Remembering Jennifer Jones in Shades of Gray
A lifetime fondness for Jennifer Jones was cemented very early on in my movie-going years. As a child, I took in The Towering Inferno during Christmastime in 1974, and felt an immediate kinship with the extremely soft-spoken, gentle “Lady in White” who helped save two children from the title character. The colossal success of Inferno served as a brief comeback, as well as a swan song, for the woman who was a decade or two removed from one of the more interesting Hollywood careers, as after Inferno Jones returned to her comfortable life as Mrs. Norton Simon. The film also served to pique my interest in the performer later, when I developed a huge affection for classic films. I often found myself seeking out titles starring the actress, and I always viewed Jones‘ contribution to a film as interesting, and frequently exceptional. At her best onscreen, Jones conveys a unique presence, combining vulnerability, steely resolve and, often, an abundance of neuroses, which makes it difficult to watch anyone or anything else.
With the unwavering support of husband David Selznick, Jones managed to maintain her place among the top of the Hollywood heap for over a decade, racking up five Oscar nominations, including one of the first Supporting Actress nominations for a star player (for Selznick’s big WWII drama, Since You Went Away). Interestingly, Jones won her sole Oscar and major stardom at another studio, after landing the title role in 20th Century Fox’s Song of Bernadette. The Best Actress award was warranted, as the film possibly contains Jones’ most consistently convincing dramatic performance (there’s no nervous ticks or actressy bits of business that marred some of the star’s subsequent performances- she‘s straightforward, charming, and believable playing the innocent peasant who may have seen the Virgin Mary- Jones makes you believe Bernadette did see her). Esteemed critic James Agee wrote of her work: “It remains to be seen whether or not Cinemactress Jones can do in other roles the delicately dynamic things she achieves as this little peasant saint. If she can, Hollywood should watch and guard Miss Jones as sedulously as the Church watched over Bernadette.” Selznick watched alright, but the unguarded Jones quickly let her emotionalism flourish onscreen, switching from wholesome to whorish as the flashy, wanton Pearl Chavez, a 180 degree career turn-around if there ever was one (Jones had safely solidified her leading lady status by following up Bernadette with acclaimed “good girl" turns in Since You Went Away and Love Letters). In Duel in the Sun, Jones seems at home getting hot and bothered by Gregory Peck (who surprisingly takes to his role of a snake in the grass with great zeal), and she is lively, fun and as overblown as the role requires, given director King Vidor’s flashy approach to the torrid material.
Jones’ adept comic turns in Cluny Brown and Beat the Devil may represent her best work in film (it’s unfortunately Selznick wouldn’t allow her to loosen up more frequently onscreen). However, her reunion with a stoic Peck in 1956’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was the film I chose to re-watch upon learning of her passing, as the film showcases some of Jones’ most intriguing and memorable acting. Although Jones appears normal in her first scene with Peck, as she discusses their homey family life, it soon becomes apparent her Betsy Rath is no conventional, content 1950’s housewife. Twisting and fidgeting away, and frequently employing a low vocal quality to highlight Betsy’s deep discontentment with her family’s lack of financial security, Jones’ tight-lipped yet tempestuous playing lends a degree of depth and an element of surprise to her scenes not found elsewhere in the film, while Bernard Herrman’s pulsating score nicely complements Jones’ enthralling acting. Jones is such a unique, unstable presence, one begins to wonder about Betsy’s past much more than the flashback presented in the film (a WWII subplot featuring Peck’s romantic interlude with Marisa Pavan).
Desperate to obtain financial solvency for her family, Betsy is made to be the nagging villainess of the piece, but her practical idea to parcel off acre lots of the family homestead they stand to inherit sounds good to me, and Jones conveys the idea Betsy has the strength and intelligence to bring it off (when Peck proclaims “There are zoning laws” preventing the plan, the restless Betsy brushes off the notion they can’t be changed, and you can see her making her idea happen, no matter what). Jones clearly is pushing herself as an actress in Gray, and she finds a lot more complexity in Betsy than the requirements of the role suggest. Her intense, unbalanced performance is certainly out of the norm for a big 1950’s studio film (although surely Jones' Betsy was not the only desperate housewife to be found in the Eisenhower Era), and director Nunnally Johnson deserves credit for showcasing his star’s fearless, unusual interpretation, instead of attempting to have Jones conform to the era’s standard view of a calm, supportive spouse, ala June Allyson in nearly all of her 1950‘s films. Jones took some critical hits for her riskiest portrayal. For example Elspeth Hart, writing in Films in Review, stated “Jones’ playing is too neurotic for the wholesome Betsy Rath” and goes on to claim “. . . the film dehumanizes Betsy Rath.”
Watching the film today, Jones’ unnerved and unnerving Betsy appears to be the most vividly real and human element in the film. Her disillusionment with her husband reaches its apex when he reveals his past affair with Pavan, and the child that resulted from their union. Jones is amazing in this sequence, first tensely spitting out her resentment over her husband’s faithlessness, before going into a tailspin by jumping in the family car and careening down some suburban roads at an insane speed (I love the wild, slightly possessed look Jones employs while driving, making it unclear just what Betsy is capable of doing behind the wheel). The film could only go so far, however, and therefore Betsy pulls herself together long enough for a final, somewhat happy fadeout with Peck. However, thanks to Jones’ edgy, unhinged performance, it’s abundantly clear Betsy’s behavior will remain anything but predictable, and therefore the future of the couple is truly not ours to see, que sera, sera.
Hot off an Oscar nod for her more conventional playing in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, Jones’ daring characterization of Betsy endures in a much more substantial manner than most of her more highly-regarded work. She invests all of her considerable skills as a dramatic actress into her characterization of Betsy, resulting in one of her richest, most satisfying and most disturbing performances. It’s a tribute to Jones’ talent that while the rest of Gray may fade from memory, her singular contribution to the film lingers.
P.S. My personal affinity with Jones reaches beyond her films, as a quote she once made regarding how to build a solid career in the movies (something to the effect of “You have to keep your eye on the ball”) aided me immeasurably as I slowly slogged and worked my way through college, while firmly keeping the final objective in mind through each seemingly endless semester. Thanks for the tip, Jennifer Jones.