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Jennifer Jones: Best Actress Oscar Winner & 'Duel in the Sun' Star Dead at 90

Jennifer Jones Portrait of JennieJennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie.

Best Actress Oscar winner Jennifer Jones dead at 90: Best remembered for her portrayals of troubled, complex women

Best Actress Academy Award winner Jennifer Jones, the star of the 1940s blockbusters The Song of Bernadette and Duel the Sun, and the wife of Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick, died of “natural causes” earlier today, Dec. 18, at her home in Malibu. Jones (born Phylis Lee Isley on March 2, 1919, in Tulsa, Oklahoma) was 90.

She had been in ill health in recent years. According to a friend, her memory was all but gone.

Nominated for a total of five Academy Awards, Jones took home the 1943 Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Bernadette Soubirous a.k.a. St. Bernadette in Henry King's blockbuster The Song of Bernadette.

In addition to her Bernadette Soubirous in Henry King's film about the young French peasant who claimed to see and talk to the Virgin Mary, Jones also received Oscar nominations for playing Claudette Colbert's all-American daughter in John Cromwell's Since You Went Away (1944, in the supporting actress category), an amnesiac who may have murdered her husband in William Dieterle's psychological noir Love Letters (1945), a wilful “half-breed” in King Vidor's scorching Duel in the Sun, and an Eurasian doctor in love with correspondent William Holden in Henry King's 1955 hit Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.

Though not one of the more revered actresses from Hollywood's studio era, Jennifer Jones was actually a better performer than most. If her fire-spitting Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun is pure camp, she was flawless in Dieterle's supernatural romantic drama Portrait of Jennie (1948), in which she plays a lovestruck ghost, and is perfectly believable as invalid Elizabeth Barrett in Sidney Franklin's English-made The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957).

“It's hard to believe that her measured steps, practiced speech and other Oriental characteristics are not her real personality,” wrote Film Daily about her performance in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, while James Agee called her star-making turn in The Song of Bernadette “one of the most impressive screen debuts [sic] in years.” (Jones had already appeared in a serial and a B Western opposite John Wayne before her “official” debut. She was then known as Phyllis Isley.)

Jennifer Jones Cluny Brown Charles BoyerJennifer Jones in Cluny Brown, with Charles Boyer.

Among Jones' other film appearances are those in Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown (1946), opposite Charles Boyer (above); John Huston's political thriller We Were Strangers (1949), with John Garfield; Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary (1949), with Louis Jourdan and Van Heflin; William Wyler's Carrie (1952), in which she proves herself more than a match to Laurence Olivier; and King Vidor's Ruby Gentry (1952), with Charlton Heston.

Also, Vittorio De Sica's Indiscretion of an American Wife (1954), opposite Montgomery Clift; John Huston's Beat the Devil (1954), with Humphrey Bogart; Nunnally Johnson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), with Gregory Peck; Charles Vidor's A Farewell to Arms (1957), with Rock Hudson; Henry King's Tender Is the Night (1962), with Jason Robards; and John Guillermin's The Towering Inferno (1974), as the woman who falls off the elevator.

Before marrying Selznick, the man who turned her into a star, Jones was the wife of actor Robert Walker, best known for playing the gay psycho in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Walker became an alcoholic and died in 1951, at the age of 32. Selznick died in 1965. Jones later married multimillionaire Norton Simon, who died in 1993.

Jennifer Jones Movies: TCM tribute to the 'Duel in the Sun' actress

Dec. 18 update: Turner Classic Movies will present a four-film tribute to Jennifer Jones, the Oscar-winning actress who died yesterday (Dec. 17, '09) at the age of 90. The Jones tribute will take place on Thursday, Jan. 7, '10, beginning at 5 p.m. (PT). The four films are:

Duel in the Sun (1946), a campy Western in which Jones plays a fiery “half-breed” desired by two brothers, dour Joseph Cotten and smirky Gregory Peck. Veteran King Vidor was one of the men who directed this attempt by David O. Selznick – Jones was his protegee and future wife – to achieve two goals with one single mega-production: to create another Gone with the Wind and to transform his beloved Jennifer into a superstar. Selznick failed on both counts even though Duel in the Sun turned out to be a major blockbuster, one condemned as evil and sinful by the Catholic Church, while Jones earned her fourth consecutive Academy Award nomination. Also in the Duel in the Sun cast: Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston and Butterfly McQueen.

Jennifer Jones Beat the Devil Edward UnderdownJennifer Jones in Beat the Devil, with Edward Underdown.

Beat the Devil (1954), a flop starring Jones, Humphrey Bogart, and Gina Lollobrigida, written by Truman Capote and directed by John Huston. Wearing a weird blond wig, Jones is at her weakest here as a pathological liar. Though poorly received upon its release, this Maltese Falcon send-up has obtained quite a cult following. Also in the cast: Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, and Robert Morley.

Madame Bovary (1949), Vincente Minnelli's lush but dramatically unexciting version of Gustave Flaubert's tale of a woman (Jones, above, with Alf Kjellin) who throws husband and social standing to the dogs in order to go after the man she loves.  James Mason (as Flaubert), Van Heflin (as the husband) and Louis Jourdan co-star. The film's ball sequence is justifiable famous. Also in the cast: Gene Lockhart, Gladys Cooper, and Ellen Corby.

Indiscretion of an American Wife (1954), a melodrama directed by Vittorio De Sica, who at the time had been making much better films about the lives of underprivileged Italians. Jones plays a (quite privileged) married woman meeting her lover, a miscast Montgomery Clift, in a railway station. Though dramatically dead (the film was butchered upon its release), Indiscretion of an American Wife is great to look at – cinematography by Aldo Graziati a.k.a. G.R. Aldo. Also in the cast: Gino Cervi and future West Side Story star Richard Beymer.


Jennifer Jones Portrait of Jennie image: Selznick Releasing Organization.

Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones Beat the Devil image: Romulus Films.

Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones Cluny Brown image: 20th Century Fox.

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10 Comments to Jennifer Jones: Best Actress Oscar Winner & 'Duel in the Sun' Star Dead at 90

  1. Jane Franks

    Other than duel in the Sun the other choices are at best a disappointment. Where is Song of Bernadette, her Oscar winning performance? Where is Portrait of Jennie?

    Perhaps TCM should re-evaluate their selection. It is not too late to change the list!

  2. michael ball

    Thank you Andre, I entirely agree with you. Though I do like 'The Wild Heart' also if only for more inclusion of Brian Easdales soundtrack and the odd scene not included in GTE. As you've said any Jennifer is better than none.

  3. Andre

    The text has been amended. Thanks again.
    I need glasses… But I'll say that for myself: I did wonder why Jourdan looked blondish in the photo…

  4. Jairo Taddeo

    It's not Louis Jourdan in the “Madame Bovary” photo. It is Alf Kjellin!

  5. Andre

    I'd love to watch “Gone to Earth” as well. I've only seen the butchered American version, “The Wild Heart.” TCM does accept suggestions, so it might be a good idea to contact them and ask for GtE.
    As for the movies being shown on TCM, with the exception of “Duel in the Sun” they're certainly not Jennifer Jones' best showcases — but then again, better three minor Jones efforts than none at all…
    In fact, I wish someone somewhere would show “Angel, Angel Down We Go” and “The Idol,” two of her worst films, but again — Jennifer Jones is in them and that's enough for me to want to check them out again.

  6. michael ball

    A pity TCM doesn't show 'Gone to Earth'.In my opinion her greatest film performance, and one the best films made in England. Certainly the best by a mile showing the British countryside and it's people. I noticed most of the comments on the films to be shown either have low public esteme or a finding fault in other ways, then why show them. From a loyal fan. Thank you for this oppertunity.

  7. Andre

    You me or you TCM?
    I just listed the scheduled TCM presentations.
    My lengthy piece on Jennifer Jones can be found here:

  8. Renee

    Why did you leave out other memorable films Ms Jones starred in, such as; Since You Went Away,” “Song of Bernadette,” and “Portrait of Jennie,”to name a few.

  9. Debora Roventini

    As a kid I watched “Good Morning Miss Dove” a thousand times. The ending with Robert Stack carrying her out on that chair, is to me her spirit in her films, beautiful, firey, stoic, kind, exotic, demure, extraordinary. I love every single one of her movies. It is difficult to choose which I like the best, and I am ever drawn in immediately watching her acting full of strength and passion. She is my Hollywood Star Hero, and it is a very sad day indeed.

  10. corinne

    She was such a wonderful actress. I will never forget her in 'The Song of Bernadette' and 'Love Is a Many Splendored Thing'.