Jennifer Jones obituary in “The Guardian” in 2009.
On the day of her 25th birthday, 2 March 1944, a fresh-faced, hitherto unknown performer stepped on to the stage of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, in Los Angeles, to receive her best actress Oscar for her performance in the title role of The Song of Bernadette. It was officially the debut of Jennifer Jones, who has died aged 90. She had appeared four years earlier under her real name of Phyllis Isley, but only in a Dick Tracy serial and a B-western. (Actually, she had been born Phylis, but had added an “l”.)
Ingrid Bergman, nominated for her performance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, said of The Song of Bernadette: “I cried all the way through, because Jennifer was so moving and because I realised I had lost the award.” Jones, who had been discovered by the producer David O Selznick four years previously, had been given no publicity build-up, had been prevented from granting interviews and also, because of the nature of the role, kept out of the gossip columns. As a result, her presence on screen as the French girl who, in 1858, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary and discovered a healing spring at Lourdes, came as a refreshing surprise. “While she received extensive training, I would not let her come to Hollywood until she was ready,” explained Selznick. “I refused to launch her until exactly the right role came along.”
After a six-month search, 20th Century Fox had narrowed the list of young women to play Bernadette down to six. They were each asked by the director Henry King to imagine that the stick he was holding was a vision. “Only Jennifer saw a vision,” King later remarked. Wearing a simple peasant’s dress and a minimum of makeup, she gave a pleasantly natural performance, credibly maturing from the age of 14 to the nun and eventual saint. It might have helped that the Oklahoma-born Jones had attended a Catholic school as a child. Her father owned a few theatres and ran a vaudeville tent show, with which the young Phylis toured and performed occasionally. While attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, she met another aspiring actor, Robert Walker. They married in 1939 and headed for Hollywood.
In 1941, when she was auditioning at Fox for the title role in Claudia (given to Dorothy McGuire), Selznick saw her, put her under contract, changed her name and groomed her rigorously for stardom. From then on, much of Selznick’s activity as a producer was devoted to providing her with suitable roles.
After The Song of Bernadette, he cast her opposite her husband as the girl in love with a young soldier in Since You Went Away (1944), the weepiest, longest and biggest hit about the home front during the second world war. Her role grew with each rewrite of the script by Selznick, and he was still playing the same game almost 20 years later on their last film together, Tender Is the Night. According to King: “David lost all judgment. He always thought that the more there was of Jennifer, the better the film would be.”
By the time Since You Went Away, for which she was Oscar-nominated, was released, Jones had broken up with Walker and embarked on a relationship with the married Selznick. Walker, a gifted actor, died prematurely in 1951, a victim of depression, drink and sedatives. She had two sons by Walker, both of whom became actors. Meanwhile, Jones was suitably fey as an amnesiac in Love Letters (1945), which earned her another Oscar nomination, and otherworldly in Portrait of Jennie (1949), two poetic dramas directed by William Dieterle, both co-starring Joseph Cotten.
Jones, the embodiment of feminine innocence, seemed an unlikely candidate for eroticising. But if she had not played a number of dark, tempestuous femmes fatales – worlds apart from Bernadette – her career would have been much less interesting. The first was a wild and sexy mixed-race girl, Pearl Chavez, in King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1947), a demented, delirious western, the peak of Hollywood high romanticism. The operatic climax, when Jones and Gregory Peck die in a final embrace after shooting each other, earned the film the nickname of Lust in the Dust. Sex in the Swamps would be an apt description of Ruby Gentry (1952), in which Vidor was again able to bring out the passion in Jones. Thwarted by the man she loves (Charlton Heston), she finally watches him die face downwards in the mud.
Previously, she had portrayed Madame Bovary (1949) in Vincente Minnelli’s glossy version of the Flaubert novel. Considering that Selznick was breathing down Minnelli’s neck throughout the shoot, at one stage accusing the director of sabotaging the “unique loveliness” of the star, Jones emerged with beauty, poise and vivacity, bringing, as one critic remarked, “an almost manic voluptuousness to the part”.
However, although Jones had a certain childlike charm as an untamed half-Gypsy Shropshire lass in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950), she lacked the passion she displayed in the Vidor movies. Now her husband, Selznick was as much of a nuisance as ever, cutting 29 minutes from the film, getting directors (including Vidor) to reshoot nearly a third of it in Hollywood, and changing its title to The Wild Heart for the US release. At this stage, Jones, whose career was entirely controlled by Selznick, had fits of depression and attempted suicide with sleeping pills several times. (Her last attempt was in 1967, after Selznick’s death.)
Nevertheless, she was able to radiate in William Wyler’s Carrie (1952), opposite Laurence Olivier, and especially in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) as the Eurasian doctor in love with an American correspondent, William Holden, in a splendid CinemaScope Hong Kong. She was a touching Elizabeth Barrett in the otherwise clunking The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), but seemed to have more fun than ever as a blonde mythomaniac in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953). Her only other comedy was Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946), in which she was charming as a cockney maid, despite the wobbly accent.
There were a few miscalculations: Vittorio De Sica’s gloomy Indiscretion of an American Wife (1954), and she was allowed to overact as the doomed nurse Catherine Barkley in the overblown and dull third version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1957). It was Selznick’s last production, but it did not stop him trying to ruin another modern American classic, Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1962), in which the 43-year-old Jones attempted to play the young neurotic playgirl Nicole Diver.
Selznick’s death in 1965 left Jones utterly bereft, in debt, and with a young daughter, Mary Jennifer, to bring up. (Mary Jennifer killed herself in 1976.) Jones made only a few films afterwards; these included Cult of the Damned (1969), in which she played a former blue-movie star, and she was among the many stars trapped in The Towering Inferno (1974). In 1971, she married the millionaire industrialist art collector Norton Simon, helping him with his business until his death. She then took over the presidency of her late husband’s Pasadena Art Museum. Jones had finally become her own person.
She is survived by her son, Robert Walker Jr.
• Jennifer Jones (Phylis Isley), actor, born 2 March 1919; died 17 December 2009
Her Guardian newspaper obituary can be accessed here. She did not make too many films but she has a far higher percentage than average of very good and interesting films and a few classics in her portfolio. “Song of Bernadette”, “Since You Went Away”, “Love Letters”, “Duel in the Sun”, “Cluny Brown”, “Beat the Devil”, “Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing” and her last film “The Towering Inferno” are all worth seeking out. the promotion of mental health