Upper Left: A studio portrait of
Jennifer Jones at the time of
her appearance in "Love Letters"
(1945); Upper Right, Jones seeks
meaning for the religious vision she
has experienced in "The Song of
Bernadette," for which she earned
the 1943 Best Actress Oscar;
Lower left: Jones as hot-blooded
"half-breed" Pearl Chavez in the
epic western "Duel in the Sun,"
By JIM BAWDEN
It was the summer of 1974, second week in June to be more precise, and I was languishing at the annual TV critics convention at Los Angeles Century Plaza hotel. Rather than sit through another boring industry talk at lunch I sneaked out with three other colleagues by the hotels back door. We rushed over a short bridge and onto what was left of the back lot of 20th Century Fox.
A publicist waited to guide us inside one of the cavernous sound stages and right onto the ballroom scene of the latest disaster movie. Before long director Irwin Allen appeared and an assistant bawled, Quiet. The band began playing as dozens of extras waltzed around before breaking off to reveal a lovely couple waltzing by themselves.
He was the screens all-time most famous tap dancer. And Fred Astaire looked terrific at 75.
She was equally, if not more, dazzling with a beehive hairdo and soft, pink baby skin plus just the glimmer of a smile. At 55, the ever elusive Jennifer Jones was making her last ever movie appearance.
The film was the all star disaster flick "The Towering Inferno" starring the likes of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway etcetera etcetera.
It all went off beautifully and Allen asked for a second take for insurance and got that, too.
Then he gently took the hands of Jones and Astaire and guided them our way where pleasantries were exchanged. As soon as a colleague pulled out his reporters pad Jones changed, looking very dour, then shaky. And then she simply walked off as fast as she could.
Guess Jenny has had it for the day, beamed Astaire, who stayed on to chat for another 20 minutes or so.
And thats how I met the mostly reclusive Jennifer Jones, a great star of the 1940s who became increasingly insecure in the 1950s as her career seemed to implode after the death of her powerful husband, producer David O. Selznick, in 1965.\
And thats how I sort of met (but never actually interviewed) Jennifer Jones.
When she died this past Dec. 17 at the age of 90, Jennifer Jones had long been out of the spotlight. The obituaries were perfunctory at best. After all, Jones stopped acting 35 years ago. Film historian David Thomson was positively dismissive in his obituary in The Guardian and all because Jones had refused his repeated requests to be interviewed when he was writing his mammoth biography of her second husband David O. Selznick.
But so what? That was her prerogative and she rather emerges as the heavy in Thomsons account of Selznicks decline and fall.
She was born Phyllis Isley in Tulsa in 1919 and made several regrettable grade B westerns during her first stay in Hollywood. She was back in New York city with first husband Robert Walker when producer David Selznick noticed her during an open audition for the lead in the film "Claudia".
Selznicks aide, Kay Brown, brought her into the Selznick office and who could not be blown away by her outstanding beauty: big, bright doe eyes, a mane of dark hair, great smile. She already was the mother of two infants.
But she didnt get the "Claudia" lead. That went to another Selznick contract player, Dorothy McGuire. Instead Selznick placed her under exclusive contract and rechristened her Jennifer Jones.
She became an overnight sensation in 1943s "The Song of Bernadette" and she won her Oscar for it over at 20th Century-Fox. Anne Baxter once told me she was the leading candidate for the role until Jones and Selznick appeared.
But the best female performance that year, the one truly remembered, today was Ingrid Bergman's in "Casablanca." But Bergman insisted she be nominated for her other 1943 movie "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Silly Ingrid. "Casablanca" plays almost continuously on TV but "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is tough to sit through these days.
But "The Song of Bernadette" still plays on TV every year around Christmas time.
Selznick had another dewy part for her as Claudette Colberts daughter and Shirley Temples sister in the gargantuan (172 minutes)1944 salute to the home front called "Since You Went Away." Colbert got the Oscar nomination and Selznick got Jones a best supporting actress nominaton although she clearly was one of the leads.
Joseph Cotten, who was the male co-star, once told me Jones was in perpetual turmoil because Selznick had borrowed husband Robert Walker from MGM to play her beau. Their marriage was already crumbling and Walker quite rightly suspected Selznick meant to have her as his next wife. Selznick was, at the time, separated from his first wife, Irene Mayer Selznick.
Because shooting dragged on so long Jones was not available to play the title role in "Laura" and losing that picture really damaged her career although she did win a third Oscar nomination in three years for the wartime romance "Love Letters ," again opposite Cotten. (Cotten said he and Jones were deluged with memos from Selznick even though Paramount was producing "Love Letters" and not him.)
Selznick then put her into the sprawling western "Duel in the Sun" opposite Cotten and Gregory Peck, who played brothers both vying for her favors. Shooting continued over many months with director King Vidor finally quitting to be temporarily replaced by Josef von Sternberg. Selznick thought it would be as big a hit and as prestigious a production as his "Gone With the Wind."
The film did make a lot of money but it also went well over budget. And it was cruelly overlooked by the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics and even The Golden Globes at the year end evaluations.
Selznick couldnt even manage a best picture nomination although somehow Jones and Lillian Gish took nominations. It was her fourth Oscar nomination in four years but she would only earn one other a decade later.
Interestingly enough Selznick told Cotten that if he were making "Gone With the Wind" in 1946 and not as it had been made in 1939 his cast would have read: Gregory Peck as Rhett, Jennifer Jones (Scarlett), Joseph Cotten (Ashley) and Dorothy McGuire (Melanie).
Far better was the comedy Jones made back at 20th, Ernst Lubitsch's "Cluny Brown" with Charles Boyer. Left to her own devices, Jones really could act and she proved it again in "Cluny Brown.
But it seemed Selznick preferred to see Jones playing sluts like the steamy Pearl in "Duel in the Sun" or the title character in the later "Ruby Gentry" opposite Charlton Heston. In both parts she appears tremendously ill at ease. Critics naturally ask what kind of a movie career she might have had on her own--without the interference of her powerful husband. But possibly her innate shyness would have doomed her from the start.
If Jones had a favorite part it was the lead in "Portrait of Jennie" (1949) where she ages from a 12-year-old school girl to a beautiful woman, always the object of the dreams and desires of a failed painter, played persuasively by Cotten. She had this talent for bewitching, but Selznick at the last minute added an eye popping storm to end the movie. It broke the spell Jones had so carefully concocted. The films financial failure forced him to leave production.
Also in 1949 Jones gave an excellent portrayal as "Madame Bovary." Director Vincente Minnelli once told me he thought her performance as the classic French character in Flaubert's famous novel was the best anyone could expect from an American actress. She was also impressive in William Wylers "Carrie" (1952).
But the movies made at Selznicks instigation were unfortunate: "The Wild Heart" (1952), known as "Gone To Earth" in England; "Ruby Gentry" (1952) and Vittorio De Sica's "Indiscretion of An American Wife" (1954), known in Italy as "Terminal Station."
Out on her own she did surprisingly well. Granted, "We Were Strangers" (1949) is hard going. But it introduced her to director John Huston who used her again in "Beat the Devil" (1953), filmed continents away from Selznick where as a cynical blonde she captures the wackiness of the situation perfectly. Huston was the original director on Selznick's comeback production, "A Farewell To Arms" (1957), but left after clashes with Selznick. He was replaced by the bland Charles Vidor.
A subsequent contract with Fox gave Jones prominent parts in a succession of box office melodramas: "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" (1955), "Good Morning, Miss Dove" (1955) and "The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit" (1956).
But 1957 was not a good year for her. She was dull as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and too old as the nurse opposite a wooden Rock Hudson in Selznicks "A Farewell To Arms," a role originally played by Helen Hayes in Frank Borzage's 1932 version.
Selznick sold his rights to F.Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" (1961) to Fox with the understanding Jones star as the tormented Nicole. The book of Selznick memos documents his search to find a suitable co-star. Bing Crosby, William Holden, Gregory Peck all turned the part down because Jones had become difficult to act with and Jason Robards, who eventually got the part, was badly miscast.
Joan Fontaine, originally another Selznick protege, was cast as her older sister and once told me she listened in on a crossed party wire a dressing room away as Jones took direction from Selznick and then did the scene exactly as he had instructed her to play it.
For years, Jones had been plagued with mental breakdowns, starting with the death of first husband Robert Walker in 1951, who had battled alcoholism for years. She had divorced Walker in 1945, finally marrying Selznick in 1949. When afflicted with a breakdown, she often stayed in Swiss sanitariums to try to find peace. But Selznicks death in 1965 was another major shock for her to endure.
Ironically, she wound up filling in for actress Kim Stanley on the British made film "The Idol" in 1966. Director Daniel Petrie told me, Kim had a breakdown, a massive one. We substituted another actress even more manic, Jennifer Jones, who often wept and wept on set. I didnt think she could finish it. We did but barely. I think the result is a real mess.
In 1967 Jones was discovered unconscious on a Malibu beach in a failed suicide attempt that came after she learned of the death of longtime friend Charles Bickford, who co-starred with her in "The Song of Bernadette."
Despite her health woes, Jones could not stop acting. In 1969 she hit rock bottom with the dreadful exploitation flick "Angel, Angel Down We Go." One of her oft quoted lines: Ive been in stag films and never faked an orgasm.
In 1971, her personal finances exhausted, she married billionaire Norton Simon. Eventually she sat on the board of directors of his prestigious Pasadena art museum. Simon died in 1993.
Jones had neglected to inform daughter Mary Selznick of her remarriage and the two were estranged at the time that Mary jumped from a Beverly Hills high rise to her death in 1976.
For a time Jones plotted a comeback and had Simon purchase rights to the novel "Terms of Endearment" by Larry McMurtry. But she concluded she was too old for the part and sold it. When finally made in 1991, "Terms" won the Best Picture Oscar and Shirley MacLaine earned the Best Actress Oscar for the role Jones would have played.
Jones also wanted to film the life of convicted murderess Jean Harris but withdrew after Ellen Burstyn played Harris in a TV movie version.
Jones did make rare TV appearances on the Academy awards and she also popped up in several American Film Institute Salutes, including the one for her "Duel in the Sun" co-star, Lillian Gish. On camera, she seemed unnerved by the applause she received.
In her last years she was confined to a wheelchair and lived with her sole surviving son, Robert Walker Jr. Her other son Michael Walker died in 2007.
TV obituaries, however perfunctory, revealed clips of Jones at the height of her beauty as Pearl Chavez in "Duel in the Sun" and Jennie Appleton in "Portrait of Jennie."
Jones death leaves Luise Rainer ("The Great Ziegfeld," "The Good Earth") as the sole surviving female Oscar winner from the 1930s. (Rainer turns 100 this month.) From the 1940s, the only surviving female winners are sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.
But a couple of other Jones contemporaries are still going strong. Lauren Bacall, 86 this year, just received an honorary Oscar and Angela Lansbury, who remains Oscarless has stormed Broadway at 84 in a new version of "A Little Night Music."
©2010 by Jim Bawden. This column first posted Jan. 4, 2010.
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