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.