Jennifer Jones, one of my all-time favorite performers, turned 90 yesterday, March 2.
The name doesn’t ring a sonorous bell? Well, it should.
Jennifer Jones, the sensitive, darkly beautiful actress who won an Academy Award (and the very first best actress Golden Globe) for the 1943 box office sensation The Song of Bernadette.
Jennifer Jones, who starred in Since You Went Away (1944), Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946), Portrait of Jennie (1948), Carrie (1952), Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), A Farewell to Arms (1957), and Tender Is the Night (1961).
Jennifer Jones, the unlucky woman who falls off the elevator in The Towering Inferno (1974) and who happened to be Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick’s obsession (and later wife as well) for more than two decades.
Speaking of Selznick, I wonder if he had met Jones in, say, 1937, if he’d have cast her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. I can’t picture Jones as the feisty Southern belle – whenever I think of Scarlett, I see Vivien Leigh – but then again, stranger choices were considered for the role, from Jean Arthur and Loretta Young to Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead. So, really, why not Jennifer Jones?
Selznick seemed to think her capable of playing anything. Personally, I almost agree with him. And even when I don’t, I’m still glad she was (mis)cast in inadequate roles just because that gives me the chance to see more of her on screen, especially since Jones made so few films (24 in all) during her 35-year career.
Jennifer Jones’ story began when Phylis Flora Isley was born on March 2, 1919, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (I don’t know much about Jones’ background; because of her looks, I’ve always wondered if she was part Native American.) Her parents were theatrical performers who eventually allowed their daughter to move to New York City to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
There, Isley met Robert Walker (above, in Since You Went Away), whom she married in 1939. That same year, the couple tried Hollywood. A Paramount test led nowhere, but the aspiring actress managed to land a couple of important roles (as Phyllis Isley – note the two “l”s) in unimportant productions at the minor Republic studios: the oater New Frontier, opposite John Wayne, and the serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men, with Ralph Byrd.
Then it was back to New York, some modeling work, and a screen test for Claudia, which Selznick was planning on doing in the early 1940s. The producer (who was to remain married to MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Irene Mayer until early 1949) offered Isley a contract, changed her name to Jennifer Jones, and made sure that she got more training and that her husband wouldn’t interfere with her professional ascendancy. He then proceeded to obsessively micromanage her career.
In 1942, Selznick brought Jones back to Hollywood to have her star in 20th Century Fox’s The Song of Bernadette, in which she plays Bernadette Soubirous, the French peasant girl who angered the Catholic establishment by claiming to be able to see and chat with the Virgin Mary (actually a blasphemously pregnant Linda Darnell in disguise).
Jones was hailed as a brilliant new discovery (her 1939 film appearances were either conveniently forgotten or ignored), going on to win a best actress Oscar on her 25th birthday (above, with fellow Oscar nominee and Selznick contract player Ingrid Bergman and Selznick himself, looking quite infatuated). Jones’ Oscar win was fully deserved, I’d say. Though in her mid-20s, the young actress – with the assistance of director Henry King – is able to fully convey the 14-year-old Bernadette’s innocence and earnestness without seeming at all cutesy or saccharine. I don’t believe in saints, but if I did they’d look and act like Jones’ young (and beautified) peasant.
On the day after the Oscar ceremony, Jones sued Robert Walker for divorce. Oddly, she and her soon-to-be ex-husband were at the time working together – as romantic partners – in the Selznick production Since You Went Away, a sappy, overlong melodrama about The Women Left Behind that became one of the biggest commercial successes of the World War II period.
According to Ronald Haver’s David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, the producer “was determined to demonstrate [Jones’] versatility by casting her as the ‘all-American girl next door,’ and his reworking of the script to enhance her role and the character’s development was one of the things he continually tinkered with throughout the preparation and shooting of the picture.” Despite Selznick’s efforts, Jones felt herself badly miscast. “She was very unhappy in the part … about as unhappy as I’ve ever seen a girl be on the set” director John Cromwell later recalled. “… She thought she was much too old … much too big and gawky. … It made her feel awkward … she couldn’t reconcile herself to the part. … Most of it was her imagination …. there was no basis for it. … She didn’t say too much about it … there wasn’t too much she could say about it.”
I’m not crazy about Jones’ performance as Claudette Colbert’s willful daughter, but she does have one great moment in Since You Went Away thanks in part to Cromwell’s sensitive direction and to Stanley Cortez’s superb black-and-white camerawork (which he called “psychological photography”): as her beloved Average Joe soldier boyfriend (Walker) is sent away, Jones’ character follows the slowly departing train, walking and then running on the shadowy platform. As the train fades in the distance, the camera focuses on Jones, left all alone. This heavily dramatic moment could easily have derailed into either coyness or campiness; instead, that farewell sequence remains one of the highlights of 1940s Hollywood filmmaking in no small measure because of Jones’ immensely touching work.
Whether Jones’ performance in the aforementioned scene was influenced by real-life events is impossible to say, but according to Ronald Haver she was “extremely uncomfortable” playing her scenes with Walker “and on two occasions her emotional upsets caused her to flee the set in tears. Selznick had to come to her dressing room and calm her down before she could continue.”
Jones and Walker were officially divorced in 1945. Although he remained a likable leading man in several films, mostly at MGM, Walker was never to become a real star. In 1951, the year he delivered his most effective performance – as the gay psychopath in Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense drama Strangers on a Train – Walker, who had developed a serious drinking problem, died after ingesting prescription drugs mixed with alcohol. He was 32. At that time, Jones and Selznick had been married for two years.
Between 1943 and 1945, Jones went from saint to All-American girl to potential murderess. In Love Letters, an intricate tale of sex, lies, and correspondence, Jones plays a young woman with a faulty memory who has been accused of murdering her no-good husband. Directed by William Dieterle, adapted by Ayn Rand from Christopher Massie’s novel, and co-starring Joseph Cotten, Love Letters is one of the most effective psychological noirs of the 1940s in large part because of Jones’ excellent star turn as the troubled heroine with a fuzzy secret. Love Letters, in fact, should be better remembered – and not solely for Victor Young’s melodious score.
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John Cromwell quote: Ronald Haver’s David O. Selznick’s Hollywood.
I still haven’t watched Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (right, 1946), in which Jennifer Jones plays a perky housemaid with whom Charles Boyer falls in love, but I’ve watched Duel in the Sun about three times.
One of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters up to that time, the $5 million production Duel in the Sun (above) was Selznick’s attempt to create another Gone with the Wind and to turn his beloved Jennifer into a superstar. Things, however, didn’t quite work as planned. (In David Thomson’s Showman, screenwriter Ivan Moffat is quoted as saying that “David and Jennifer lived a life of considerable unreality, each giving the other the illusion of what they wanted themselves to be.”)
“[The character of] Pearl [Chavez] was a half-degenerate half-breed, dominated completely by her physical emotions, and Jennifer wasn’t like that at all,” director King Vidor would later say. “… It was a big struggle for her to play that. … She has a very expressive face and it signifies her thoughts, and in order to get her in the character of the girl, I had to tell her the story every day up to the point we were at in the script to get her in the mood.”
A different directorial approach was probably needed. Yet, for Jones’ hilariously sultry half-breed – her performance consists of assorted leers and sneers – the 27-year-old actress received her fourth consecutive Academy Award nomination (in addition to her win for The Song of Bernadette, she had also been nominated for Since You Went Away – in the supporting category – and for Love Letters). But at the box office she would never have the pull of, say, Betty Grable, Greer Garson, or Ingrid Bergman. As for the film itself, let’s just say it’s hardly thought of as one of the masterworks of the decade.
The chief problem with “the picture with a thousand memorable moments"(as per Selznick’s publicity department) lies in the characterizations. Duel in the Sun features a heavily madeup Jones playing the wildcat Pearl, who, poor thing, is forced to repent by Walter Huston’s cactus-chewing Sinkiller, is adopted by Lillian Gish’s kind matriarch, is loved by the so-sedate-he’s-almost-asleep hero Joseph Cotten, and is lusted after by a perennially smirking Gregory Peck, as Cotten’s heelish (and more charismatic) brother.
The [London] Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell, for one, wrote: “Miss Jones, indeed, gives a performance beyond the range of any other young Hollywood actress I know. But … Duel in the Sun remains an enormous piece of dustbin.” For reasons that had nothing to do with the film’s aesthetic or artistic value, archbishop John J. Cantwell of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles concurred, stating that “Catholic people may not, with a free conscience, attend the motion picture Duel in the Sun … it appears to be morally offensive and spiritually depressing.”
This overripe Western, shot in vainglorious Technicolor, is nothing more than an enjoyable Hollywood-made Mexican soap opera; in fact, it would have been even more enjoyable had its running time lost about 20 or so of its 129 minutes. And although the film doesn’t quite deliver those promised “thousand memorable moments,” its sun-drenched duel alone, after which a bleeding Pearl crawls in the dust to get near her dying lover, has deservedly earned Duel in the Sun a special place in film history.
Unfortunately, none of Jennifer Jones’ films of the late 1940s and early 1950s were major box office hits. Several, in fact, were both commercial and critical disappointments, among them John Huston’s political thrill-less thriller We Were Strangers (1949), with John Garfield; Vincente Minnelli’s sumptuous but dramatically stilted Madame Bovary (1949) at MGM; and Michael Powell’s British-made Gone to Earth (1950, reshot and released as The Wild Heart in the US in 1952), which I’ve only seen in edited form. Her only popular vehicle in those days was Ruby Gentry (above, 1952), once again directed by King Vidor, and in which Jones is quite good as an outcast in a small Southern town.
But her best films (and performances) during that time were Portrait of Jennie, in which she once again worked with William Dieterle and Joseph Cotten, and Carrie, an intelligent adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel directed by William Wyler and co-starring Laurence Olivier.
One of Luis Buñuel’s favorite films, Portrait of Jennie also happens to be my own favorite Jennifer Jones vehicle and performance – as the ghost who willingly faces death once again (!) all for love’s sake. Jones, in fact, is extraordinary, delivering one of cinema’s most potent displays of obsessive, unbridled passion.
Her films of the mid-1950s were a mixed batch.
There were two European-made box office and critical disappointments: John Huston’s Beat the Devil (right, 1954), a sort of Maltese Falcon send-up written by Huston and Truman Capote, and co-starring Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida, and in which Jones, wearing an unbecoming blond wig, plays a scatterbrained pathological liar; and Indiscretion of an American Wife (1954), as the indiscreet wife of the title, having an affair with a miscast Montgomery Clift in one of Vittorio De Sica’s weakest films of the period. (Pregnancy kept Jones away from The Country Girl, which was to earn Grace Kelly an Academy Award; also, a Broadway attempt, Portrait of a Lady, failed miserably and closed after only seven performances.)
Jones’ by then dimming stardom underwent a major renaissance in 1955 with the release of the sudsy Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, directed by Henry King, in Technicolor, with gorgeous Hong Kong locations, William Holden as her leading man, and a theme song that plays in office elevators to this very day. The strange thing about Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is that it has all the elements of your typically cheesy Hollywood melodrama, but somehow it remains peculiarly affecting. (Filmmaker Terence Davies is another of the film’s admirers.) As far as I’m concerned, the chief reason for its lasting effectiveness is Jones’ flawless performance as the Eurasian Hong Kong doctor who falls madly in love with the wrong guy. I mean, not only he’s white and married, he doesn’t even have all that long to live. (It should be noted that Jones tended to be quite unlucky with her choice of men on screen.)
She’s fine in the so-so Good Morning Miss Dove (1956), as a teacher who became a cold-hearted curmudgeon because of romantic heartbreaks in her past (told in flashback), and is equally fine in another big hit, the self-important The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), starring Gregory Peck in the title role and Marisa Pavan as The Other Woman – with Child to boot (during World War II, while Peck’s character was away and feeling lonely and horny, and all that).
What bothers me most about the workmanlike The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is that if the situations had been reversed and Jones’ dutiful, forgiving wife had had an affair and become the mother of another man’s child during her lonely WWII years, I doubt it that writer-director Nunnally Johnson (who adapted Sloan Wilson’s novel) would have depicted her character in as sympathetic a light as the one shining on Peck’s I-only-want-to-do-what’s-right-even-if-I-fail husband. In any case, Jones does what she can with her underwritten role, as the film’s focus is mostly on Peck.
A Farewell to Arms had started with John Huston as director, but Selznick’s maddening demands and interminable memos sent Huston packing. Charles Vidor was the replacement. Jones reportedly insisted that Ernest Hemingway should get a percentage of any eventual profits, but the writer retorted that considering how miscast (too old for the role) Jones was that there probably wouldn’t be any. He was wrong. Though hardly a success among critics, the way overlong A Farewell to Arms became one of the highest-grossing films of the year.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street, on the other hand, deserved better reviews and stronger returns, as Jones is excellent as the invalid Elizabeth Barrett, whose tyrannical father (Gielgud) loves her a little too much – and more than a little incestuously. For his part, director Sidney Franklin (who also handled the quite different but just as good 1934 original, starring Norma Shearer) keeps the proceedings moving at a steady dramatic pace. (Admittedly, both Travers – as Robert Browning – and Gielgud are problematic.)
After a four-year break, Jones returned to the big screen in Henry King’s filmization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, with the 42-year-old actress playing a character 20 years her junior. Jason Robards (instead of Selznick’s suggestions Cary Grant or Montgomery Clift) was her (inadequate) leading man. Although too long at 146 minutes, Tender Is the Night is perfectly watchable – and if one forgets how old Jones is supposed to be, she’s actually thoroughly believable in the part.
What followed after Selznick’s death in 1965 was way below par (not that Selznick had been such a great advisor to begin with): Jones replaced Kim Stanley in the slow-moving, British-made The Idol (1966), in which she herself is fine as a woman having an affair with her son’s friend (a year later, Jones was found unconscious on a Malibu beach following an overdose of sleeping pills); the over-the-top Angel Angel Down We Go (right, 1969), an unwatchable mess in which she’s totally wasted (most memorable line from the former St. Bernadette: “I made thirty stag films and never faked an orgasm”); and her last film, the tedious mega-blockbuster The Towering Inferno, in which she’s the film’s highlight as a kind middle-aged woman who eventually drops to her death (and when she dies, so does the movie).
Later on, she was mentioned in connection to Terms of Endearment – she owned the film rights to the novel – but the potential Jones comeback led nowhere (director James L. Brooks reportedly told her she was too old). Her role went to Shirley MacLaine, who went on to win an Academy Award.
Jones also expressed interested in playing convicted murderess Jean Harris, but gave up on the idea after the 1981 showing of the television movie The People vs. Jean Harris, starring Ellen Burstyn.
One of my biggest disappointments while working on my Ramon Novarro biography was to have been unable to talk to Jennifer Jones (right, in Gone to Earth), in whose We Were Strangers Novarro had a brief role. I did write to her, but she never responded. I was later told by a fellow film researcher that Jones was unwilling to grant interviews, supposedly (as per an actress friend) to create an “inapproachable allure” akin to Greta Garbo’s.
That could be, but it’s much more likely that Jones – whose shyness has frequently been mentioned in articles – has never felt very comfortable giving interviews. In fact, in the late 1940s the Women’s Press Association voted her Hollywood’s most uncooperative actress. Also, her shyness was palpable at the 1987 Oscar ceremony, in which a visibly terrified Jones stuttered and trembled her way while presenting the best cinematography award. I wonder how well she fared while receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the German Film Academy in 1997, or when taking part in American Film Institute tributes to Lillian Gish and Gregory Peck.
Jones married multimillionaire Norton Simon in 1971, and later in the decade was elected chair of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art after Simon’s controversial takeover of that institution (renamed the Norton Simon Museum). She became a widow once again in 1993, and currently holds the title of Trustee Emeritus at the museum.
Mary Jennifer, Jones’ daughter with Selznick, jumped off a twenty-two story building in Los Angeles in 1976. Four years later, Jones donated $1 million to establish the Jennifer Jones Simon Foundation for Mental Health and Education. She also had two sons with Robert Walker, actors Michael Walker (who died in 2007) and Robert Walker, Jr. (winner of a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer – for The Ceremony – in 1963).
Jennifer Jones still lives in Beverly Hills (or Malibu, or both), though according to one source she has been in poor health of late.
For more on Jennifer Jones’ life and career (plus loads of photos), check out the excellent Jennifer Jones Tribute.
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