Modern Matinees: Becoming Jennifer Jones

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Phylis Lee Isley was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1919 to parents who operated a traveling tent show. Isley’s education extended to Northwestern University and the American Academy for Dramatic Arts in New York City, where she met actor and future husband Robert Walker in 1939. Before Hollywood called, Isley and Walker returned to Tulsa to find steady work on radio programs. When the couple finally arrived in Hollywood, there was limited work, with stardom years away.

Ready to return to the theater, Isley auditioned at the New York offices of David O. Selznick for an out-of-town run of Rose Franken’s comedy Claudia. Insecure and inexperienced, she left the producer’s office distraught and unaware that Selznick—who had purchased the film rights to the play—had overheard her audition. In short order, he offered Isley a movie contract with his production company.

Ever the genius producer, Selznick took control of Isley’s nascent career, transforming her into “Jennifer Jones.” What Jones needed next was a prominent role in a high profile picture, and The Song of Bernadette (1943) could not have been a more ideal showcase for her metamorphosis. When Jones was cast as the peasant girl who has visions of the Virgin Mary, Selznick kept her away from the press, photographers, and, legend has it, the film’s premiere, in order to retain the illusion of her youth, chastity, and inscrutability. The newly minted Jennifer Jones walked away with that year’s Best Actress Oscar.

King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) was another defining moment. Cast as a Native American/Caucasian woman who enters the lives of two brothers living on a remote Arizona ranch, Jones was uneasy about her character’s brazen sexuality—as were the censors. Nonetheless, the film went on to great success and earned Jones another of her five Academy Award nominations.

Becoming Jennifer Jones, our glimpse at the evolution of a great American actress, features a selection of films drawn primarily from MoMA’s collection.

Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.