American actor. Born 1919.
There is no actress quite like Jennifer Jones. With full lips, dark skin, and flowing black hair, she possessed a unique sex appeal. Though not quite greatest actress ever, despite an Oscar and four more nominations, she gave striking performances in films such as Duel in the Sun, Portrait of Jennie and The Song of Bernardette. But her life is also a classic story of a young ingenue plucked to stardom by a big-shot producer, in her case David O. Selznick, who fell in love with her, made her a star, and ruined her career.
She was born Phylis Isley in Tulsa, Oklahoma
on March 2, 1919. Her parents Phil and Flora Mae ran a little theater company
touring small towns in Oklahoma. Aged 6, she was already acting in first grade
at school, in the role of a candy cane
. She also helped out at her parents' theatre, selling tickets and food. Later, in 1929, her father bought a chain of cinemas and that reinforced Phylis's dreams of acting.
After high school and a spell at Monte Cassino junior college where she was taught by Benedictine nuns, she attended Northwestern University in Illinois. Dissatisfied with that, she moved to New York to attend the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts, being admitted in 1937. There she met Robert Walker, a fellow acting student originally from Utah. The following year, they both quit their studies, and married in January 1939. Urged by her father, who claimed to have contacts in Hollywood, they headed west.
Work was hard to find, but she made two films under the name of Phylis Isley for Republic, who specialised in second features and serials: New Frontier (1939) and Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939). However without getting any bigger parts, she and Walker gave up and moved back to New York, where they had two sons, Robert (b. 1940) and Michael (b. 1941).
Her big break
Everything changed in 1941 when she auditioned for David O. Selznick for the lead role in the film Claudia (eventually filled by Dorothy McGuire). Selznick (1902-1965) had been working in film since his teens, beginning with his father's company in New York; then he moved to Hollywood in 1926 and became boss of RKO in 1931. At RKO he produced films including King Kong (1933) and George Cukor's Little Women (1933), before moving to MGM for 2 years.
In 1935 he set up his own company, whose most famous film was Gone With The Wind (1939), and he worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Rebecca (1940). However by the early 1940s his interest in producing was waning. It came to look like every film he worked on would be as difficult as Gone With The Wind, and he spent most of his time hiring out his contracted actors to other film companies. He was already past his best.
He was enchanted by her, and Selznick sent her to California; but rather than make films, he put her in theater, William Saroyan's Hello Out There in Santa Barbara, California. He paid for acting lessons, changed her name, and in due course began an affair with her.
He got her the lead in The Song of Bernardette (1943), for which she won the best actress Oscar, playing the Catholic saint with the visions at Lourdes. Jones's Catholic education came in useful, and her wide-eyed, eager-to-believe performance was less a matter of acting and more a case of simply turning up.
She divorced Walker in March 1944, still only 25. When Selznick broke up with his wife in the summer of 1945 the two of them began stepping out together openly. Walker, meanwhile, took it badly and started drinking and getting in trouble with police.
Jones's emotional state was little better; she had always been shy and insecure. The pressure on her, especially from Selznick, was overwhelming, and Selznick's judgment was worsening. He tried to control every aspect of her life: even when she was contracted out to other studios he sent a constant stream of memos. As a result, her films of the time were strange confections: Love Letters (1945) is a melodrama in which she plays an amnesiac suspected of murder who is cured by the love of Joseph Cotten.
Things got even more over the top with King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), an garish Western that Martin Scorsese has confessed to being bewitched by as a small child. The film was Selznick's attempt at another Gone With The Wind-style epic romantic drama, but emerges as something else entirely (a feverish wet dream?) She plays a girl of mixed race, who starts out in Bernadette purity and is romanced by Joseph Cotten but led astray by Gregory Peck. As a film it is awesomely bad and yet superb in its melodramatic passion; well acted and never boring, just somewhat patchy and utterly ludicrous.
She had less to do as the ghost in Portrait of Jennie (1948), opposite Cotten again, this time him playing an artist who is inspired by his encounters with a girl who, it turns out, died at sea some time before. The film is beautifully poetic, its melodrama tending towards wistfulness, and wonderfully photographed. It is perhaps her best film, but not her best performance: as the artist's muse she has little to do but be mused upon by Cotten and subsequently admired by schoolchildren.
30 years old
After Portrait of Jennie, her output declined, due to her and Selznick's indecision. He seemed to want to extend her range, but had trouble finding the right projects. Casting her as Madame Bovary
was an interesting choice, but as made by Vincente Minnelli
(1949) it was not a success. John Huston
's We Were Strangers
(1949) was made at the high point of his career, just after The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
and Key Largo
, and before Asphalt Jungle
and African Queen
, but is far inferior to those movies.
She went to Britain for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's beautiful romance Gone To Earth (1950), based on Mary Webb's novel. This film featured one of her best performances in a tale of adultery and redemption in Shropshire, made with Powell and Pressburger's customary magic. Selznick hated it, though, and hired Rouben Mamoulian to shoot extra scenes; the butchered result was released as The Wild Heart in 1952.
In 1951 Robert Walker starred in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, the biggest and best role of his career. However, soon afterwards he was dead, killed when doctors sedated him following an emotional outburst. This left Jones feeling more guilty than ever about the break-up.
Following that, she was excellent in a tale of the failure of love: Carrie (1952). Based on Theodore Dreiser's classic of American naturalist fiction Sister Carrie, she starred with Lawrence Olivier; the film captured the pessimism of the novel, but thankfully not Dreiser's boringness. She followed it with western Ruby Gentry (1952) and a comic performance in Huston's Beat the Devil in 1954. The same year she had a daughter, Mary Jennifer.
Like most actors with anything darker than a pasty-white complexion, she found herself playing characters from all around the world. In 1955, she played a Eurasian doctor in Henry King's Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. The sentimental romance was her first box office success for a long time, and earned her her first Oscar nomination for 9 years, even though Han Suyin who wrote the original novel detested it (Pym p514).
Following that, she did little of value. She was frequently miscast, as Selznick had no perception of her limited range, including as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), and too old in Selznick's production of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms (1957). The failure of the film, which had been beset with production problems, damaged Selznick badly. It also saw Jones's career tumble. Selznick was having difficulty getting pictures made, and nobody else wanted her with the interference from Selznick this would bring.
Selznick made no more films after A Farewell To Arms. Jones finally returned in 1962 as Nicole in Tender is the Night (1962), from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but was too young for the part. Selznick had worked on the project but wasn't credited for it; in truth the picture was not to either of their credit.
Selznick died in 1965, leaving behind large debts. Jones made two flops in the next 5 years, The Idol
(1966), and Angel, Angel, Down We Go
(1969), and in a moment of despair from the death of a friend she attempted suicide
In her spare time from not working, she became involved in charitable work, often for mental health charities. With her daughter going through emotional problems after Selznick's death, as well as Walker's decline and her own problems, this was not a surprising field of interest for her.
Through charity work, she met millionaire art collector Norton Simon (who made his money from Hunt Foods Inc.); they wed in 1971. She returned to film in 1974 for a role in The Towering Inferno, for which she got a Golden Globe supporting actress nomination.
However, tragedy seemed to dog her, and her daughter killed herself, closely followed by her father's death from illness. This reinforced Jones's interest in mental health issues, and led to the establishment of the Jennifer Jones Simon Foundation For Mental Health And Education in 1980.
She did not return to the screen again, despite abortive plans to play murderer Jean Harris and to star in Terms of Endearment, to which she had held the rights. Simon was diagnosed with Guillain Barre syndrome in 1984 and from 1989 was altogether incapacitated by it and constantly cared for by Jones; he died in 1993. Since his death, she has kept herself to herself, still deeply involved in charity work. In 2003 she made a rare public appearance at an Academy Awards tribute to past winners.
- 1939 - New Frontier (director George Sherman) billed as Phylis Isley
- 1939 - Dick Tracy's G-Men (William Whitney) billed as Phylis Isley
- 1943 - The Song of Bernardette (Henry King)
- 1944 - Since You Went Away (John Cromwell)
- 1945 - Love Letters (William Dieterle)
- 1946 - Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch)
- 1946 - Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
- 1948 - Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle)
- 1949 - We Were Strangers (John Huston)
- 1949 - Madame Bovary (Vincente Minnelli)
- 1950 - Gone to Earth (Michael Powell)
- 1952 - The Wild Earth (Michael Powell, Rouben Mamoulian) reedited version of Gone To Earth
- 1952 - Carrie (William Wyler)
- 1952 - Ruby Gentry (King Vidor)
- 1953 - Stazione Termini (aka Station Terminus, Indiscretion, etc.) (Vittorio De Sica)
- 1953 - Beat the Devil (John Huston)
- 1955 - Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (Henry King)
- 1955 - Good Morning, Miss Dove (Henry Koster)
- 1956 - The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Nunnally Johnson)
- 1957 - The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin)
- 1957 - A Farewell to Arms (Charles Vidor)
- 1962 - Tender is the Night (Henry King)
- 1966 - The Idol (Daniel Petrie)
- 1969 - Angel, Angel, Down We Go (aka Cult of the Damned) (Robert Thom)
- 1974 - The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin and Irwin Allen)
- 1944 - Best actress (The Song of Bernardette)
- 1945 - Best supporting actress (Since You Went Away)
- 1946 - Best actress (Love Letters)
- 1947 - Best actress (Duel in the Sun)
- 1956 - Best actress (Love is a Many-Splendored Thing)
- Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/ (August 7, 2003)
- Philip Oliver. Jennifer Jones tribute website. http://home.hiwaay.net/~oliver/jones.html (August 7, 2003)
- John Pym (editor). Time Out Film Guide. Sixth Edition. (London: Penguin. 1998.)
- Martin Scorsese. A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. 1995.
- David Thompson. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. (London: Andre Deutsch. 1994.)