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A Bird in a Gilded Cage: Jennifer Jones at Lincoln Center

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A Bird in a Gilded Cage: Jennifer Jones at Lincoln Center

In the middle of Vincente Minnelli’s version of Madame Bovary (1949), Jennifer Jones’ Emma is at a ball and surrounded by admiring men. The country girl who has read so many romance novels is now seemingly in the midst of one of her stories, and she behaves like a freed prisoner; after a flirtatious laugh, she catches sight of herself in an ornate gilded mirror, and Minnelli cuts to the sumptuous image she sees, then cuts back to a medium shot of her reaction. Jones’ gentle, apple-cheeked face gradually becomes hard, proud, even calculating: it’s a revelation of her narcissistic inner nature as a performer. She rationed this side of herself, so that in William Wyler’s Carrie (1952), the director can only catch the briefest flash of low cunning on her face as she thinks over her options as a female object of desire. Lincoln Center has programmed Jones’ best films from May 16-24, offering us a big screen opportunity to watch one of the more mysterious of screen presences, not quite an actress, not quite a star, but a source of unplaceable anxiety and half-buried, wanton instincts.

Jones often played ethereal, fey girls, like her time-traveling Jennie Appleton in Portrait of Jennie (1949), or her amnesia victim in Love Letters (1945), and this must have been the way she came across to her Svengali, Gone with the Wind (1939) producer David O. Selznick. She began her career playing a saint, Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette (1943), which won her an Oscar (she had made a John Wayne quickie western and a Dick Tracy serial under her real name, Phylis Isley, but Selznick omitted these undistinguished credits from her publicity). Jones’ rather dim intensity suits the role of Bernadette perfectly; you can believe that she sees visions. She basically plays the same note of guilelessness for two and a half hours, and talks about seeing “the lady,” the Virgin Mary, countless times. But Jones has one truly lovely moment here: when she realizes that a boy in town has always been in love with her, all she does is look down, and in that look Bernadette suddenly sees the entirety of a happy life that she hadn’t dreamt of, a life she won’t ever get to live. Bernadette is solemn and overlong, but Jones is so sincere and believably simple that she makes the whole clumsy production work. Whether she was really so simple off the screen is a matter of conjecture that is probably answered by those moments in Carrie and Madame Bovary when her mask of propriety drops.

Jones came from a theatrical family and pursued acting from an early age, along with her first husband, Robert Walker. She came to much grief when asked to choose between Walker and Selznick, a rapacious, brilliant producer who wanted her and promised her the world. Selznick cast the lovelorn Walker opposite his then-estranged wife in her second official film, the sentimental home front epic Since You Went Away (1944), and Jones’ Faustian dilemma off-screen resulted in a performance of discomforting intensity; she overdoes her character’s youthful fervor, and shows the first signs of a battery of nervous physical mannerisms, most notably an overactive mouth that she can’t seem to hold still. There’s an unsettling tension in her love scenes with Walker, who was going to pieces over losing her to Selznick, and their interactions, painful as they are to watch, are the only thing that gives the big, stultifying film a pulse.

In the torturously plotted Love Letters, which was scripted by Ayn Rand (!), Jones is locked into a series of interminable close-ups, first fruits of Selznick’s notorious obsession with her face. In most of the films that followed, even those that Selznick didn’t have direct control over, Jones is isolated in fetishistic close-ups that bewilderingly break into scenes without rhyme or reason, and she grew more and more self-conscious under such unreflective scrutiny. Selznick’s sexual fixation on her resulted in his outrageous western Duel in the Sun (1947), where she postured ludicrously as the supposedly torrid “half-breed” Pearl Chavez. Selznick wanted her to show her scarlet woman side (the producer was still married to his wife Irene, and their affair had to be kept secret), but Jones was clearly uncomfortable when asked to enact her lover’s adolescent erotic ideal on screen. The sheer weight of the production, helmed by King Vidor and several others, frustrates Jones’ best impulses, and she looks like she knows how miscast she is.

Before this ordeal was released, audiences saw Jones liberated by the great Ernst Lubitsch in Cluny Brown (1946), his last completed film. This might be Jones’ only early movie without those pointless Selznick close-ups, and she turns her own (feigned?) obliviousness into the drollest, most sophisticated of dirty jokes. As low-born Cluny, whose love of plumbing stands in for her incipient sexual possibilities, Jones is an unending delight, finding just the right note of wide-eyed eccentricity for Lubitsch’s satire of English mores. Cluny Brown revealed her as a comedienne made for high comedy, but Selznick persisted with her “girl of nature” mode in Portrait of Jennie, a costly flop. After marrying Selznick, Jones looked inhibited while attempting a light Cuban accent in John Huston’s stinker We Were Strangers (1949), but made the most of the literally dizzying ballroom tour-de-force in Minnelli’s Bovary, not an entirely successful film, but a touching one. Toward the end of it, Jones waltzes around a room by herself, trying to recreate her ruined triumph at the ball, and this is another indelible image of her: lost in a daydream, frustrated, marked by fate.

The best reason to attend this festival is the resurrection of Jones’ Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film Gone to Earth (1950), which was re-cut by Selznick and released as The Wild Heart. A comparison between the two cuts reveals Selznick’s simplifying impulses: he edits out all the ambiguity of the main love triangle between Jones’ feral Hazel, Cyril Cusack’s repressed parson and David Farrar’s lusty but vulnerable lord. Selznick’s The Wild Heart plays as an awkward rural melodrama, with Jones as a sacrificial heroine; it’s affecting, but has nowhere near the depth and flame-like strangeness of the Powell version, where Jones captures all the unquenchable sexuality that she couldn’t summon for Pearl Chavez. Both at one with nature and fiercely against it, her Hazel leads a pet fox on a leash down the aisle of a church when she’s going to marry Cusack, and she’s never able to control her libido and love of being looked at and desired. Seen today, Gone to Earth looks like a primitive Powell masterpiece to place beside Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), and it shows what Jones could do when she was freed of Selznick’s overbearing attention (he was not on set as they shot it, and Powell wins what is probably Jones’ most uninhibited, most revealing single performance).

King Vidor then had his way with Jones in Ruby Gentry (1952), a personal, elemental movie that the director smuggled past Selznick. As a backwoods girl caught in a ferocious love battle with Charlton Heston, Jones is direct, voluptuous and quietly lethal when she orders vengeance on her faithless lover in that throaty, almost slurred voice of hers; she always sounds as if she’s trying to swallow something bitter. Vidor zeroes in on the unhealthy-looking contrast of Jones’ porcelain skin with her raven hair and bushy black eyebrows and gives her a strong framework to create a focused, passionate performance. In this, as in so many of the films she made in her comparatively brief career, Jones plays someone much like herself, a relatively simple girl who pays a steep price to fulfill her desires and ambitions.

Jones’ inchoate urge to get ahead but still somehow remain a nice person is also what informs her Carrie Meeber in Wyler’s Carrie. In that movie, Laurence Olivier is giving the performance of his life as the besotted and gradually ruined George Hurstwood, and in strict acting terms he blows Jones off the screen. Magnificent and even personal as he is, though, you can always see Olivier acting, whereas Jones simply is Theodore Dreiser’s naïve, vague survivor heroine; it was particularly felicitous casting. Around the same time, the chronically unhappy Robert Walker died of an overdose, under circumstances that are still unclear. Like Carrie with Hurstwood, Jones had to carry the guilt of Walker’s disintegration and death for the rest of her life, one of several wounds she had to bear that could never really heal.

Quite unexpectedly, Jones again turned to comedy and excelled in John Huston’s cult classic Beat the Devil (1954). She’s the only performer in the cast who finds exactly the right tone for the bizarre Truman Capote script (just as she instinctively understood the refined comic rhythms of Lubitsch). As Gwendolen Chelm, an extremely inventive pathological liar, a blond-wigged Jones appears to be having the time of her life with her detailed flights of fancy delivered in a plummy English accent, and it is to be regretted that this second comic triumph did not lead to more work in this vein. That same year, Selznick again ruined a fine director’s film starring his wife; he cut Vittorio de Sica’s Terminal Station down to 63 minutes and gave it the absurd title Indiscretion of an American Wife. Yet again, he simplified a Jones movie and made her character nobly, one-dimensionally sympathetic. In the de Sica cut, Jones is obviously a fancy housewife with undeniable physical urges who has been looking for a little pleasure in Italy, and she’s well paired with an equally dark, neurotic actor, Montgomery Clift. The difference between the two films is one more example, if any was needed, of just how destructive Selznick’s influence was on Jones’ film work.

At this point, Jones’ career rapidly deteriorated. She had a box office hit with Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), but that tame romance hasn’t aged well, and she spends most of Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955) flat on her back in a hospital bed, primly sniping at all around her; we’re supposed to find her rigid schoolmarm lovable underneath her prim exterior, but Miss Dove is really just a one-dimensional martinet in a dull film. Jones seems to give her whole performance as the unhappy wife in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956) with her mouth, which twitches so uncontrollably throughout that she seems in desperate need of a sedative. This was followed by three painfully misguided “big” movies: she was a stilted Elizabeth Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), a neurasthenic Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms (1957), where she again struggles to carry the load of Selznick’s overblown production, and a possessed Nicole Diver in a dreadful film of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1962). Everything around Jones is almost unbelievably poor in Tender, but it’s worth seeing for her fully committed portrait of disturbed, childlike instability (she had Paula Strasberg as an acting coach on the set to help her dredge up the requisite demons).

After Selznick’s death in 1965, Jones completely lost her bearings. She accepted an unsuitable lead in The Idol (1966), playing a woman seduced by a younger man, then descended much further in the jaw-dropping Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969), where she is given lines like, “I made thirty stag films and I never faked an orgasm!” Much worse is the moment when she says, “I like Gone with the Wind,” covering her face with embarrassment at this shamelessly low level of self-exploitation, which surely had Selznick spinning in his grave. Angel, also known as Cult of the Damned, would be a hoot if it didn’t humiliate Jones so flagrantly; she looks stiffly uncomfortable and seems confused by the campy, Off-Off-Off Broadway material. In her final movie, the all-star disaster epic The Towering Inferno (1974), Jones is last seen ungracefully falling out of an elevator shaft to her death. Around this time, her daughter with Selznick, Mary Jennifer, committed suicide, and Jones herself made a serious suicide attempt. Bloodied but unbowed, she emerged from this lost period to create a successful third act as the wife to millionaire art collector Norton Simon, devoting herself to him, his museum in Pasadena, and also to the aid of the mentally ill.

Selznick was a great producer in the thirties and early forties, giving valuable first opportunities to Katharine Hepburn, George Cukor, Vivien Leigh, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock, but by the time he met and then married Jones, he had exhausted himself. He created and then thwarted her career, just as Van Heflin’s well-meaning but drunk husband spoils Jones’ vertiginous waltz in Madame Bovary. Still, Jones is a crucial part of five varied and exceptional films, Cluny Brown, Gone to Earth, Carrie, Ruby Gentry and Beat the Devil, and her fascinating, in some ways morally compromised life operates as a cautionary tale with a partial happy ending. Like Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber, Jones looked fragile and insecure, yet it’s probable that this was just a front with which she fooled even herself; inside, she was built to outlast nearly all of her contemporaries. Such survival comes with a price, clearly visible in that last, fleeting glimpse of her Ruby Gentry, a grey-haired old sea salt staring straight ahead into the distance, lost in circular, guilt-ridden thoughts.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.