I always regretted not being more into Jennifer Jones. Not because she died this past week at age 90, but because she was one of those performers that I was quite familiar with yet never embraced. To me, Jones was the actress that people's mothers, aunts, and grandmothers liked. She often played the good girl, dutiful wife, and even the occasional martyr, but she appeared against type in enough films that she got my attention. She certainly grabbed and yanked me to the TV screen when I saw her as the tempestuous Pearl in 1946's Duel in the Sun. Jones was hotter than a Texas Summer in that movie. She got top billing over the likes of Gregory Peck--then a rising star--and Joseph Cotten--an established second lead. I didn't know about Jones' connection to David O. Selznick, big shot studio boss. When I did learn of her marriage to him, I dismissed her Oscar win as politics in action and moved on. Why I did this, even though Jones had received five Oscar nominations in less than ten years, shows what I knew.
Years later, when I became interested in post-war America and specifically, Sloan Wilson's novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit ("That sounds warm" said the young female book clerk when I called my local bookstore inquiring as to their having a copy). Of course it was long out of print, but I would run into Jennifer Jones again as she played the long-suffering wife to Peck's preoccupied corporate career climber in the film version. This is when Jones' talent made an impression on me. Her performance alone was the sympathetic role that I clung to when watching this rather depressing movie--with a typically moody score from Bernard Herrmann--and then I no longer dismissed Jennifer Jones as a studio mogul's wife with the right connections.
Jennifer Jones had endured much personal tragedy. Her husband, the actor Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train) died prematurely, and was overwhelmed by devastating emotional problems after he and Jones' divorce in 1945. Jones' daughter, Mary Jennifer Selznick, committed suicide by jumping from the 20th floor of a building, age 22 in 1976.
Perhaps Jones' refusal to give interviews and maintaining an intensely private life hurt her chances of being remembered by the general public. Or maybe the shrill feminism of subsequent decades cast a scornful eye on Jones' roles and "inconvenient" screen persona. If Jones had led a public life and tended to her own legacy like some stars have, it may have kept her in the minds of film lovers. But Jones saw her life with her family and work with mental health issues as more important than her screen career. I respect her all the more for it. It takes a selfless person to turn their back on fame, and Jones no doubt had her fill of it, for better or worse. I was surprised to learn of her death because I mistakenly believed that she had died back in the mid-90s. Chalk up another victory for the privacy-loving actress, who would no doubt find that amusing.