Friday, June 6

The Wounded One

Born as Phylis Isley in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1919, she was pathologically shy as a child.  Her parents, who had a traveling tent show during good-weather months and owned and ran a movie theater during winters, thought she should perform as a way to curb her shyness.  She balked but would eventually acquire a raging ambition to become an actress, but the shyness never really went away and was joined by severe emotional and mental problems she would have for the rest of her life.  By the time she made an impact on the silver screen, we knew her as Jennifer Jones.

She attended Northwestern University's prestigious drama school for a year and then transferred to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.  There she met a promising young actor named Robert Walker and appeared with him in a production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which had always been her favorite novel.  By all accounts he was as emotionally fragile and  tightly wound as she was.  Soon he was over-the-moon in love with her and they married when she was only 19 and he was 20.

They struggled to find work after leaving the Academy and ended up back in Tulsa where they performed on radio, thanks to the help of her father.  They journeyed to Hollywood in the hopes of finding work in movies.  Using her real name and again with her father's help, she signed on to the lackluster Republic Studios where she appeared in a minor John Wayne film and a Dick Tracy serial.  After she failed a screen test at Paramount, the couple returned to New York.

Despite not having two nickels to their names, they had in quick succession two sons.  In 1941 she auditioned for the title role in Claudia for Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick and life would never again be the same for Mr. and Mrs. Robert Walker.  Selznick, though married himself (to MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer's daughter Irene) became obsessed with the dark-haired young actress and was determined to have her.

He put her under exclusive contract (he had few under contract but Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple and Louis Jourdan called him "Boss") and changed her name to Jennifer Jones .  He wrangled her the plum role in 1943's The Song of Bernadette, as the young French peasant girl whose visions at Lourdes created a sensation in 1858.  She would win an Oscar and international fame.  When I saw it some 15 years later, I could not understand all the hoopla for her or the film.  Maybe I shouldn't have slept in so many Sunday mornings.

She would receive Oscar nominations for her next three films as well... a feat that puts her in elite company.  Only Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Thelma Ritter and Al Pacino can say the same.

Jones in between her first two husbands

In 1943 she separated from Walker, who came apart at the seams.  Her worldwide fame also gave way to her own emotional instability as she was torn to ribbons by the press and public over her adulterous affair with Selznick.  She seemed to have little inner strength but no matter... Selznick took over everything.  He managed her career, her clothes, her looks, her friendships, her personal life.  She made few decisions of her own and with their 17-year age difference, he treated her like a child-doll.  She was terrified (her entire life) of giving interviews and he saw to it that she didn't have to.  It would not endear her to the press.

My personal life has been completely wrecked by David Selznick's obsession for my wife, Robert Walker said.  What can you do to fight such a powerful man?  One thing he did was to have a nervous breakdown and then become an alcoholic.  He never got over losing her when he died at age 32, a broken shell of a man.

Selznick had a sick trick up his sleeve.  In 1944 he cast Jones in one of my favorite movies of that decade, Since You Went Away, about the women in a military man's family who await his hoped-for return.  She played the daughter of Claudette Colbert, the sister of Shirley Temple and the girlfriend of-- OMG-- Robert Walker.  While their performances were on the mark, neither Walker nor Jones found the experience easy.  Selznick was in his element as the great overseer.

Jones befriended Joseph Cotten when he appeared with her in Since You Went Away and he would next costar with her in Love Letters (1945) where he cured her of amnesia.  Then, Selznick, in his attempt to make another Gone with the Wind, cast her, Cotten and Gregory Peck in the overly dramatic but frequently exciting Duel in the Sun (1946).  It boggles the imagination that the actress who played Bernadette also played the lustful Pearl Chavez in Duel.  But Selznick was always telling her what to do, how to act, how to emote and I think she pulled off Pearl superbly.  In 1948 she and Cotten were reunited for the fourth and last time in Portrait of Jennie, a popular film about an artist who is inspired by a mysterious girl

Exotic in "Duel in the Sun"

In 1949 she would marry David O. Selznick.  His machinations of the meek movie star would be complete.  She would never have to grow up or make decisions for herself. 

Jones first worked for director John Huston in 1949's We Were Strangers as a Cuban who joins the underground after her brother is killed.  Appearing opposite the edgy John Garfield worked some magic in Jones' performance, despite it not being a Selznick film.  It is well-noted, however, that Selznick bombarded any Jones production with memos and letters about how she should be lighted, treated and coaxed.  Huston would say David's love for Jennifer was real and touching but everything he did for her was to the detriment of his good judgment.  In 1953 Jones would again work for Huston in Beat the Devil, one of the worst films ever made.

Jones replaced Lana Turner in Madame Bovary (1949), a dull version of Flaubert's famous novel, despite the presence of Van Heflin, James Mason and Louis Jourdan.  In 1952 she appeared in another dull version of a famous novel, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, now titled simply Carrie.  She and costar Laurence Olivier didn't seem to click as a screen duo.

Ruby Gentry (1952) returned her to a Pearl Chavez-type role but in modern dress.  She was a southern tramp who drove Charlton Heston and Karl Malden crazy with destructive passions.

As Han Suyin, my favorite Jones role

She was to have costarred with Bing Crosby and William Holden in 1954's The Country Girl, but had to withdraw because of pregnancy.  (Grace Kelly took over and won an Oscar.)  The following year she joined Holden for Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, a sentimental love story filmed in Hong Kong.  It was based on a book by Han Suyin, a Eurasian doctor, and her love affair with an American war correspondent.  It was immensely popular and the two stars melted the hearts of the public.  In private, however, she couldn't stand him and he couldn't abide her running to her husband (whose film it was not) with complaint after complaint.  Twenty something years later they would work together again in The Towering Inferno but shared no scenes.

In 1957 she made her favorite film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, playing poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning opposite the wonderful John Gielgud and an actor I always admired, Bill Travers.  I always suspected she loved this role so much because Browning reminded her of herself.

That same year Selznick made his final film, a remake of A Farewell to Arms with Jones and Rock Hudson.  It was all just so wrong and the production was a nightmare for everyone involved.  Huston started as director but walked out when he couldn't agree with the meddlesome Selznick.  Hudson and Jones did not click as a screen team and she had all sorts of ticks and nervous mannerisms that made one wonder if she was losing it.  Her reputation would suffer.  She would not work for another five years.

That film would be Tender Is the Night, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel about a mental patient and her marriage to her psychiatrist.  I loved this film and Jones in the role, which I suspect was the part that was closest in reality to the actress.  It might have been a dangerous role for her to accept since she didn't have the tightest grip on reality.  It was not a great success which I suspect is due to the miscasting of Jason Robards as the male love interest. 

Three years later Selznick, her Svengali, died, and she slipped into seclusion for several years.  Two years after his death she swallowed sleeping pills and was found unconscious, floating in the surf in Malibu.  The reason given was that her pal Charles Bickford (a costar in Song of Bernadette and Duel in the Sun) had died.  Pure rubbish... a publicist's feeble excuse, although I've never heard the real reason.

In the late 60s she would make two horrid films, both exploitative stuff that some older actresses were given to doing and shouldn't have... The Idol and Angel, Angel, Down We Go.   In 1971 she married another powerful man, multimillionaire industrialist, art collector and philanthropist, Norton Simon. 

In 1974 she made her final film, the mega-watt disaster epic, The Towering Inferno.  She looked older than we had previously seen her but still glamorous playing most of her scenes opposite the debonair Fred Astaire who gave her a little twirl around the dance floor. 

In 1976, two days after Mother's Day, her daughter with Selznick, Mary, committed suicide by jumping off a highrise.  This was something she shared with Simon as his son had committed suicide in 1969.  Soon after she founded a program for mental health and education.

She became involved in Simon's museum both before and after his death in 1993.  The public rarely heard from her.  She had been living with her only surviving child, actor Robert Walker Jr., in Malibu, when she died in 2009 at age 90.

Oddly, she only made 25 films.  She went from being tremendously ambitious to being little more than a servant to her controlling husband.  When her emotional and mental illness started is anyone's guess but mine is that it came about when she left a sweet, caring husband, himself not very strong, in a most unsavory way and she never really recovered from that choice. 

Movie Review


  1. Hi! Thanks for Jennifer Jones, I agree with You almost totally. Since You went away is one of my favorite films ever and every Christmas season I watch it, together with It's a Wonderful Life and, (please don't laugh) Snow white and the seven dwarfs.I did like Tender is the night: it was a good and elegant movie, with some miscast characters. First of all Robards and in a way also Jones: beautiful, elegant in a role of a 27-28 girl, whiel she was actually around her forties. I did like also Love letters, romantic, unbelieveable maybe, but this is cinema, isn't it? Okay. Thanks again. Carlo

    1. So glad you enjoyed, Carlo. Tell me, if you will, what you liked about her. Your request for Rod Taylor will come up in a few more postings. Stay tuned.

  2. I have to go back to the early years after the war. American movies rolled to Italy like an avalanche and in those days we usually went to the movies just to see the actor or the actress. Forgetting Garbo and Detrich who belonged to the past, the queen of the screen was absolutely Ingrid Bergman. Her close ups in For Whom The Bell Tolls are louminos and charming even to day. Then came Jennifer Jones. In a couple of years we saw Bernadette, love Letters, Since You went away and Duel in The Sun. I was much too young to express a critical opinion then. To day I think that, were it not for a disturbing, childish way to act, not always of course, I think she had more possibilities than Bergman.I try to express my thought in a decent English. Bergman, with all her charm ( who can forget her in Notorius) was like an excellent student, who did her home work correctly enough to get excellent mark.
    Jennifer Jones , in my opinion, had a wider range of expressions. I'll try with an example: between Bergman Joan Of Arc and Jones Bernadette I think Bernadette was much better. That's my opinion which can be destroied with few words by an experienced movieman like You.I hope I did not disappoint You too much. THanks again, Ciao. Carlo