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Oscar Profile #106: Jennifer Jones

Born Phylis Lee Isley on March 2, 1919 in Tulsa, Oklahoma to a minor show business couple, the future superstar’s parents owned and operated a traveling tent show that performed throughout the Midwest.

The aspiring actress transferred form Northwestern University in Chicago to New York’s Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1938 where she met and married fellow student Robert Walker. The two later performed on a radio program in Tulsa arranged by the actress’ father and then made their way to Hollywood.

Walker appeared un-credited parts in three 1939 films, while Phylis, now spelled Phyllis, received fourth billing in two films, New Frontier and Dick Tracy’s G-Men, . Returning to New York, Walker found steady work on the radio while Isley had to settle for modeling jobs. Isley gave birth to sons Robert, Jr. and Michael in 1940 and 1941 respectively.

Although she failed to get the part of Claudia in the original Broadway production she did draw the attention of producer David O. Selznick who took her under his wing and groomed her for stardom.

Stardom came quickly for the actress Selznick re-named Jennifer Jones and cast in the title role in 1943’s, The Song of Bernadette, . The film was an immense hit and earned Jones an Oscar on her first nomination.

Jones’ next film was the 1944 World War II weepie, Since You Went Away, in which she played Claudette Colbert’s teenage daughter who falls in love with a doomed soldier, played by husband Walker. Although it was kept out of the press at the time, the couple actually split during filming but you would never know it from their intense love scenes. The result was a second Oscar nomination for Jones, her only one in the supporting category.

Cast opposite Joseph Cotten who played her mother’s friend in Since You Went Away, , Jones earned a third consecutive Oscar nomination playing an amnesic in 1945’s Love Letters, . Jones received critical huzzahs for her first comedy role in 1946’s Cluny Brown, but it was her next role, that of the half-breed harridan in the same year’s critically drubbed Duel in the Sun that earned her a fourth consecutive Oscar nomination.

Cotten, who had been one of her male leads along with Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun appeared opposite the actress for the fifth time in the 1948 fantasy film, Portrait of Jennie. Divorced from Walker in 1945, Jones married Selznick in 1949.

Jones continued at the top of her game from 1949 through 1955 in such films as Madame Bovary opposite James Mason and Van Heflin; Carrie opposite Laurence Olivier; Ruby Gentry opposite Charlton Heston; Indiscretion of an American Wife opposite Montgomery Clift and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing opposite William Holden for which she received a fifth Oscar nomination. Her next two films, 1955’s Good Morning, Miss Dove and 1956’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit continued her storied career, but two poorly received remakes of the 1930s classics The Barretts of Wimpole Street and A Farewell to Arms effectively ended her career as a major star.

Jones made just one more film, 1962’s Tender Is the Night before Selznick’s death in 1965. Two critically lambasted films, 1966’s The Idol and 1969’s Angel, Angel, Down We Go would have been enough to keep a lesser talent from ever appearing before a camera again but Jones made a triumphant comeback in 1974’s all-star disaster movie, The Towering Inferno. In the meantime she had turned to the art world where she married millionaire museum owner Norton Simon in 1971 intending to devote the remainder of her life to the museum.

The suicide of her 21 year-old daughter two days after Mother’s Day in 1976 brought great sorrow to the actress who made one more attempt at movie immortality when she bought the rights to Terms of Endearment in 1981. The 62 year-old was told quite bluntly by director James L. Brooks that she was too old for the part which went to Shirley McLaine, who won an Oscar in the role.

After Morton’s death in 2003, Jones moved in with son Robert Walker, Jr., his wife and children for the last six years of her life.

Jennifer Jones died December 17, 2009 at the age of 90.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943), directed by Henry King

Jones became an overnight star and shortly thereafter an Oscar winner for her sensitive portrayal of the 19th Century saint from the novel by Franz Werfel. Surrounded by a stellar cast including Lee J. Cobb, Vincent Price, Charles Bickford, Gladys Cooper and Anne Revere, many critics have said, and Jones agreed, that all those great actors made her look good. To an extent that may be true, but Jones delivers an amazing performance nonetheless. Just watch her in one-on-one scenes with film’s three Oscar nominated supporting players, Bickford as the stern parish priest; Cooper as the haughty, doubting nun who becomes her servant and protector and Revere as her poor but proud mother. The interchange between Jones and all of them is unforgettable.

SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944), directed by John Cromwell

Producer David O.Selznick had set out to make Since You Went Away as meaningful to the World War II home-front as his Gone With the Wind had been to the Civil War. He nearly succeeds with his all-star cast led by Claudette Colbert at her noble best with Jones and a teenage Shirley Temple as her impressionable daughters. Jones’ then real-life husband Robert Walker plays the grandson of boarder Monty Woolley and the soldier with whom Jones falls in love. Their scenes together are among the most poignant in the film and there isn’t any hint of the real life rupture in their marriage half-way through the film. Jones movingly earned her second Oscar nomination in a row, albeit her first and only one in the Best Supporting Actress category.

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), directed by William Dieterle

Long considered one of the most beloved fantasy films of all time, audiences of the day failed to connect with this film about a struggling artist who finds his muse in a mysterious girl who wears old-fashioned clothes and ages seemingly overnight. Jones and co-star Joseph Cotton, now in their fifth film together had previously co-starred in another unusual love story, 1945’s Love Letters, but this is the one most people remember. Ethel Barrymore stands out among the supporting players as the owner of an art museum with mysterious connections to Jones’ character.

LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING (1955), directed by Henry King

The Oscar winning title song made this romance based on Han Suyin’s semi-autobiographical novel a must-see film for audiences of the day. Jones, who had to bow out of the previous year’s The Country Girl thus creating the opportunity for Grace Kelly’s Oscar win, found herself back in the Oscar race for her moving portrayal of the Eurasian doctor who has an affair with a married American correspondent. Perhaps the greatest aspect of Jones’ performance was making audiences believe she was in love with Holden who she couldn’t stand in real life. The film is also notable as the only film in which Charlie chan’s most famous sons – Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung and Benson Fong – all appeared together.

THE TOWERING INFERNO (1932), directed by John Guillermin

One of the iconic disaster films of the 1970s, Jones’ poignant portrayal of the self-sacrificing teacher of deaf children opposite Fred Astaire as a ne’er-do-well playboy was the heart and soul of the film whose special effects dwarfed the acting of most of its high powered cast which included Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain and others. Jones’ final scene in a fiery elevator remains the film’s seminal moment.

JENNIFER JONES AND OSCAR

  • The Song of Bernadette (19443) – Oscar - Best Actress
  • Since You Went Away (1944) – nominated Best Supporting Actress
  • Love Letters (1945) – nominated Best Actress
  • Duel in the Sun (1946) – nominated Best Actress
  • Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) – nominated Best Actress
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