The girl who would be Jennifer Jones was born Phylis Isley, in Oklahoma. She made her movie debut in 1939 in a supporting role in New Frontier, a low-budget John Wayne western by Republic, attracting the attention of David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone With the Wind. Selznick changed her name, signed her to a long-term contract, and groomed her for stardom.
During a long career, celebrated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center this week, Jones managed to avoid typecasting and appeared in roles ranging from the innocent and saintly to the wild and hysterical, working with a number of major directors—Vincente Minnelli, John Huston, and Vittorio de Sica, to name a few. Yet, never secure with stardom, Jones was driven to pursue it by Selznick’s Svengali-like obsession with her. They eventually married, and he micromanaged every facet of her career until his death. When she was cast in the coveted leading role in Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1944), the story of a peasant girl who claimed to see visions of the Virgin Mary, every effort was made to conceal her earlier work at Republic—and she duly won the Best Actress Oscar for her “screen-debut” performance.
Selznick conceived Duel in the Sun (1946) as a Gone With the Wind for the ’40s and a hymn to Jones’s allure. He bought the property for his muse and cast her as a half-breed Pearl, torn between good and evil, who unsurprisingly succumbs to her passions. It’s a whopping example of filmmaking in the grand manner, florid and inflated, with a lurid climax that’s one of the most excessive sequences ever filmed in Hollywood. Selznick’s daily visits to the set were a constant nuisance; director King Vidor couldn’t take it and quit before the movie was finished.
Jones proved herself an adept comedienne in Ernst Lubitsch’s engaging Cluny Brown (1946) as a whimsical working-class girl who doesn’t know her place, paired with European writer-in-exile Charles Boyer. This meeting of two free souls generates a bubble-light satire on the foibles of upper-crust British society. It’s Jones’s most relaxed performance; Selznick, busy elsewhere, didn’t poke his nose on the set.
Impressed by The Red Shoes, Selznick approached Michael Powell to create a star vehicle for his lady. The result was Gone to Earth (1950), about a rural 19th-century child of nature, forced to choose between sacred and profane love. Jones is utterly convincing as the complex and divided heroine. Powell’s beautiful film contains startling images of a remote world where magic is still at work; it’s being shown here in a glorious restored print.
Jones worked with King Vidor a second time on Ruby Gentry (1952), the greatest of the director’s flamboyant late melodramas. She’s a stormy troublemaker from the wrong side of the tracks, involved in a hot and heavy love/hate affair with the last survivor of a decayed aristocratic line. Jones made a few notable pictures after it, but her career virtually ended when Selznick died in 1965. She later married art collector Norton Simon and settled in as the wife of a multimillionaire. Now 89, Jones lives in Malibu, rarely giving interviews or talking about her career.