Jennifer Jones, 90

Jennifer Jones, 90; Oscar-winning actress

Jennifer Jones received critical acclaim and won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a saint in
Jennifer Jones received critical acclaim and won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a saint in "The Song of Bernadette." (Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

Jennifer Jones, 90, an actress who won an Academy Award playing a saint in "The Song of Bernadette" and became a popular sinner in Hollywood melodramas including "Duel in the Sun" and "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," died Dec. 17 at her home in Malibu, Calif.

A spokeswoman for the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, Calif., where Ms. Jones was trustee emeritus, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause. She was the widow of Norton Simon, an industrialist and renowned art collector.

By most accounts, Ms. Jones's career faltered in the 1950s under the guidance of producer David O. Selznick, her second husband and one of the most powerful moguls in Hollywood. He tried to transform her into what film scholar David Thomson mockingly called "the greatest actress in the world," while eliminating those quirky charms that first captivated audiences.

Few actresses have launched their careers with more fanfare than Ms. Jones, who received a huge publicity buildup for her first major film, "The Song of Bernadette" (1943). She played a 19th-century French peasant girl who sees visions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes and defies Catholic Church authorities who say she is a fraud.

Critic James Agee wrote in Time magazine that Ms. Jones offered "one of the most impressive screen debuts in years" in an otherwise ponderous version of Franz Werfel's novel. (Agee's review overlooked her movie debut four years earlier under her real name, Phylis Isley, in a John Wayne western and a "Dick Tracy" serial.)

In her prime, Ms. Jones was among the screen's great beauties, a striking brunette with a husky voice and ethereal stare. But there was also a sensitive, at times vulnerable, quality that broadened her appeal across genres.

After "The Song of Bernadette," Ms. Jones was a charming home-front ingenue facing wartime realities in "Since You Went Away" (1944) and then a servant girl with a zest for plumbing in Ernst Lubitsch's "Cluny Brown" (1946).

Ms. Jones, who appeared in 27 films, is also remembered as the ghostly beauty who attracts painter Joseph Cotten in "Portrait of Jennie" (1949) and a world-class swindler in John Huston's "Beat the Devil" (1953), with Humphrey Bogart as a rival adventurer seeking uranium riches in Africa.

Writing of "Beat the Devil," a Time magazine critic wrote that Ms. Jones "managed to catch the mystic fervor of the truly creative liar."

'Duel in the Sun'

Ms. Jones later spoke with disdain of roles that accented her figure, but she proved adept at portrayals of mad passion. She was a sexy and cunning "half-breed" in "Duel in the Sun" (1947), with Gregory Peck, in a rare "evil" part, as her no-good lover, and she was the town trollop in "Ruby Gentry" (1952), with Charlton Heston. She also played the title role of Vittorio de Sica's "Indiscretion of an American Wife" (1953), with Montgomery Clift as her desperate Italian boyfriend.

Of the three, only "Duel in the Sun" was a box-office phenomenon. Selznick, who hoped to capture the epic glory of his "Gone With the Wind," made the film in Technicolor at huge expense. It became a cult favorite, mocked by some as "Lust in the Dust" for its bombastic score and ludicrously steamy ending: The two faithless lovers (Jones and Peck) die in a mire of blood and mud.

She scrubbed up for "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" (1955), playing a widowed Eurasian doctor in love with a married American journalist (William Holden). The film was her last popular success in a starring role, and the theme song was a hit as well.

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