When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
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Jennifer Jones (1919 – 2009)

Last Friday, I had morning coffee at a cozy westside cafe in Manhattan while trying to find words that attempt to articulate my appreciation of the legacy left behind by actress Jennifer Jones, who died last week at the age of ninety.


When I first heard the news, I went into a little bit of denial, since I thought of her often.  Some of my desert island films feature Jennifer Jones, so I frequently re-screen her best work — and as part of my post-screening closure I’d send a small thank-you vibe in her direction.  That morning, as I jotted down a list of possible titles to write about, I felt an acute loss and my eyes got a little misty.  (Adding to the poignancy, Chrissie Hynde’s slow, acoustic version of “Kid” was playing over the coffeehouse speakers.)

But — in alignment with the folklore of my Southern Gothic childhood — I should have known she had passed away because she has been intensely on my mind for the 48 hours prior to hearing the news.  At the Museum of Modern Art on Thursday, visiting the Tim Burton retrospective, I mentioned the DUEL IN THE SUN parody in MARS ATTACKS to my partner.  Walking through Central Park to catch a five o’clock screening of the new Almodóvar film, I flashed on Joseph Cotten’s first encounter in that locale with Jones in the ethereally breathtaking PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.  I even had Wild Man Fisher’s long-winded and bizarre 1968 tune “Miss Jennifer Jones Is Lying Dead on My Porch” [a song in which the protagonist has the same name as the actress] running through my head for a while Thursday morning.

Hers was an unusual talent, releasing itself through the instrument of her body by a rich mixture of chemistries, both sexual and psychological.  Her often-documented precarious mental stability drew forth gifts of insight and risk to her art:  neurologically-speaking, she seemed predestined to have played both Emma Bovary and Nicole Diver (although neither Minnelli’s MADAME BOVARY nor Henry King’s TENDER IS THE NIGHT was her finest onscreen moment).  Her sexual chemistry captured and obsessed the imagination of the married producer David O. Selznick who made her a star, then divorced his wife to marry Jones. For Jones, he produced or created loan-outs packages that were some of the most interesting films of that era. 

Selznick explored both the virgin and the whore in Jones, producing epics that exploited her innocence (SINCE YOU WENT AWAY) and her libido (DUEL IN THE SUN).  But in his loan-outs of Jones, Selznick showed acumen in understanding contemporary film trends even if the projects themselves were misfires.  For example, THE RED SHOES and BLACK NARCISSUS director Michael Powell used her in one of his eccentric/deviant films, GONE TO EARTH (aka GYPSY BLOOD and THE WILD HEART) in the early 1950s.

After her friend Ingrid Bergman’s immersion into the Italian Neo-Realist film scene, Jennifer Jones followed by playing opposite Montgomery Clift in Vittorio De Sica’s STAZIONE TERMINI, a maligned yet fascinating work which was severely edited for U.S. release as INDISCRETIONS OF AN AMERICAN WIFE.  De Sica had just completed UMBERTO D. and was in the full powers of his neo-realist technique, eschewing studio sets by filming on location during the dead of night at Rome’s recently-completed, modernist, travertine-laden terminal station.  Also, being accustomed to casting non-professional actors and bringing out their inner qualities, De Sica used this method on the two Hollywood stars with shocking results.  I heard Pauline Kael once explain that this technique undermined leading man Clift (and therefore the movie), whose character was to be dynamic and volatile (and, well, heterosexual) yet he came across as he was in life:  insecure, destructive and self-tortured.  Jones came across much as she has been described in her private life, as erotically-driven with conflicts of conscience.  Two Hollywood mega-stars bared their neuroses in this film, which made the script unbelievable and gave those who watched it an edgy, bugged-out viewing experience.  The closest to ‘chemistry’ between Clift and Jones is an occasional lascivious look she gives her leading man, as if she wants to sink her teeth into him and carve her initials all over his pretty-boy face.

Immediately after wrapping this film, Jones and STAZIONE TERMINI‘s English dialogue writer Truman Capote left Rome for the southern region of Campania to begin on John Huston’s BEAT THE DEVIL, another bold gamble as this was an independent feature financed in part by the director and the leading man, Humphrey Bogart.  Again, Jennifer Jones played a neurotic (a compulsive liar this time, who misrepresents herself in order to compensate for her dull existence), yet she played it for comedy and (when you tune in to the high concept of her interpretation) created one of the most dead-pan, martini-dry comedic performances on film. 

But I have to name my personal favorite of Jennifer Jones on film as PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.  And I’m not alone in my appreciation of it — it was a favorite of Luis Buñuel; also Alfred Hitchcock had a personal copy in his film library.  Highly experimental, the film had no opening credits, and only gave out the credits at the end in narrative sentence form.  The film was built up both narratively and technically as it morphed from black-and-white to tinted film to full Technicolor.  And only Jennifer Jones (with her indefinable connections to that most magical and elusive of art forms — acting) could have played out the inexpressible allure and tragic splendor of Jennie.

Hers was a magical gift of the unspeakable beauty of performance, and she had the talent to make her art register clearly and deeply in the black interior chamber of a movie camera.  And so — with an acute sense of her absence — I’ll end this post and let the aesthetic pleasures she gave me unreel in my mind once more.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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3 Comments to “Jennifer Jones (1919 – 2009)”

  1. Hilary says:

    Thanks for sharing, Doug. I’ve linked to your remembrance on my blog, Limerwrecks.

  2. I knew Miss jones for about 30 yrs. My pal Lillian Gish introduced me to her. Miss J. was shy yet, like Miss Gish, was one of the most educated people I have ever met. Self taught, i.e., books and life. They both had the same philosophy, not to lvie in the past and each day was a new beginning. She did not live in the past. Unlike Hedy Lamarr who believed “once a star, everything else is poverty”, Miss jones followed the philosophy, like Loretta Young, I was once very famous. They used their celebrity in their last years doing unequalled charity work.

    • Doug says:

      That is so amazing to have known those gifted actresses. What a great description of Ms Jones. Thanks so much for your input.

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