Pusses Galore

We asked four writers to explain why we all find these faces so astoundingly beautiful.

Gene Tierney

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 Every girl 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 his 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. Imagine her sitting on the toilet. You can't. Like the image-smitten Dana Andrews, we're lost in the dream.

--Michael Atkinson

Ingrid Bergman

Ingrid Bergman in 1941, the year this writer was born. What is she looking at? What is she thinking, or dreaming about? She is not looking at us--this is a special tact or generosity, for it allows us to look at her. But that smile of hers, that slight, fond flex in the triangle of the eyes and the dark, bowed mouth, that smile knows something. Is she somehow looking off at the first in a series of mirrors that shows her us, staring like kids at her window? Is she so fond because she has turned us into children?

She feels turned away, with the eyes angling off and her left shoulder raised in question. But the genius of the picture keeps her looking directly at us, the face tipped over, so we don't quite get the bowl-like regularity of her lower features--a strong, sturdy bowl, something you could put flowers in. There is a steadiness in that shape which lends mystery to her oblique looking away, the way in which the adventure of looking--the delicate, eloquent glance--has given amorousness to what is actually a very reliable face. One reason the public in 1941, and for several years thereafter, loved Ingrid Bergman was that they saw her as a decent, honest woman. Not an actress.

But in the movies, "good-looking"--or, looking as if you are good--must always have wickedness within reach. That's how Bergman found her greatest role--the scarlet woman, the adulteress, who left Hollywood, husband, child and stability for Italy and Roberto Rossellini.

Bergman was never armored by, or cut off in, glamour. Her reputation was to be "natural"; it was even claimed that she rejected makeup--though it is her friend here, in this picture, offering a lustrous surface. Cosmetics have lined the eyes and taken her eyebrows in bold expeditions; but they do not conceal her rather ordinary nose or the width of her face. It is in the mouth that makeup has found the dream of orgy.

Bergman's mouth was her wound of longing, so much more experienced than her kind eyes. It often hung a little open, a touch out of breath as if speaking was, for her, more than usually physical.

The eroticism of Ingrid Bergman was never far from suffering. She was not haughty or supreme like a femme fatale. You could believe that she would plunge into passion; the mouth would overwhelm the set Germanic face. But she knew she would pay for it. The fantasy of fucking Bergman--and that is what these stills and their movies wondered about--is to carry her beyond respectability, to break the bowl.

--David Thomson

Gary Cooper

He was a dandy who could bust your jaw with one punch. The first urban cowboy. A common-man aristocrat. Born on the range, he spent his adult summers at The Beach Club in Southampton. This photograph, a closeup, suits him. Full shots of his tall, angular, powerful, lean frame (which appealed equally to men and women) only serve to make you want to cut in tight: Give me a closer look.

The eyes say let's get going to women, watch out to men. Either way, they're beautiful and cold, with lashes long enough to be false and eyebrows thick enough to give definition, but not so bushy as to tempt the artist to tweeze out a single hair. Even in black-and-white, the eyes feel gray and green and the skin seems olive--all illusion, the way Cooper was an illusion. He always seemed to be the guy next door, when in truth he was beyond everybody's reach, except at the end, when death scared him and he gave in to his steadfast wife's lifelong dream to turn him Catholic for his last rites.

Rough and immaculate. Hardedged, manicured, with a hint of softness around the strong jaw, the indulgence of the flesh cushioning the denial of the bone. A big head, a casually large ear and a substantive, well-shaped straight nose send a subliminal message about the hands and the feet and the penis. White tie, silk scarf, top hat: Don't you just wish you could undress me, he says to women. Just try it, he says to men.

Strong mouth, lips perfectly full--neither too generous nor too spare. What about the teeth? You want him to smile, say cheese, so you can examine him like one of the horses he rode with such effortless control. Would the teeth be cigarette-stain yellow? Jagged or haphazardly arranged? Or what you imagine and want--perfect, even, white? Sorry, men and women. He doesn't open to you. You open to him.

--James Toback

Cary Grant

The photograph gives us the airbrushed and beautiful Cary Grant-- perfectly groomed and posed just so, slicked-down hair, a sexy and ever-so-slightly sinister look in the dark eyes. But the dimple, big enough to put your thumb in, the only crack in the fashion-plate veneer, hints at another Cary Grant, the Cockney clown and acrobat, the tumbler, the goof-off, the upstart.

With all stars we sense a tension between who they were and who they've become; between our idea of them and theirs of themselves. In Grant, it's the tension between the striving arriviste and the debonair playboy, between the powerfully built and carefully maintained body of the hunk-athlete (seen only occasionally), and the relaxed mirth of the drawing-room sophisticate. But the Cary Grant who glides with such unflappable grace through the Hitchcock films is a mask beneath which an altogether more dangerous and unknowable creature lurks. The conflict between the shabby past and the glossy present creates an unsettling and shifting persona, so that he can play villain or hero, comic or straight man. Or--unwillingly and sublimely, if unconventionally--the lover.

That Grant never saw himself as a lover is, of course, precisely why we love him. His appeal is that he wasn't the sort of man who sat around being photographed. But looking at him here in all his studio-fashioned splendor, who can help but sigh. Come here, we want to say, even as we expect him to break into a goofy grin or quizzical expression, and say, "Who me?"

And yet by now--at the time of the photograph--all this is behind him as he glowers with a profoundly mature and almost world-weary expression. He has seen and experienced it all, the good, the indifferent, and his eyes have become even warier as they contemplate the psychic demons that confront him at every encounter. He is more than ever an enigma, a man trapped by his own glamour and fame.

--Molly Haskell