Thursday, December 17, 2009
Jennifer Jones, 1919-2009
It is a recurrent irony of certain film artists' lives that upon their death, no matter what other accomplishments may have been theirs, if they won an Oscar the headline will read "Academy Award Winner Dies." It hurts the Siren to see this headline for Jennifer Jones, because The Song of Bernadette is not a film she ever took to her heart (to put it mildly). Consciously or subconsciously, the movie undermines the whole notion of religious fulfillment because it makes Bernadette's life seem so awful. The Sirens adds, though, that the movie has its admirers; for an eloquent appreciation of Bernadette, please see Marilyn Ferdinand here.
The movie uppermost in the Siren's thoughts isn't the one about the saint, but rather Portrait of Jennie, in which Jones' talent for creating odd and bewitching women reached its apogee. William Dieterle's ghost story was a perfect vehicle for Jones, whose spiritual quality always had a note of restless passion. When you meet her she's attired in her best fur-trimmed coat and muff, appearing among the ice skaters at Central Park as though she sprang complete from one of the glittering snow banks. Jones was a great child impersonator, as she had shown in Bernadette despite that movie's flaws, and yet there is something womanly in the way she makes eye contact with Joseph Cotten. Not sensuality yet, but its promise. It is a strange film, sweepingly romantic in that way that has vanished from American movies, the scenes moving through different tones as Jennie herself moves in and out of worlds. The Siren wasn't surprised to hear, from Dan Callahan, that Luis Bunuel loved Portrait of Jennie. What might Bunuel have done with a chance to direct its star?
An eeriness clings to Jones and every attempt to discuss her. You reach for the same adjectives: febrile, intense, jittery, instinctual. When she arrived in Hollywood she was married to the gifted but self-destructive Robert Walker, with whom she had two sons. In addition to having a bad drinking problem, it was Walker's profound misfortune to have David O. Selznick fall in love with his wife. The question that overhangs Jennifer Jones is whether Selznick's love was ultimately her misfortune, too. He is generally supposed to have slowly smothered her talent, rendering her less natural and more stilted the longer she remained under his influence. (Miriam Bale alludes to this in her excellent piece that accompanied last year's Jennifer Jones retrospective at Lincoln Center.)
This theory isn't so tidy, however. It's true that several of her best movies, including the Lubitsch masterpiece Cluny Brown and Michael Powell's Gone to Earth (which the Siren, alas, has yet to see) were made outside of Selznick's meddling. Cluny Brown shows a flair for comedy that Jones never got a chance to exploit, unless you count Beat the Devil, which the Siren doesn't find very funny. Cluny, we are told repeatedly, doesn't know her place, but of course she does. Her place is with Charles Boyer's Adam Belinski, the intellectual who alone appreciates her. "You must never become a victim of my circumstances, and, if you should ever seem romantic to me, don't hesitate. Just kick me," Cluny tells her true love (who responds, "Yes, let's kick each other"). No one but Jennifer Jones could have shown the right combination of physical enthusiasm and ardent innocence in explaining how to solve blocked-up pipes: "I would bang, bang, bang, all night long."
But Jones is good or excellent in other movies where Selznick either produced or hovered a great deal at the margins. There's Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun, of course, a valiant attempt to show carnality unmarked by civilization, with intermittently good scenes from the actress. Jones is a better creature of the body in King Vidor's Ruby Gentry.
But there's also her young girl in Since You Went Away, an underrated portrait of innocence yearning to grow up. The overall film is heavy-handed, it is true, but Jones isn't, and the Siren loves both her bright eagerness at the dance in the hangar, and the farewell scene at the train. She did a fine job with Madame Bovary's dual nature in Minnelli's film, especially in the ballroom scene, where Emma's sexual and class longings become too much for the room, or indeed the film, to contain. And the Siren is fond of Jones in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, even if few others are. This invalid Elizabeth still has a simmering physicality and some common sense; compare Jones' realization of the incestuous nature of her father's interest with the prim horror displayed by Norma Shearer, and see if you don't take the Siren's point. And although it is Laurence Olivier's movie, the Siren admires Jones in Carrie, where she makes the title character more interesting than she was in Dreiser's novel. Olivier admired Jones as well, later in life comparing her to Meryl Streep.
There certainly are films, however, where Selznick's influence can't be described as anything other than unfortunate--certain ludicrous passages in Duel in the Sun; the overcooked, overtinkered A Farewell to Arms; or the producer's butchering of de Sica's Terminal Station, complete with the most shudder-inducing re-titling ever, Indiscretion of an American Wife.
But if Selznick's obsession with Jones was in some ways detrimental to her career (and her mental stability) it didn't do much for Selznick, either, who did better work when still married to the shrewd and decidedly earthbound Irene Mayer. In Irene's autobiography, she tells a revealing story about the aftermath of the Selznicks' breakup. Jones pretended to be Dorothy Paley to get Irene on the phone, then waited outside a theatre for hours to confront the ex-wife. Irene had her driver take them on circle after circle of Central Park as Jones became hysterical, saying David didn't want her, he wanted Irene and his life was ruined unless he could have her back. Jones also tried to throw herself out of the car. "She talked as if I were responsible," Irene said.
Selznick's relationship with Jones is a particulary sad story of Hollywood folie à deux, and Walker's horrible death and the eventual suicide of Selznick's daughter with Jones turns it to tragedy. Jennifer Jones is like Marion Davies, in that we will always wonder what her career would have been without Svengali. And we'll never have a completely satisfying answer to whether Selznick's influence was imposed from without, or whether Jones was drawing it to herself. That ambiguity turns up in all of Jones' screen roles--is she being manipulated, or is she using her "weakness," whether social, mental or sexual, to manipulate?
It is comforting to note that Jones went on, after her own fight against mental illness and all that trauma during and after her years of stardom, to forge some apparent stability and contentment. Sometime around the late 70s-early 80s my father was at the front desk of a hotel (the St. Regis?) when he heard a voice at his elbow that sounded familiar, asking the clerk for something. He turned to see Jennifer Jones, still clearly recognizable after all those years. As Dad gaped the clerk asked her name (ah, how fame fades) and she said, "Mrs. Norton Simon."
A Star Is Born, played for a clueless clerk and an astonished audience of one.