Jennifer Jones, 90; Oscar-winning actress

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; B05

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.

Most film scholars attribute her career decline to her long affair with and then marriage, in 1949, to Selznick, who cast her in turgid literary adaptations, including "Madame Bovary" (1949), as the title adulteress and "A Farewell to Arms" (1957), as a Red Cross nurse in love with soldier Rock Hudson.

In "Carrie" (1952), William Wyler's version of Theodore Dreiser's novel "Sister Carrie," Ms. Jones held the screen well, with Laurence Olivier playing her self-destructive lover. But Ms. Jones's character, a crafty opportunist in the book, became more sympathetic onscreen, which offended Dreiser purists.

That blandness also washed over "Good Morning, Miss Dove" (1955), in which she was a sacrificial schoolmarm, and the 1957 remake of "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," in which she played the invalid poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Gielgud was her domineering father.

Meanwhile, she lost important roles that Selznick deemed unworthy -- including parts that made stars of Eva Marie Saint in "On the Waterfront" and Julie Harris in "East of Eden." Selznick alienated many directors with demanding memos and on-set fretting about lighting, costumes and script changes to benefit Ms. Jones.

Film scholar Jeanine Basinger, who specializes in the history of women in cinema, said, "One of the tragedies of Jennifer Jones's career is that she will always be viewed through the filter of David O. Selznick."

In what Basinger said was a highly unusual transition for an actress, Ms. Jones was "more fully developed in the beginning of her career" and became "more restrained and careful" under Selznick's watch.

Show business family

Phylis Lee Isley was born March 2, 1919, in Tulsa, where her parents started a tent show and then operated a movie theater chain. She began acting in a school run by Benedictine sisters and in 1937 enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.

At the drama school, she met Robert Walker, who went on to thrive as a boyishly handsome leading man of 1940s films. They had two sons before divorcing in 1944. Walker, a heavy drinker with a violent temper, died in 1951 under murky circumstances involving alcohol and prescription drugs.

Selznick put Ms. Jones under contract in 1941 and groomed her for "The Song of Bernadette." He thought that knowledge of Ms. Jones's marriage would damage publicity for the film, in which she played a saintly virgin. Soon after, he and Ms. Jones, 17 years his junior, began an affair. At the time, he was married to Irene Mayer Selznick, the daughter of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer.

Ms. Jones worked steadily over the next decade, earning Oscar nominations as Joseph Cotten's amnesiac love interest in "Love Letters" (1945) and Gregory Peck's not-always-sympathetic wife in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1956).

Her last major role was Nicole Diver in "Tender Is the Night" (1962), a critically lambasted production of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. "Everyone tells me I'm perfectly cast," Ms. Jones once said, "but Nicole is such a tortured, neurotic person, it's a dubious compliment."

Selznick kept his poor health and poor financial condition a secret from Ms. Jones, who was caught by surprise when he died in 1965.

She appeared in two embarrassing movie roles in the 1960s, playing a mother who sleeps with her son's best friend in "The Idol" (1966) and an aging porno film queen in "Angel, Angel, Down We Go" (1969). Her last film was "The Towering Inferno" (1974), a disaster film in which she sacrificed her life to save two children.

Described as "painfully shy," she thereafter concentrated on living a quiet life with Simon, her third husband. He died in 1993.

Ms. Jones, who acknowledged having "mental problems" and was known to have twice attempted suicide, became an advocate of mental health funding. Her only child with Selznick, Mary Jennifer Selznick, jumped to her death from a Los Angeles office building in 1976. A son from her first marriage, Michael Walker, died in 2007.

Survivors include a son from her first marriage, Robert Walker of Malibu; a stepson, Donald Simon of Los Angeles; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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