She had first tried her hand there four years earlier under her real name, Phylis Isley, playing opposite John Wayne in a B picture, New Frontier, and in a small role in the serial Dick Tracy's G-Men both They were made for the small Republic studio.
Jennifer Jones as Bernadette in the film 'Song of Bernadette' Thanks to her early success, she enjoyed a reputation as a "heavyweight" actress entitled to the meatiest dramatic roles. There were those who felt that she rarely measured up to them, and that parts in Madame Bovary , Gone to Earth , Carrie and Tender Is the Night exposed her limitations. Her forte, which she seldom had a chance to reveal, was actually comedy.
She starred in only two, yet they were among her most accomplished work. Cluny Brown , which she made for Ernst Lubitsch, was a comedy of manners in which she was cast against type as a plumber's niece, never happier than with her sleeves rolled up unblocking drain pipes.
It was an unlikely part made doubly amusing by her complete inability to mimic a Cockney accent. John Huston's Beat the Devil was a companion piece at the other end of the social scale. She and Edward Underdown played confidence tricksters aping the "nobs".
Once more the humour lay in her palpably phoney accent, and the truth is that she had a tin ear. Her would-be Shropshire lilt in Gone to Earth was merely embarrassing. Lubitsch and Huston, however, turned her shortcomings to advantage. In a sense Jennifer Jones was a manufactured star, who survived for some 30 years in Hollywood without being rumbled.
She had a talent for marrying well, and two of her three husbands were millionaires. David O Selznick, whom she married in , was a celebrated Hollywood tycoon who had made Gone with the Wind. He took personal charge of her career, casting her in his own pictures and leasing her services to others as a prime attraction. For the 16 years of their marriage, this paid handsome dividends.
She made only three more films, with long intervals between them. The last, The Towering Inferno , offered her only a cameo role as one of those trapped on the upper floors of a burning skyscraper. The wedding took place five miles off the coast of Dover in the English Channel. They were married on a whim and, as it was Whitsun at the time, a suitable church could not be found.
A Unitarian minister from Kensington was rustled up at short notice and the wedding party — chauffeur, secretary and seasick hairdresser — joined the skipper and a bewildered Customs official to form a scratch congregation.
The minute ceremony was more humanist than religious, with readings from Shakespeare between copious draughts from a loving cup. Norton Simon valued her highly.
Her first stage role, playing a peppermint candy, was in Dallas at the age of five. Her father hoped she would become a lawyer, but she persuaded him to let her attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where she met and married her first husband, the actor Robert Walker.
They travelled to Hollywood without much success, she landing only her two minor roles, he none at all; so they returned to New York, where she did modelling work.
Her breakthrough came with an audition for David O Selznick for a role in Laura. She did not get it, but he put her under contract anyway. He insisted, however, that she gain more practical experience, slipping her into a Santa Barbara production of William Saroyan's Hello, Out There in and sending her back to New York to polish up her diction and acting at the Academy. He tantalised Hollywood by launching her at a press conference as the probable star of his forthcoming production The Keys of the Kingdom eventually made by Fox.
She was also named as his first choice for future productions of Jane Eyre and Claudia, over which he then had options. Both projects were sold on to Fox, who cast different actresses in the title roles. But the bait had been swallowed. When, in , Fox announced plans to film The Song of Bernadette, Selznick was prepared to lend the studio Jennifer Jones to star in it — at a fat fee.
He marketed her as a star before she was one, and the hype paid off. Her performance was hailed as the calling card of a great actress and won an Oscar in The day after the ceremony, she sued Robert Walker for divorce.
Although both were currently playing sweethearts in Selznick's wartime weepie Since You Went Away , it did not seem to affect her prospects. The film was a hit, allowing Selznick to loan her as a bona fide box-office attraction to Paramount for Love Letters , opposite Joseph Cotten she was nominated for an Oscar and to Fox again for Cluny Brown. Nicknamed "Lust in the Dust", it was a grandiose production in which Jennifer Jones played a sensuous "half-breed" whose unbridled passion ruins two men — Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck.
The finale, in which she and Peck trade bullets before crawling bloodily through the sand to a cinematic Liebestod was a masterpiece of Hollywood kitsch.
She married Selznick two years later and he masterminded virtually the rest of her career. This failed at the box office in America and was not released in Britain for three years, surfacing only as a B picture. The following year , her career ran into further difficulty with Selznick's English-based production of Mary Webb's novel Gone to Earth, about a Shropshire lass more at home with wild foxes than with the humankind seeking to seduce her. Directed by Michael Powell, it ran into flak from the British Field Sports Society, which claimed that it prejudiced townspeople against hunting.
Selznick was not happy with Powell's final cut. He felt it did his wife less than justice and ordered retakes by an uncredited King Vidor who had directed her in Duel in the Sun.
Re-released as The Wild Heart, it sank rapidly from sight. Selznick saw her as a younger Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter and cast her as such in another troubled production in Originally called Terminal Station, it was the story of a passionate love affair that develops between Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift in Rome's railway terminus.
Directed by the Italian neo-realist Vittorio De Sica, it flopped everywhere, was cut to 63 minutes and released under the title Indiscretions of an American Wife as the second half of a double bill.
Running for cover, she returned to Broadway in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady , which also failed. Fortunately, in , she starred in the highly successful movie Love is a Many Splendored Thing, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Han Suyin. This marked a revival in her fortunes, and was followed by two more well-received performances in Fox's Good Morning, Miss Dove , as a New England schoolteacher, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit , as the wife of Madison Avenue executive Gregory Peck, for which she received an Oscar nomination.
She was out of her depth, however, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the remake of The Barretts of Wimpole Street , with John Gielgud as her tyrannical father. After Selznick's death in , she stepped in at short notice for an indisposed Kim Stanley in The Idol After a suicide attempt in , she played in Angel, Angel, Down We Go , a soft-porn picture in which she was required to say: Her daughter, Mary Selznick, died aged 21 in