Biography

Jennifer Jones: Portrait of a Lady (18 Aug. 2001)

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Outline of Jennifer
23 February 2003 | by (London, England) – See all my reviews

This video explores the main events in the life of the actress known as Jennifer Jones who was active making films between 1939-1974 when she retired from the motion picture business.

She was born on 2nd March 1919 as Phyllis Lee Isley, the extremely beautiful only child of Phil and Flora Mae Suber Isley from Tulsa, Oklahoma.Her parents ran a "stock" company there, what we in Britain might call repertory, i.e. a group of players who put on popular works for a modest admission price.From the earliest, Phyllis would help her parents in the box office, issue programmes and even take on small child roles herself.In the 1920's as a treat, her parents took her to New York's "Great White Way" to see her stage idols in person.She is reported to have told her parents at the time, "One day my name will be in lights too".This influence created in her a fierce, burning ambition and desire to succeed as a professional stage actress.

Phyllis graduated from grade school in 1932 and progressed to Tulsa's Monte Cassino Junior College where she invariably played the leading female roles in school productions.She even asked that another girl be given the title of "May Queen" as she considered she had received enough honours bestowed upon her.After a year studying drama at Northwestern University, Illinois, she left as she was streets ahead of her classmates and did not consider she was progressing fast enough.She passed the audition to the prestigous American Academy of Dramatic Art (AADA) in New York, (our version of R.A.D.A.) and it was there that she met her first husband, Robert Walker.They became friends and rehearsed together, fervently discussing drama and acting.In one audition piece she played Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Walker's Robert Browining, a role she filmed in England in 1957.Walker became disenchanted with studying at the AADA and left for a while to work on a banana boat!This rather eccentric behaviour was to repeat itself throughout his short life.He died in 1951 aged 33 after a medical injection fatally mixed with the alcohol in his body, even though it was administered by two doctors.Depression caused by his divorce from his beloved "Phyll" and inability to find a lasting relationship with other women, must also have played a part in his downward spiral from 1944 onwards.His greatest role? - I say Hitchcock's, "Strangers on a Train" (1950) with Farley Granger.

Phyllis also decided to leave the AADA and they tried unsuccessfully to obtain professional work on the stage in New York, e.g. by playing in the run-down Cherry Lane theatre.Phyllis' parents were aghast when they discovered on a visit to the "Big Apple" that their precious daughter was living a nearly hand to mouth existence with Robert in a "down at heel" flat where one had to bathe in the kitchen sink!.Her father had influence in Tulsa with the local radio station and urged Phyllis to come back to play in her own radio show there.However Phyllis agreed only on condition that Robert was given the same break too and her parents agreed.

In January 1939 Phylis married Robert Walker and as a wedding present, her parents gave the couple a car.They drove to Utah to meet Robert's parents then onto Hollywood to try their hand at getting movie work at the major film studios there.Her father had given them letters of introduction because by this time he was operating a small chain of remunerative Oklahoma/Texas movie theatres which he had wisely "bought for a song" during the American Depression of the 1930's by installing the new medium of sound equipment, so customers could hear as well as see their favourite movie stars.

Each major turned them down and the only offer Phyllis got, (Robert was offered nothing), was from the low-budget minded Republic studios.For a pittance she made in 1939 the western "Frontier Horizon" with John Wayne then the "Dick Tracy" serial playing "Gwen", a girl Friday, to the private eye played by Ralph Byrd.Instinct told her that these low profile pictures were not for her and she still hankered to be a great stage actress like one of her idols, Katherine Cornell.After cancelling her contract with Republic through the influence of her father, the couple returned back to New York.They had to sell the car as funds dried up for rent and living expenses.

In 1940 Phylis became pregnant and then was born her first son, Robert Walker Jnr. the spitting image of his father.In 1941 Michael Walker was born.Luckily Robert Walker Snr. had now found steady work in radio and had become reasonably successful.The family then moved to a better address in Long Island NYK.Phyllis was becoming restless with inactivity and her unrealised burning ambition of theatrical stardom.With money easier, a nurse was hired to look after her two sons.Then she heard auditions were to take place in New York for the stage play "Claudia", a role she desperatly coveted.Strangely enough, another Phyllis (Thaxter) won the part but her audition brought her to the attention of the powerful movie mogul, David O. Selznick who listened out of site to her audtion piece in an adjoining room.She messed up and fled in tears but was summoned back by Selznick for a talk about herself and the great relationship was born.

Selznick changed her name to Jennifer Jones in 1942 and in her first leading role, "Song of Bernadette" (1943) she won the best actress Oscar.The day after the ceremony in 1944 she instituted divorce proceedings against Robert Walker.Eventually she married Selznick on a boat in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy in July 1949 when she was 30.David had recently divorced in 1948 from Irene Meyer, (the daughter of the great Louis B) with whom he had two sons.Despite being her husband and mentor, David O.Selznick was never consistently successful in the roles he created for his wife and certainly none to equal his 1939 epic, "Gone with the Wind".He even accurately predicted his obituary would be headlined," David.O.Selznick producer of "Gone with the Wind" died today...".

Although variable, Jennifer Jones did appear in some great film roles, (usually where the Selznick influence was not so pronounced).These were: "Since You Went Away"(1944)- a dutiful daughter,"Love Letters" (1945)- an amnesiac, she never looked more beautiful and lovely, "Duel in the Sun" (1946)- the voluptous, sexy, half breed Indian girl, Pearl Chavez, "Gone to Earth" (1950)- an English gypsy girl, "Love is a Many Splendid Thing"(1955)

  • a Eurasian (half English/Chinese) doctor Suyin, "Good Morning Miss Dove"


(1955) - a beloved small town teacher, and "The Barretts of Wimpole Street"(1957)- an historical figure; are the highlights of her varied and non-type cast film career.But the epitome of Jennifer Jones acting skill, art and talent in my opinion lies in her sublime portrayal of Jennie Appleton from "Portrait of Jennie" (1948) in which she starred opposite her life long friend, Joseph Cotten, (an actor which she partnered in four films, the others being, "Since You Went Away/Love Letters/Duel in the Sun").The ethereal, spiritual quality of her acting talent in "Portrait" is perfectly captured in this role as the ever ageing ghost who befriends her soulmate, the penniless artist, Eban Adams.Strangely this film dissapointed at the box office on its original release date causing Selznick to liquidate his company to pay off his creditors.Now this film to my mind has become a minor classic, the B&W photography around New York is splendid!

Selznick died aged 62 in 1965 leaving Jennifer a widow again and she was then bereft of his counsel and advice.This lack of professional direction caused her career to drift and after two further inconseqential films, "The Idol" (1966), a suicide attempt in November 1967 and "Angel Angel Down We Go"(1969), Jennifer met and married in 1971 her third husband the art connosseur and billionare industrialist, Norton Simon.He persuaded her to take a part in the seminal disaster movie "The Towering Inferno" (1974).This proved to be her last film and swansong, probably because her daughter with Selznick, Mary Jennifer, committed suicide in 1976 by throwing herself off the highest building in Los Angeles.This was probably caused after Mary's battle with depression following the death of her father, her mother's sudden remarriage and her battle with drink and drugs.Jennifer did later buy the movie rights to "Terms of Endearment" with a view to playing the leading role but was tactfully advised she was now too old.Shirley Maclean obtained this part and promptly won an Oscar.In 1993 Jennifer was widowed for the third time when Norton Simon contracted and died of a neurological disorder.

Jennifer Jones has always been an intensely private person who has always resisted giving interviews even to professional authors wishing to write about her.Maybe her innate shyness and lack of confidence was the cause.She now administers the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena, California and is involved in her charitable works.The human side to Jennifer Jones can be found in her nursing experience, her unannounced visit to the troops in Korea in 1951, her charities, honesty and as a caring daughter, wife and mother.Now aged 83, (I'm writing in February 2003), she lives alone in retirement with her family in California.Occasionally she will be tempted out to some event if it impacts her charities or one of her friends e.g. her tribute speeches about Lillian Gish (1984) and Gregory Peck (1989).

In quiter moments she must look back and reflect over a roller-coaster life that has had its dramatic ups and downs, its triumphs and disasters at which the rest of us can only guess.


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