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The Song of Jennifer Jones

Duel in the Sun (1946)

To cast producers in the role of the antagonist is one of film history’s most pervasive quirks. From the early days of cinema to modern times, many stories have been told and re-told about the clash of producers and directors; the money men fighting the creative; commerce in contention with art. Considering the wealth of tales about producers butchering great artists’ visions, flattening complicated art into disposable Pablum, it’s easy to see why this David and Goliath archetype has persisted. How many cinephiles have dreamed of seeing what Erich von Stroheim’s version of Greed (1924) would have been without the judicious cuts of Irving Thalberg? That’s just one example out of many, a story that has repeated itself countless times within the Hollywood industry and elsewhere.

The celebration of a director’s authorial voice, theorized to significant effect in the postwar years, has shaped some of this historical narrative. Maybe it’s even been too influential, robbing the figure of the producer of a more benign reputation, of authorial intent altogether. For as much as one might bristle at the tales of Thalberg’s iron-fisted disputes with Stroheim, his productions marked an era of American Film History. And they were his films more than they were anybody else’s, so strong was his control over their making. Thalberg’s influence managed to last beyond death, with The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937) and Marie Antoinette (W.S. Van Dyke, 1938) being completed according to his vision after the producer had met an untimely end in 1936. Val Lewton is another example of a producer some might rightfully call an auteur, his RKO horror movies having a long-lasting legacy, even beyond those helmed by Jacques Tourneur. Arthur Freed too, for no individual did more to define the midcentury musical than MGM’s very own music man.

Those two have escaped the vilifying fate of the David and Goliath archetype, but they’re certainly not the only ones who deserve to be spared. In any form, essentialism is never a good school of thought to bring into historical considerations or art criticism. Regarding cinema, this is especially true, seeing as it’s one of the more intrinsically collaborative artforms—making blanket statements on the dynamic of its makers would be a fool’s errand. Following that particular train of thought, one could and should also question why the narrative of a producer’s influence on film tends to center the relationship between them and the director. Why not expand the paradigms of a producer’s purported iniquity or undervalued artistic importance to their relationship with actors?

Introducing Mr. and Mrs. Selznick

From David and Goliath, we move to other classic archetypes, those of Pygmalion and his Galatea, perchance Svengali and Trilby. Specifically, our focus shall be producer David O. Selznick and actress Jennifer Jones, and their personal, professional, and artistic partnership. From 1943 onward, Selznick produced most of the movies Jones starred in, or at least had a significant influence in their making. The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) was their first collaboration, and it earned Jones a Best Actress Oscar, an honor that coincided with her transition from an unknown name to a new star thrust upon the public, whether audiences wanted it or not. While it’s challenging to examine the pair’s shared history without falling into a pit of gossipy polemic, one strives to see beyond the scandalous publicity that descended upon them from the 1960s onwards, when Selznick’s death and Jones’ suicide attempts started to overshadow any of their film’s legacy. One wants to transcend the tabloid, and contemplate how a myriad of different forces can shape performance.

David O. Selznick first saw Jennifer Jones in 1941, when she was still known as Phyllis Isley Walker. The producer, then famous for the back-to-back triumphs of Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940), was the one that came up with that change, formulating an alliterative name that rang with the promise of success, mass appeal, the shine of stardom. At the time of their meeting, Selznick was besotted, immediately setting to work to turn her into a new movie star. However, more than a simple professional affair, the pair’s involvement grew sexual, romantic, even though both parties were married: him to future theatre impresario Irene Selznick, she to up-and-coming actor Robert Walker. The affair was an open secret, though nowadays, it’s hard to track the details of their early involvement.

In any case, they were both practically separated from their respective spouses by 1944. That year’s major Selznick production, Since You Went Away (John Cromwell, 1944), cast her alongside Walker. The actors’ tension of the situation is palpable, if not on her work, then his. The producer and actress would divorce their respective partners—Jones in 1946, Selznick in 1949—and were wed less than six months after becoming single. By then, Jones was an Oscar-winning star, and Selznick’s reputation, his power over the industry, was in steep career decline. Jones, whose public persona—strongly controlled by her husband—was often swiveling between pious innocent and sultry temptress, would come to find the entanglement with Selznick as beneficial to her career as it was torturous. Multiple suicide attempts by the starlet happened throughout the years the two were together, especially in those illicit years of the 40s.

According to biographers, she was a nervous woman, anxious, with a temperament unsuited for a celebrity’s life. Her husband and producer’s constant pressure didn’t help matters, his obsessive control often taking the form of flagellating admiration. The countless photoshoots he made her do are infamous, as is the man’s perpetual displeasure at the results. For some reason, film never seemed to capture what he saw in her, not entirely. Many have described the actress’ attention-seeking antics at social events. Still, many other descriptions paint the picture of a woman struggling with mental health issues and who may have been happier had she kept away from the gaze of the camera altogether. Well into the twilight of her movie career, in 1987, Jones was a presenter at the Academy Awards, and it’s impossible not to notice the tripping up over words, tremulous poise, a general lack of focus. How could someone with such handicaps command the screen in the fashion befitting a movie star? One would think it impossible, and yet, Jones did it.

The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943)

1943–1945: From Saint to Sinner

When watching her movies, it’s impossible to look away from Selznick’s muse, his fascination, his beloved. What’s more interesting is how different Jones feels when participating in films made outside the bubble of her husband’s influence, starring in pictures whose very visual grammar is built upon the need to showcase her. As in any exploration of Jones’ filmography, one must start with Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette. Of course, it’s not her first screen appearance, no matter how much Selznick would have us think otherwise. In an attempt to fool the public into believing that she was discovered for the religious drama, the producer credited his starlet with the words “introducing Jennifer Jones as Bernadette.” According to his son, Daniel, Selznick tried to get all the prints of Jones’ actual screen debut, New Frontier (1939), burned so that the world was convinced Bernadette was her introduction to the silver screen.

Whatever the matters of authenticity surrounding her crediting, Jones took to the role of Saint Bernadette Soubirous with fearless abandon. She committed to the character to the point of eating dirt and twigs when the script said so, though her director expected less animalistic fervor and more mimetic playacting. It’s the attitude of a performer who knows a part might change their whole life, a premonition that would have been correct had it passed through Jones’ mind. The movie, released during World War II, was a huge hit. In that historical context, the film’s idea of suffering as a path to eternal salvation was almost hopeful. Indeed, one of the best elements of Jones’ performance is how little she demonstrates the pain, physical or mental, even in scenes built around the discussion of her character’s chronic ailments. It feels like a paradoxical approach to the feverish intensity of the weed-eating. However, both acting choices reveal an affinity for the character’s interiority and the influence of her producer, a strong proponent of soft-focus glamour close-ups as indicators of admiration, beauty, and saintliness.

With her face framed by veils even before she dons a nun’s habit, the actress plays the salvation instead of the suffering for the camera, letting the audience connect the dots between textual mortification and the angelic peace of her delivery. Like any art form, film and screen acting do not exist within a vacuum. In the interaction between viewer and object, that’s where cinema as an art truly resides. Consequently, we can say that the value of a screen performance doesn’t merely correspond to what the camera captures, but what the viewer ultimately perceives, what they see in the play of light, movement, time, human emotion. Hence why leaving space for the imagination can be so important. While such matters are easier to discuss when considering contemporary minimalist performers such as Isabelle Huppert, the same logic exists within the filigreed artifice of Old Hollywood acting, in Jones’ Bernadette.

When her face fills the screen, there’s a disarming openness to Jones’ serene expression. Whether it’s religious ecstasy or self-delusion, it’s inconsequential and necessarily unanswerable. Just as the studio light reflects off her face, a brilliant moon-like sight, the audience too can let their imagination reflect on the actress’ awed features. One’s idea of what divine revelation must feel like can fit seamlessly into what the screen shows, for there’s a deliberate lack of specificity in Jones’ rendering of Bernadette. It’s not a fault, but a feature, a feat of weaponized blankness that recalls Garbo’s last shot in Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933). Many of Jones’ performances gain their power through such fleet footed evasion, a dance between the actor and her audience. When the two dance, stillness and distance can be as important as the clash of bodies. Similarly, in a conversation, what’s left unsaid is often more important than what’s verbalized.

Judging by their early collaborations, Selznick was very interested in this ability of Jones to make blankness into a performance asset, to make such nebulous expressions into a projection screen for the audience’s imagination. The role of Victoria Morland, a traumatized woman suffering from amnesia, in William Dieterle Love Letters (1945) is another unknowable figure whose mystery necessitates the actress to deliver a performance of closed-off sentiment, an enigma. Hers is an opaque characterization that needs to remain ineffable until the time for the big reveal arrives. It’s the kind of part that inspires the viewer’s imagination, a void begging to be filled by something, anything. It’s fascinating to watch, frustrating too, for Selznick contextualized all of this within a preposterous romantic plot written by Ayn Rand. Most of Jones’ movies directly after The Song of Bernadette have a romantic element for which, more often than not, the actress was unsuited.

Regardless of what Selznick might have thought, Jennifer Jones was unnervingly insular as a screen partner, making for bizarre tonalities whenever the actress was asked to play romance. Often in her filmography, one finds Jones reciting her lines to an unfocused middle distance or exploring the set around her co-stars without ever meeting their eye. When interviewed about the making of King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946), the actress described her methodology as a sort of trance, as if she were hypnotizing herself into a character rather than deliberating each acting choice. This strategy to the labor of getting into character might explain why she often feels like she’s talking to herself whilst in dialogue with others.  So conspicuous is this that, at times, it becomes an added layer of meaning to the film, offering an anti-sentimental reading on the goopy plots of postwar melodrama. In the best-case scenario, it could become a central tenet of her performance and her film, maybe even inspire daffy hilarity.

Madame Bovary (Vincente Minnelli, 1949)

1946–1949: Portraits of Jennifer

As in many aspects of Jennifer Jones’ career, Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed film Cluny Brown (1946) shines bright as a nearly insurmountable triumph and the best example of her farcical abilities. It’s also one of the few movies the actress did with little to no interference from Selznick. In a comedic story about class relations and gender expectations in 1940s England, Jones’ titular Cluny Brown is posited as an outsider who doesn’t know her place in society. An aspiring plumber, she resists being limited by traditional ladylike acquiescence despite her uncle’s wishes. He sends her to learn subservience as a maid, hoping it will help, but her misadventures don’t go as planned. When looking at Jones’ career and craft through the prism of her relationship with Selznick, it’s easy to read this narrative as a twisted mirror image of the producer’s pressure on the actress. His stubborn intent on making her a figure of prestige, a conventional leading lady with sensuous allure, and a penchant for tear-jerking romance: everything that Cluny Brown isn’t, everything Lubitsch’s heroine refuses to be.

The German director with the mythic touch favored medium shots in Cluny Brown, eschewing the close-ups Selznick so often demanded be peppered through every one of Jones’ films. Through Lubitsch’s economy, when one such shot manifests, its impact is undeniable, mainly when he employs them to rupture scenes’ mood, cutting humor with a blade of miserable shame. Part of the brilliance of Jones’ Cluny Brown is the profound melancholy shading all the hilarity. The actress manages to negotiate two apparently incompatible tones, screwball sensibility and bone-deep desolation. She effectively plays comedy like a tragedienne. It’s resoundingly complicated in its mirth. Her body language exists in the same ballpark, her usual nervous tics and restlessness harnessed into effervescent enthusiasm that, when interrupted, jostles the audience. For once, Jones’ penchant for undisciplined gesture worked out in her favor without a character trait, like Bernadette’s illness, demanding she abandon her natural physicality.

When exploring all of Jones’ movies, Cluny Brown is refreshing beyond words, even regarding the vocal work that, like those jitters, was a recurring issue of the Hollywood thespian. For an actress not particularly agile with speech transformation, Jones played non-American characters quite often, and it rarely resulted in praise-worthy results. Her plumber-wannabe in Cluny Brown, whose accent gets folded into the archness of Lubitsch’s brand of refined farce, is her most extraordinary effort in this regard. She also played desire better when she could refract it through subterfuge or indirect fixation, aloof frivolity. What fails in the most Selznick-led productions thoroughly works in Lubitsch’s film, where lust is a matter of plumbing. Judging by many anecdotes, Selznick was utterly incapable of seeing that and demanded passion from Jones, even in the rape scene of Duel in the Sun, for which the producer demanded a score that sounded like an orgasm. Vidor had to remove Selznick from the set, his heavy breathing during love scenes constituting a distraction to all involved.

All those words about the unfairness of vilifying producers and here we are, doing the same deed, perpetuating the same clichéd reductivism. Still, no matter how much Selznick might have been incapable of adequately seeing what Jones’ best qualities were as a performer, he did make some incredible pictures around his muse. William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (1948) is the best of them, a demented love story crisscrossed by time-traveling ideas and haunting apparitions. It’s a film about obsession, a painter’s fixation on a mysterious girl, and the movie producer’s infatuation with his leading lady. Knowing the public details of their affair and his efforts to make a star out of Jones, Portrait of Jennie transmogrifies an unlikely romance into a searing confession by its author to an audience, and to the woman he so desperately fetishizes by way of the camera. Have no doubt, Dieterle may be credited as the director, but Portrait of Jennie is Selznick’s film through-and-through. Fittingly, it also represents the epitome of Jones as an impenetrable object of desire, a woman out of time and out of place, as unreachable as Gatsby’s green light, as lovingly shot as any person ever was.

Portrait of Jennie was to be Selznick’s last credited job as a producer. From then on, despite his insistent influence over Jones’ movies, he did not take credit for them. How appropriate that this phase of the movie mogul’s career reached its end with his most personal film, a love letter to his future wife. Much can be said about the venal oddity of his casting of her as a child in the film’s early scenes, but the picture’s desperate song of adoration is hard to deny, both for how mellifluous it is, and how pathetic too. If Selznick uses the painter as his cinematic avatar, he’s defining himself as the audience of his own muse while also conjuring up a story where the artist does manage to capture her loveliness. The fictional hero does what Selznick thought he could not. If the man on-screen triumphs, the man off-screen fails. The only constant is Jennie/Jennifer’s transcendental perfection. One cries thanks to what’s on-screen, and also thanks to the ephemeral cloud of sadness that off-screen Tinsel Town history floats over the painter’s tragic narrative. When a storm tints the frame arsenic-green, that ghostly melancholy feels like it’s gained materiality. A folly, for sure, but one that the film inspires regardless of its impossibility.

How strange that, after such an enamored love letter, Selznick would go on to have Jennifer Jones cast as Madame Bovary in a moralistic adaptation of the 19th-century novel. Nevertheless, this twisted American take on Madame Bovary (Vincente Minnelli, 1949) allows the actress more liberties than was usual in the producer’s romantic reveries, perhaps because the reading of the tale put forward by Minnelli and Selznick is so strongly critical of the protagonist. No matter how glamorous Jones appears, the film intends on judging her. Maybe the actress allowed herself some of that judgment, too, resulting in a self-aware performance of brittle incandescence. Her Emma Bovary is almost maniacal. Her boundless want acted with a near-psychotic edge. Within Selznick’s produced projects, Madame Bovary shows off Jones at her freest and most willing to experiment. Her intensity explodes through her dated acting choices, bursting outwards as the jagged vision of a woman whose need feels genuinely dangerous.

There’s wretchedness vibrating through Jones’ Emma Bovary, a bottomless well of want that makes her a victim of her own desires, fiery sometimes and painfully cold in other instances. Moments where we see Emma struggling to relate to her baby or striving for admiration, a comfortable life, luxury, ring painfully true to Jones’ life. After burning his loving obsession into celluloid with Portrait of Jennie, Selznick seems to have allowed Jones to do the same with Madame Bovary. Both films act as disquietingly self-reflection and self-evisceration turned into a spectacle for the masses. Minnelli was only too happy to oblige, shooting the movie with a style that’s as elegantly unhinged as Jones’ performance. For instance, the director shoots the Bovarys’ wedding as a nightmare of rowdy chaos, letting his leading lady be carried by other actors, thrown around whilst wearing a veritable confection of nuptial fashion, looking more like a wedding cake than a happy bride. As it stands, it’s more disturbing than ridiculous, more frightening than amorous.

Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950)

1950–1974: Dead Titans, Falling Stars

The arrival of the 1950s brought with it the wildest and most unruly phase of Selznick and Jones’ shared life, on-screen and off. Focusing only on the former, one gets the unshakeable impression of a former titan losing his power and trying, at all costs, to maintain the impression he still has it. Pushing Jones in the direction of great directors, the producer started to be increasingly incapable of having the movies shot to his preferences, later having his revenge when the matter of American distribution came into play. Gone to Earth (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1950) features one of Jones’ more expressive turns, but Selznick didn’t like the Archers’ style and especially opposed the lack of focus on Jones’ lovely visage. He recut and re-shot parts to better fit his idea of what a star vehicle should be, releasing it in Europe in its original form but putting it in American cinemas as a train wreck titled The Wild Heart. Stazione Termini (Vittorio De Sica, 1953), a fascinating study about the clashes of Hollywood glam and Italian Neorealism, Golden Age theatrics and novel method acting, was also recut. This time it was called Indiscretion of an American Wife, and Jones’ tentative forays into silent observation, her mingling with non-actors, were left on the cutting room floor to the picture’s great detriment.

Not all these strange midcentury misadventures ended in cinematic wretches, and not all of the disasters were Selznick’s fault. Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952) is a curious object of study, for example. It starts with narration describing its titular character. We’re told who Ruby Gentry is before we ever get a good look at her, ideas varnished on top of a puzzle that doesn’t become any clearer when Jones finally takes center stage. She appears backlit in her first scene proper, posing like the caricature of a seducing femme fatale; Jones can’t keep her poise without some of her usual fidgeting. The friction between role and performer is starkly evident in the way she shifts weight. Simultaneously, the camera savors her supposed eroticism, a blaring reminder that this is an actress putting on a show rather than a person living within the world of the narrative. Her voice, forced into an airless register, doesn’t help either. Instead of husky, Jones sounds as if she’s perpetually yawning. Regarding Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (King, 1955), its lackluster passions and shameful Oscar-nominated yellowface: the less said about it, the better.

Her witchy zaniness in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) is a besotting sight, however. Working outside of Selznick’s sphere of influence, Jones tapped back into the comedic prowess she had shown in Cluny Brown, adding a crazed unpredictability to a production that was treated like a boozy vacation by many in the cast and crew. If her husband didn’t keep casting her in prestigious dramas, maybe Jones would have become one of the great comediennes of postwar American cinema. We’ll never know what Jones’ acting would have looked like without the influence of Selznick, but the acting portfolio we do have is not without value. By challenging her with prestige dramas when her innate sensibilities felt more attuned to comedy, to transcendent anti-naturalistic reverie, the producer ended up giving Jones the opportunity, the path, to grow as a dramatic performer. After much nervous motion, she learned stillness with age and with Selznick, delivering one of her best performances in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1957). In the role that Thalberg once coveted and guaranteed his wife, Norma Shearer, Jones was more disciplined than ever, less trance-like, focused.

Still, as Selznick’s power waned, so did his ability to influence his wife’s career. Like many Selznick productions, especially those involving Jones, Tender is the Night (King, 1962) was a cumbersome project. The producer went as far as removing Huston, who was meant to direct, from the movie, before he himself was let go by the studio. The signs were evident for everyone to see. Hollywood had no use for David O. Selznick anymore. Every one of Jones’ projects after that carried with them a weight of profound sadness. In The Idol (Daniel Petrie, 1966), which was made after Selznick’s death in 1965, Jones stares at herself in the mirror while Vivaldi echoes through the soundtrack. It’s an achingly introspective work, poised instead of manic, drained of any effervescence. Angel, Angel, Down We Go (Robert Thom, 1969), and The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974) feature similar efforts from Jones, little morsels of pained self-regard that almost feel like an actor’s deconstruction of their erstwhile stardom. In the last movie, her swan song, she exits the narrative with a horrible death, a saintly figure sacrificed to The Towering Inferno’s fire. At that point in her career, Jones was no longer leading star material, not to the Hollywood of 1974. Instead, she was kindling. Somehow, as performed by Jones, the moment is more wistful than cruel, the plaintive departure of a star turned into a falling meteor, falling ablaze into oblivion.

Reassessing Complicated Legacies

The legacy of Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick’s relationship, this troubled artistic partnership, has reshaped itself over the years, a mutable memory that’s as full of contradictions as the actress’ 40s persona. In 2015, David O. Russell evoked the pair in Joy, perplexingly contextualizing their romance as a metaphor for the American Dream. It’s possible the actress would approve. Despite whatever troubles she might have lived through, in the end, Jones expressed positive feelings about her tenure as a Hollywood star. She described her life as extraordinary, so much so that, at times, the actress herself could hardly believe it was her life. Nevertheless, her modern reputation isn’t particularly excellent, extending beyond the distaste for a specific old-fashioned acting style. Books like Jean Stein’s West of Eden: An American Place have painted a dark picture of Jennifer Jones off-screen. Immeasurably troubled, she’s often depicted as the cause of many ills, including the destruction of her ex-husband’s psyche, his sobriety, his spirit. David Thompson, author of Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick, has been especially ruthless towards Jones, treating even an obituary for The Guardian as an opportunity to decry her lack of acting ability, her vanity, vacuity, suicidal ideations, and monstrous motherhood.

Even some of her contemporaries, like Lauren Bacall, disparaged Jones’ acting ability, attributing her success singularly to Selznick rather than any personal skill of hers. On the other hand, a few of Jones’ most illustrious co-stars spoke fondly of the actress. Laurence Olivier had great respect for her after co-starring in a very sanitized adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s famed novel, Carrie (William Wyler, 1952). Furthermore, accounts of Jones can vary from vicious to pitiable, an arc of extremes that tends to obfuscate any fundamental considerations of her work as an actor. Take, for example, Michael Powell’s haunting words about an encounter he had with Jones during the shooting of Gone to Earth. In his memoir, Powell recounts an occasion when she was drunk, rambling about her marriage:

She hated him. He had forced himself into her life uninvited, been repulsed, again and again, had broken her marriage, destroyed her husband, alienated her children, and was such an appalling egoist that he believed his attentions could compensate for all the harm he had done. He had enslaved her with a contract that promised to make her the greatest star in the world, without the least knowledge of how to do it, and expecting other people to do it for him. […] She wished she could escape—run away—but there was no escape, none, none, none! None of us could understand what her life was like. Nobody could understand what it was like living with a man like David.

— A Life in Movies, Michael Powell

No matter the potential horrors happening beyond the limits of the silver screen, that magical window that lets the audience escape from reality, Jones and Selznick did create indelible cinema. Even better than producing flawless masterpiece after flawless masterpiece, their joined filmographies represent a candid, often very personal, treaty on the malleability of screen acting. Their films show the impact a producer can have on a performer’s craft and how a simple matter of shot composition can alter how one perceives acting. Speaking only of Jones, the element of this couple more maltreated by history, she might not have been a perfect actress, but she was a fascinating one. Instead of attempting to resolve the incongruencies of her most oddball characters, Jones made them more evident. Her characterization strategy was often to alienate viewers at the same time. She invited their imagination to help define what her presence meant. Whether playing a saint or a wild woman, Jones never tried to bring them down to earth, to make these figures into relatable properties for the audience to love unreservedly. She didn’t have to since the camera already loved her so, the man pulling the shots already did. That gave her as much freedom as limitations, but great art is often born out of those invisible shackles. In their own unique way, Jones and Selznick achieved greatness.