Six Damn Fine Degrees #125: The Mirror Crack’d

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

“After that, I didn’t care if I was ever again anyone’s favourite actress.” ~ Gene Tierney (Self-Portrait, 1979)

Caution: here be spoilers for the novel The Mirror Crack’d from side to side, and its adaptations.

Gene Tierney, the famous actress know for Laura (1944), Leave her to Heaven (1945) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), among many others, found out she was pregnant during the filming of the Lubitsch-helmed Heaven Can Wait (1943). It was wartime, Pearl Harbour had been attacked on Sunday, December 7, 1941 and Gene’s husband, party-boy costume designer Oleg Cassini had enlisted. After the film wrapped, she was due to join her husband in Kansas, but got guilted into making an appearance at the Hollywood Canteen to meet her fans. Although crowds gave her acute anxiety, this sort of thing was part of the war effort and so she went. She broke out in a rash afterwards which, she was assured, wasn’t all that serious.

When on October 15, 1943 Daria Cassini was born, it soon became clear that the child didn’t have trouble with her hearing – as Gene initially insisted – but had severe developmental disorders. It had been Rubella that Gene contracted at her Hollywood Canteen performance, and it had affected her pregnancy. Because of this, baby Daria would need constant care, every day, for the rest of her life. The already rickety marriage with Oleg Cassini did not survive the ordeal, though they would briefly get back together later, only splitting up definitively in 1952.

While debating whether to have Daria admitted to a facility during those first years, Gene sought some distraction at a tennis party. There, she was approached by a woman who asked: “Do you remember me?” Gene admitted she did not. The woman then went into a rigmarole about how she had been a Marine who had snuck out from under quarantine to visit the Hollywood Canteen. The entire camp had been isolated due to an outbreak of Rubella, and she had flouted the quarantine rules to go see the stars. “And you”, she reportedly said, “were my favourite.” Gene looked at her blankly for a while, and then wordlessly walked away. She writes that, after that, she did not care for being anyone’s favourite actress ever again. She would attribute her later breakdowns and mental health issues to the trauma of that period, and whether or not this was so, Gene would indeed suffer from extreme mood swings, severe depression and even delusions most of her life. And – as mental health, especially in women, was barely understood at the time – she would be institutionalised more than once herself.

It is generally speculated that the plot of the crime novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) by Agatha Christie was based on Gene’s widely reported tragedy. Though it is impossible to be sure, the key to the plot bears a striking resemblance to Gene’s story, though her very real tragedy obviously lacks any literary plotlines, let alone crime-centered ones.

In Agatha Christie’s novel, Miss Marple’s good friend Dolly Bantry has agreed to sell off her huge country home, Gossington Hall, to film star Marina Gregg and her director husband Jason Rudd. The village is all a-tither. An American actress in their quaint English village is cause for a great deal of excitement, speculation and curiosity. In part to assuage that curiosity, and to introduce herself to the people of St Mary Mead, a traditional village fête is organised. A kind of garden party, with food-stalls and rides, for the locals to enjoy. Notables such as the vicar, the mayor and Mrs. Bantry herself are invited to the reception upstairs. Before the fête opens, however, Miss Marple unfortunately has a spill and sprains her ankle, so that she cannot be present in person for the story that is about to unfold.

As drinks are served in the mansion, Marina Gregg is clasped by one of her many avid fans, a Heather Badcock, babbling about where they met, and when and how, chattering endlessly to the very distracted star. When Heather’s drink is spilled, she receives a new one, and promptly dies.

Very soon speculation is rife. Who would kill an innocuous woman like Heather? Isn’t it far more likely that someone has it out for the rich and successful Marina? Due to her ankle, Miss Marple – swallowing down her frustration – is forced into some literal armchair detective work. She holds interviews with all sorts of witnesses from her drawing room. Precisely what did they see? It is in one of those interviews that her friend Dolly Bantry tries to give her impression of a curious look that was on Marina Gregg’s face just before the fatality, by quoting Tennyson: the quote from which both the book and the film get their title.

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Miss Marple tries to figure out who is the source of the threat, who is behind the murder, and why. As more deaths occur and the threat mounts, Miss Marple befriends a very suburban housewife, who – it turns out – might hold the key to the whole conundrum. Agatha Christie then proceeds to lead us down the garden path, and offers up the now familiar conclusion.

This story has been adapted for the screen more than once, faithfully or not as the case may be. One of the more striking adaptations is The Mirror Crack’d (1980). As the story is set in or around the ‘50s the casting director felt it would be a good idea to cast actors from that era. And so Elizabeth Taylor, who had not made a film in three years, came back to the screen as Marina Gregg. Her doting husband would be portrayed by a still dashing Rock Hudson, and a slimy producer Martin N. Fenn is played with a great deal of zest by Tony Curtis who, by his own account, had a blast. Marina’s arch rival Lola Brewster is played with delicious cattiness by Kim Novak, who admitted that while this might not have been her grandest performance, it was tremendous fun. And Miss Marple, our intrepid Victorian spinster-detective, is portrayed by none other than Angela Lansbury, playing it reasonably straight, amidst the scrumptious scenery-chewing surrounding her. This adaptation is not just striking because of the tremendous star-power – in one scene we even see a very, very young Pierce Brosnan, his film debut – or because of the slim parallels with Taylor’s resurgence (she was glad to do this project, but in contrast to the film’s protagonist, she wasn’t that keen to reboot her movie career), the most noticeable revisions are in the dialogue. Zingers such as “There are only two things I dislike about you: your face” or “In that wig, you could play Lassie” do much to perk up a story that may otherwise have seemed over-familiar.

There are several other small differences with the book, in which much is made of the change in the village and the change in Gossington Hall mirroring one another, as the people cope with a new post-war world. New suburbs crop up as the old county loses its status and celebrity culture thrives. On the whole, however, the film is reasonably faithful to the novel.

Copyright Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Neither the book nor the film adaptation resemble the real Gene Tierney’s life struggles in any way, of course. After the breakdown of her marriage, she was in a relationship with John F. Kennedy. As she had a child with developmental issues, and he a younger sister with special needs, a bond soon grew between them. But Kennedy – as a Catholic – would not marry a divorcée, even if he had been inclined to marry at all. She was also in and out of Howard Hughes’ life, the mogul who had paid for some of Daria’s medical tests and specialists. As mentioned, she had tremendous professional success, even throughout these most difficult years. She gave birth in 1949 to another child, a healthy daughter: Christina Cassini. She achieved a significant comeback in ’62 with Advise and Consent. Her mental-health struggles persisted, as did her anxiety. Later in life, she writes that she didn’t blame herself anymore. Or the effusive fan who had inadvertently wreaked such havoc on her life. It had ultimately been the war, she reflects, which had left such an imprint on their lives.

Though The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side only borrows a titbit of sensational news, much like the gossipy celebrity magazines the characters in the story pour over, it is tempting to see a parallel between Gene and Tennyson’s trapped lady. She toils to postpone an ever approaching curse, only to get distracted by a mere glimpse of life outside, which by itself leads to her fears becoming manifest. Perhaps there is even a link between Gene and Agatha herself. Gene’s otherness, and her isolation, as well as Agatha Christie’s own struggles, seem to connect them. Though there is an age difference of some thirty years, the war and its aftermath seems to link the two women, fighting for a place in a radically altered world.

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