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, who had been in ill health in recent years – according to a friend, her memory was all but gone – was 90.
Born Phylis Lee Isley on March 2, 1919, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jennifer Jones delivered a series of remarkable performances in some of the most important Hollywood productions of the 1940s and 1950s. Strangely, she hasn’t become neither a modern-day critical favorite like Ingrid Bergman or Carole Lombard, nor a “legend” on a par with the likes of Lauren Bacall, Lana Turner, or Hedy Lamarr.
Back in her heyday, however, Jones’ work was widely admired. James Agee called her star-making turn in The Song of Bernadette “one of the most impressive screen debuts [sic] in years,” while Film Daily enthused about her performance in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, “It’s hard to believe that her measured steps, practiced speech and other Oriental characteristics are not her real personality.”
Underrated actress delivered series of indelible performances
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 – the young French peasant who claimed to see and talk to the Virgin Mary (a cameo by a pregnant Linda Darnell) – in Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette, one of the biggest box office hits of the decade.
Jones’ other Oscar nominations, all but one as Best Actress, were for the following:
- Shortlisted in the Best Supporting Actress category, she was Claudette Colbert’s all-American daughter in John Cromwell’s Oscar-nominated hit Since You Went Away (1944). In the David O. Selznick production, she falls in love with a shy young soldier going to war, Robert Walker, who happened to be Jones’ real-life husband at the time. Their goodbye scene – Jones is seen running after the train in a half-lit platform – is not only the film’s highlight, but also one of cinema’s most visually and emotionally stirring sequences.
- In William Dieterle’s superb romantic/psychological drama Love Letters (1945), she’s flawless as a fragile, zen-like amnesiac who may have murdered her abusive husband – and who is madly in love with the unknown writer of the titular missives. Or maybe not that unknown, as he’s the returning World War II soldier (Joseph Cotten) who has become obsessed with her.
- In King Vidor’s scorching, Texas desert-set Duel in the Sun (1946), Jennifer Jones was cast in her best-remembered role: the sensuous, fire-spitting “half-breed” Pearl Chavez, a cross between Bizet’s Carmen and Lupe Velez, torn between good brother Joseph Cotten and no-good brother Gregory Peck. The color Western was independent producer David O. Selznick’s attempt to achieve two goals with one single mega-production: to create another Gone with the Wind and to turn his protegée and future wife into a superstar. Selznick failed on both counts, though Duel in the Sun became a box office phenomenon – an overheated one that gave censors seizures. Jones and Peck’s climactic shoot-out has inspired filmmakers as diverse as Paul Bartel (Lust in the Dust) and Pedro Almodóvar (Matador).
- In Henry King’s Hong Kong-set Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), Jones is outstanding as an Eurasian doctor in love with American journalist William Holden. Despite its old-fashioned story-telling approach, King’s romantic melodrama was not only one of the year’s biggest hits, but also a Best Picture Oscar nominee.
Making her big-budget comeback in John Guillermin’s blockbuster The Towering Inferno (1974), Jennifer Jones – who, in the film’s most moving/shocking moment, plunges to her death after falling off an elevator – was a likely Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee. Her paramour in the film, fellow veteran Fred Astaire (who was 20 years older than she was), did get shortlisted; however unfairly, Jones was bypassed.
‘Portrait of Jennie’ & ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’
Among Jennifer Jones’ other notable performances were those in the following:
- William Dieterle’s brilliant supernatural romantic drama Portrait of Jennie (1948), in which Jones, playing a lovestruck ghost, was reunited for the fourth and final film time with Joseph Cotten (besides Love Letters and Duel in the Sun, the two were also seen – however briefly – together in Since You Went Away). A box office disappointment, Portrait of Jennie was one of Luis Buñuel’s favorite films.
- Two underappreciated 1952 efforts: William Wyler’s effective film version of Theodore Dreiser’s period psychological drama Carrie, in which Jones proves herself more than a match to Laurence Olivier; and King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry (1952), as Karl Malden’s wife (and later vengeful widow), pining for wealthy playboy Charlton Heston.
- Sidney Franklin’s British-made The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), in which, as invalid English poetess Elizabeth Barrett, Jones creates a far more believable characterization than that of Norma Shearer in the generally better-liked 1934 version (also directed by Franklin). Although John Gielgud’s tyrant – and incestuous – dad is less effective than Charles Laughton in the original (while Bill Travers’ Robert Browning is just as over-the-top as Fredric March’s), the great-looking 1957 version of The Barretts of Wimpole Street should be better appreciated.
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 age 32. Selznick died in 1965. Jones later married multimillionaire Norton Simon, who died in 1993.
Two movie debuts + 1974 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees
 Jennifer Jones had already been seen in a serial and a B Western opposite John Wayne before her “official” debut. She was then known as Phyllis Isley.)
- Talia Shire, The Godfather: Part II.
- Madeline Kahn, Blazing Saddles.
- Diane Ladd, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
- Valentina Cortese, Day for Night.
- Ingrid Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express.
Coincidentally, the eventual winner, Ingrid Bergman, had lost the 1943 Best Actress Oscar to fellow David O. Selznick contract player Jennifer Jones. Bergman, on loan out to Paramount, had been in the running for Sam Wood’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The two had also competed with each other in 1945, when Bergman, on loan out to RKO, was in the running for Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s. The winner that year was Joan Crawford for Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce.
TCM to present four Jennifer Jones movies
Dec. 18 update: Turner Classic Movies will present a four-film tribute to Jennifer Jones, the Oscar-winning actress who died yesterday at age 90. The Jennifer Jones movie marathon will is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 7, beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The four films are:
- Duel in the Sun (1946), which is briefly mentioned above. It should be noted that this costly David O. Selznick production was directed not only by the credited King Vidor, but also by William Dieterle (who also directed Jones in Love Letters and Portrait of Jennie) and production designer William Cameron Menzies. Besides Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, and Joseph Cotten, the Duel in the Sun cast includes: Lionel Barrymore, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Lillian Gish, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, and Butterfly McQueen.
- Beat the Devil (1954), a curious box office flop written by Truman Capote and directed by John Huston. Wearing an unbecoming blond wig, Jones was cast against type as a humorous pathological liar. Though poorly received upon its release, this send-up of The Maltese Falcon – Huston himself had directed the 1941 version – has obtained quite a cult following. Also in the cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, and Robert Morley.
- Madame Bovary (1949), Vincente Minnelli’s lush but dramatically flat version of Gustave Flaubert’s tale of a woman (Jennifer Jones, instead of original choice Lana Turner) 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 (as the lover) co-star. The film’s magnificent ball sequence is justifiable famous. Also in the cast: Gene Lockhart, Gladys Cooper, and Ellen Corby.
- Indiscretion of an American Wife (1954), a critical and box office disappointment directed by Vittorio De Sica, who at the time was making far superior films about the lives of underprivileged Italians. In this romantic drama which seems to attempt to recapture the mood of David Lean’s 1945 classid Brief Encounter, Jones plays a well-to-do married woman meeting her Italian lover, an absurdly miscast Montgomery Clift, at Rome’s Stazione Termini (the film’s original Italian title). Butchered by David O. Selznick upon its U.S. release, Indiscretion of an American Wife has one great thing going for it: cinematography by Aldo Graziati a.k.a. G.R. Aldo. Also in the cast: Gino Cervi and future West Side Story leading man 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.