Jennifer Jones: Actress who won an Oscar for her role in 'The Song of Bernadette'

Jennifer Jones won an Academy Award as best actress for her first major screen role, that of the young girl from Lourdes who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, in The Song of Bernadette (1943).

She was nominated in three more consecutive years – as supporting player for Since You Went Away (1944), and as best actress for Love Letters (1945) and Duel in the Sun (1946), in which her fiery portrayal of a hot-blooded half-caste was in stark contrast to the saintly peasant Bernadette, which shocked many of her fans. She was Oscar-nominated again for Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), and more recently she won praise for her portrayal of a socialite who dies heroically in the disaster epic, The Towering Inferno (1975).

Jones' private life was often one of turmoil – she divorced her first husband, actor Robert Walker, when she started an affair with married producer David O. Selznick, whom she later wed. Walker, an alcoholic, allegedly never recovered from the marital break-up, and died at the age of 33. One of the couple's two sons later died in unexplained circumstances, and the daughter Jones had with Selznick killed herself by jumping from a 22-storey building at the age of 22. Jones herself attempted suicide two years after Selznick died, but later married a millionaire, after whose death she became reclusive, refusing interviews.

Born Phyllis Lee Isley in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1919, the daughter of travelling players, she acted in her parents' travelling tent show. Her father later operated a chain of cinemas. She attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York in 1938, where she met fellow student Walker. They married in 1939 then tried their luck in Hollywood, where Jones, billed as "Phyllis Isley", had a small role in a John Wayne western, New Frontier (1939) and played in a Republic serial, Dick Tracy's G-Men (1939).

The couple took a modest flat in New York, where Walker acted sporadically on radio and Jones worked as a part-time model. When she read that Selznick was casting Rose Franken's play Claudia, she read for the part. Though Selznick was unimpressed by her acting, he was struck by her personality and asked her to return next day, when he signed her to a seven-year contract and began to groom her for stardom. When director Henry King was testing actresses for the role of Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernardette, he considered her the best of the many applicants, including stars of the time. In the difficult role of the pious peasant girl who sees a vision on a mountainside she was totally convincing, and won the Oscar in a field that included her friend Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. "Your Bernadette was better than my Maria," Bergman told her.

The same year Jones made The Song of Bernadette, Walker gained a contract with MGM. The pair were publicised as an ideal couple, and were cast as sweethearts in John Crom-well's beautiful evocation of a family's experiences on the home front during the Second World War, Since You Went Away, lavishly produced by Selznick, who also wrote the script. Jones was touching as the elder daughter who falls in love with soldier Walker, and their farewell at the station, as he goes off to fight and Jones is seen isolated on the platform in a panoramic shot, is one of the most memorable images of Forties cinema. Though critics hailed the warmth of the couple's scenes together as heightened by their off-screen relationship, by the time the film was released they had parted (they divorced in 1945) and Jones had begun her relationship with Selznick.

He was married, but the pair were eventually wed in 1949. Jones was loaned to Paramount for William Dieterle's haunting Love Letters, in which Joseph Cotten is a soldier who pens love letters for a buddy, and investigates when he hears the former friend has been murdered by his wife, the girl to whom the letters were sent. Jones brought the requisite ethereal touch to the strange girl "Singleton" who Cotten meets unaware she is the girl who was so moved by his friend's letters that she married him.

She next displayed her sense of comedy with the part of a housemaid with a passion for plumbing in the last film completed by director Ernst Lubitsch, Cluny Brown (1946). Selznick then refused 20th Century-Fox's request to borrow Jones to star with Tyrone Power in The Razor's Edge, and instead he put her alongside Cotten and Gregory Peck in the torrid western that he hoped would equal Gone with the Wind, Duel in the Sun. Exquisitely photographed, with Jones in bronzed make-up, the film was mostly directed by King Vidor, but it had at least five directors and three cameramen during its tortuous making. The result was an example of Hollywood hokum at its most outrageous.

Decried by critics, who quickly dubbed it "Lust in the Dust", it was banned in several states, but it was an enormous financial success, though it failed to turn Jones into a leading sex symbol, as Selznick hoped, and instead alienated some of her admirers. Said Jones, "I was never Bernadette, nor was I Pearl Chavez. Each was simply a role I as an actress tried to interpret." Despite a mixed response to her performance, she was nominated for an Oscar (losing to Olivia DeHavilland in To Each His Own), and was named one of Hollywood's top female stars, with Ingrid Bergman, Greer Garson, Rita Hayworth and June Allyson.

It was to be nearly 10 years, however, before she had another major hit, though several of the films have gained in stature over the years. William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie (1949), is a touching ghost story, in which Jones is acceptably fey as the ethereal spirit of a young girl with whom an artist (Joseph Cotten) falls in love. Selznick then loaned Jones to Columbia to star as a Cuban revolutionary with John Garfield in John Huston's We Were Strangers (1959), a patchy melodrama which, although set in Havana in 1933, seemed to some to be blatant propaganda on Huston's part at the time of much political unrest in Hollywood.

Jones was cast in Vincente Minnelli's version of Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary (1949) after Lana Turner withdrew due to pregnancy. Neither actress was physically similar to the heroine of the novel, but Jones gave a convincing portrayal of stifled longings, and the film's grandest sequence, in which Jones is waltzed around a ballroom with every-increasing speed as footmen smash the huge windows to "give the lady air", is a memorable sequence. Walter Plunkett, who designed the low-cut white gown that Jones wore in the scene, later said, "Jennifer did it justice. She wore the gown, it didn't wear her."

Jones and Selznick travelled to the UK for her next film. Selznick had been impressed by the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and they produced, wrote and directed Jones' next film, an adaptation of Mary Webb's novel Gone to Earth (1952). Selznick was very unhappy with the result, and had much of the film re-shot in the US (flying the British cast over to be directed by Rouben Mamoulian). Retitled The Wild Heart, the film was a failure, and Selznick accepted an offer from director William Wyler to have Jones star in the filming of Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie. Laurence Olivier's performance as a man whose life is ruined by his infatuation with a younger married woman dominated the film, Carrie (1952), which was too depressing to find popular favour.

After Walker's death, reportedly due to an allergic reaction to sodium amytal given to quell an emotional outburst and excessive alcohol, Jones' subsequent depression was countered by Selznick with what actress Joan Fontaine described as "the most extraordinary Christmas. I heard that he took over an entire floor at the Plaza Hotel in New York and invited friends over for Christmas dinner. One entire wall in the dining room was festooned with spectacular ribbons, with beautifully wrapped presents for Jennifer hanging from each bow... David also had fresh flowers sent up from the florist every day. He blew all his dough but it was done in great style. Jennifer was a bird in a gilded cage. Whether she liked it or not, I don't know."

Jones, who was hoping to appear on Broadway, studied drama with Constance Collier, but when Fontaine turned down the script of Ruby Gentry (1952), Jones accepted the title role, a sensuous mountain girl who falls in love with a rich cad (Charlton Heston). Given publicity reminiscent of Duel in the Sun – "A siren who wrecked a whole town – Man by Man – Sin by Sin" and aided by a theme tune that became a hit (the whole score was played by a solo harmonica) the film did moderately well, but it was followed by two failures. John Huston's crime satire Beat the Devil (1954) has become a cult favourite but it was ignored at the time, and Vittorio De Sica's Indiscretions of an American Wife (1954), the story of a married woman's last hours with her Italian lover (Montgomery Clift), was also a failure.

Jones was then cast in The Country Girl (1954) opposite Bing Crosby, but when she discovered she was pregnant, she withdrew (her replacement, Grace Kelly, won an Oscar). Jones' next film was the hit she needed, and one of her greatest successes. Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955) was adapted from the memoirs of Han Suyin which told of her romance with an English journalist (Americanised when played by William Holden). Reunited with Henry King, Jones gave a luminescent performance as the half-caste whose passionate love affair is doomed, and though the film was not a critics' favourite she received personal accolades. "Miss Jones is lovely and intense," said the New York Times. "Her dark beauty reflects sunshine and sadness."

A hit title tune helped, and Jones received an Oscar nomination for her performance, which she followed with another popular movie, Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955), a touching tale of a school-mistress's life. Jones was going to work with King again on The Sun Also Rises, but rejected the final script and instead played wife to Gregory Peck in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), a turgid adaptation of Sloan Wilson's bestseller, then starred as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), in which she was considered a worthy successor to other notable actresses who had played the role.

Selznick then put her into a remake of A Farewell to Arms (1957), an inflated production that pleased no one, and it was five years before her next film, Henry King's Tender is the Night (1962), in which she and her leading man, Jason Robards Jr, were considered miscast. The death of Selznick in 1965 had a devastating effect on Jones, who became reclusive. In 1967, after making a film in London, The Idol, she swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills in an attempt at suicide. She then starred in an exploitation movie, Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969) as a former star of pornographic movies.

Her last role was in the popular disaster film The Towering Inferno (1974) in which, as a partygoer in a San Francisco skyscraper, she danced briefly with Fred Astaire before fire strikes the building and she plunges from a scenic elevator after heroically saving two children. In 1971 she married the industrialist and art collector Norton Simon, and she was chairwoman of his Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, for several years.

Jennifer Jones, actress: born Tulsa, Oklahoma 2 March 1919; married: 1939 Robert Walker (divorced 1945, died 1951; one son, and one son deceased), 1949 David O. Selznick (died 1965; one daughter deceased); 1971 Norton Simon (died 1993); died Malibu, California 17 December 2009.

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