it disturbs the people around her and understands she is not hiding her true nature well enough.

Despite this unnerving behavior, there are elements of Ellen's jealousy that are relatable and it is this aspect of the role that Tierney gets so right. She makes you as sorry for her as you are afraid. Maybe most of us wouldn't resort to murder and destruction to possess a loved one, but many of us understand that need for space to forge a deeper connection.

I remember the primal fury I felt when my in-laws wanted to come visit our first born the last day before my husband's paternity leave was over. They were only excited to see their first grandchild as much as possible, but I took it as an intrusion on our final day of peace together before real life began again. We hadn't had much time alone together since the birth. I protested violently, and at first I was frustrated because my concerns were not heard, which only increased my agitation. Eventually, I got my quiet family day, though not without feeling like a monster

It was impossible for me to analyze my feelings at the time. I was too raw and hormonal. Later I realized though that I now felt a love different from any I had ever known. The combination of my husband and child, the birth of our family unit, had brought out an elemental force in me.

I think about that day when I look at Ellen suffering in quiet rage. Perhaps her demands aren't completely reasonable, but I sense her impotence and how she feels it demeans her. As a woman in the 1940s, as a woman today, that feeling was and is all too common. We have to fight so much harder and be so much uglier to obtain and keep true power and control.

Obviously most of us aren't going to take that impulse all the way to murder. It is Ellen's sociopathic tendencies that make her a villain, and that harden her desire to win her prize and have it all to herself. But that she is angry that she has no say over who stays in her marital home? That she can't be intimate with her husband without her brother-in-law banging on the wall and honking out good morning in his barely pubescent voice? What woman couldn't sympathize with her frustration?

Ellen is destructive because that primal side of her nature is much stronger than it should be. She lives like a predator stalking her prey. In a poolside scene, she sneaks up on Harland underwater, silently advancing until she surprises him by popping up at the edge of the pool. In other scenes, she watches him, subtly, learning how he moves and what his weaknesses are.

Where Harland's younger brother is concerned, Ellen is more scornful. He is her prey too, but because he has infantile paralysis, he is too weak to be worthy of her full talents. She doesn't waste her energy stalking him, but rather coaxes him to a dangerous spot and waits for him naturally succumb to his disabilities. She watches him as still and as quiet as a panther in the trees, biding her time.

Tierney plays Ellen with a rigid, watchful chill. There's wildness in her eyes when she feels threatened, or is about to go on the attack, and sometimes she slips and lets out her version of a roar. When she goes after Danny, she hides those wild eyes behind sunglasses, as if determined not to give him any reason to be afraid.

It's an awesome performance, quietly mighty, just like that force of nature Ellen Berent.


  1. Big Yes to this, well said about the relatable part of Ellen connected to boundary-crossing, lack of power etc. Big part of what makes character and performance so fascinating and iconic. Thanks for being part of the blogathon!

  2. Excellent analysis! I really like what you said about Tierney's "rigid, watchful chill" – that perfectly sums it up. I agree that at times we feel empathetic towards her character, even while we are afraid of her. Tierney's performance is, indeed, awesome.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for bringing Ellen Berent with you! :)

  3. Gene Tierney is one of my all time favourite actresses. It is not just that she was so jaw-droppingly beautiful (although that is part of it), but that she was so very talented as well. Leave Her to Heaven is proof of that. Ellen's actions are pretty unforgivable and pretty extreme, yet Gene Tierney's performance makes us sympathise her with her. And, as much as I hate saying it, I can identify with her rage to a degree. Several years ago my brother decided we need to take on a boarder without consulting my sister or me. Both my sister and I felt as if our house had been invaded and were rather cross that it felt as if we had no privacy! I can somewhat understand where Ellen was coming from then!

  4. I really enjoyed your write-up, KC! I have never -- I repeat, never -- regarded Ellen Berent with anything but contempt and disgust, and maybe a wee bit of admiration tossed in for good measure, 'cause she's just so BAD. Until now, darn it, when your post, after all these years, caused me to feel some empathy! I think it was your sharing your own story that opened my eyes -- and for once I was able to appreciate what a bummer (reasonably so) it must have been for her to really never have gotten a chance to just have some time alone with Richard as a newlywed. After all, they really didn't even know each other before the whole world started barging in.

    Okay, you got me. Great stuff!! Thanks so much for contributing it to the blogathon, KC! :)

  5. Kristina--it's always fascinating when you can find a way to relate to such a terrible character eh?

    Ruth--Thanks!I do think a lot of the empathy we feel comes from Tierney's skill in helping us to understand an otherwise scary character. Such an underrated actress.

    Terry--Okay, so you understand exactly what I mean about things flying out of control and how frustrating that can be. Most of the time I just go with the flow, but sometimes you really want a say in what's happening!

    Karen--I am so glad I gave you something to think about! This is what I love about movies though: they give you a chance to step back and examine a character, looking for nuances that you wouldn't have the same ability to in real life.

  6. Really enjoyed your analysis of what what makes her performance sympathetic and frightening at the same time! It makes me want to go back and watch it again and look for all those nuances you highlighted.

  7. Just wanted to chime in to say this was a wonderful post, I really enjoyed the time you took looking at Ellen from all angles, including examining where her wants were reasonable, before she crossed the line. :) I've got to watch this one again soon.

    Best wishes,

  8. Thanks Christina and Laura! I do hope you'll go back and watch the movie again. I think that Tierney's performance is one of the best in Hollywood history. It is so complex and oddly moving.

  9. I don't really feel sympathy for Ellen, because I love Jeanne Crain so much to see her suffer, but Gene Tierney's performance is spectacular. She really deserved an Oscar for this!
    It was very good how you added a moment in which you were also consumed by instincts. If we think well, we all have been there - and in this case Ellen is more relatable!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  10. Gene Tierney received her only nomination for Best Actress in 1945. 1945 was a tough year for actresses nominated in the Best Actress category, They included Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, Gene Tierney for Leave Her To Heaven, Ingrid Bergman for The Bells of St. Mary's, Jennifer Jones for Love Letters, Greer Garson for The Valley of Decision.
    Most Film Noirs were filmed in black-and-white but there are a handful that were done in Technicolor and Leave Her To Heaven is one of the few. Leon Shamroy who did the cinematography won an Oscar for his efforts. Technicolor is all about Leon Shamroy's heavily saturated Technicolor photography, which seems to represent the murderous passions blazing beneath the leading lady's icy exterior, is considered one of the most innovate uses of the process in its day.
    The success of Leave Her to Heaven belongs foremost to Gene Tierney. She was much more than Hollywood's most beautiful overbite. She had the preternatural ability to be alluring and icy at the same time; she could change emotional colors with magnificent yet subtle clarity. Wasn't she sweet and warm a moment ago? Maybe, but now she's ready to kill."

  11. Le--very good point that you can find Ellen relatable without necessarily feeling sympathy. Thanks for coming by. I will check out your entry as well. Lots of catching up to do on that front!

    Thanks for your comment Marc. I agree that Tierney is in large part responsible for the lasting impact of this movie, though everyone else was certainly excellent as well.