One of the world’s most underrated Academy Award-winning actresses, Jennifer Jones was born Phylis Lee Isley on 2 March 1919 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Flora Mae (Suber) and Phillip Ross Isley, who ran a travelling stage show. As a young aspiring actress, she met and fell for young, handsome, aspiring actor Robert Walker. They soon married, and moved to Chicago in order to fulfill their dreams of becoming film stars. Though their plans (initially) fell through, Phyllis began working as a model; sporting mainly hats, gloves and jewelry, and also occasionally found some work on local radio stations, where she provided the voice for various characters in radio programmes, along with her husband.
In a last-ditch attempt to pursue her dream, Phyllis traveled to Selznick studios for a reading which would ultimately change her life. It was that day where she met David O. Selznick, and after that, her career began to take shape. Initially, Phyllis thought the audition went terribly and stormed out of the studios in tears, only to be chased by Selznick, who assured her she had been fine. Although she didn’t get that particular part (which was for the iconic character, Scarlett O’Hara, which would ultimately go to Vivien Leigh, in one of the most famous castings in Hollywood’s history), Phyllis was given a contract with Selznick studios. In short order, Phyllis was ‘renamed’ to the alliterative Jennifer Jones, and was cast over thousands of other hopefuls in the role of Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette (1943).
For her moving portrayal of the sickly teenager who sees a vision of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes and devotes her life to her by becoming a nun, Jones won the Academy Award for best actress in a leading role on 2 March 1944 (coincidentally her 25th birthday) beating out stiff competition such as Ingrid Bergman (who later became a close friend of hers), Greer Garson, Joan Fontaine and Jean Arthur.
Now, considered a ‘true’ star, Jones’ career was marked out and moulded for her by Selznick, who would become the love of her life. They began an affair and eventually she left her husband and two sons for the producer, which ultimately led Walker to an untimely death, attributed to alcohol and drug abuse instigated due to their separation. As for her career, Jones took on the supporting role of Jane Hilton, a headstrong teenage girl who grows up fast when her fiance is killed in action during WWII, in Since You Went Away (1944). For her performance Jones received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, but lost out to Ethel Barrymore for None But the Lonely Heart (1944). Jennifer continued to deliver strong performances, receiving further best actress Oscar nominations for Love Letters (1945) (she lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce (1945)) and Duel in the Sun (1946), (she lost to Olivia de Havilland for To Each His Own (1946)) which saw her cast against type as the seductive biracial beauty Pearl Chavez.
Jones continued to produce memorable performances throughout the 1940s , including Portrait of Jennie (1948). In the 1950s she received her fifth and final Oscar nomination for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), losing out to Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo (1955).
Despite her success within the film industry, Jones was a very private person and managed to stay out of the spotlight that dominated so many other performers’ lives. But a lack of publicity led to a lack of roles, a trend that amplified when Selznick died in 1965. She appeared in fewer and fewer films, and after a moderately successful supporting performance in The Towering Inferno (1974) Jones decided to make that role her swan song, bowing out of the film industry. She did, however, try to revive her film career in later years by campaigning for the role of Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment (1983), but Shirley MacLaine was cast instead and as a result, won the Oscar for best actress.
Jennifer Jones died 17 December, 2009, in Malibu, California. In the 21st century, Jones may not be as well known as other actresses of her time such as Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson, Bette Davis etc. But for those who know of her and her extraordinary talent, she is alluring to watch and her acting abilities extended far greater than most of her contemporaries.
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