Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Jennifer Jones

In one of the broadest talent sweeps since the search for Scarlett O'Hara, Hollywood auditioned some 2,000 young actresses to play the lead in The Song of Bernadette, a religious epic about a French girl who had visions of the Virgin Mary. At the urging of producer David O. Selznick, director Henry King gave a screen test to the little-known ingenue Phyllis Isley, whom Selznick had recently renamed Jennifer Jones. In his tests, King would asked the actresses to gaze at a stick and react as if it were the Virgin. "All the others looked," he later said. "Jennifer actually saw the vision." Jones, who died Dec. 17 at 90 in Malibu, Cal., had that eerie knack. Her beatific face told movie audiences that not only were miracles possible, they could be seen, felt and shared.

The Tulsa-born daughter of a couple who ran a traveling stock company, Jones won the Best Actress Oscar for Bernadette on her 25th birthday. The next day she started divorce proceedings against her first husband, actor Robert Walker. By then Selznick was her producer and lover. He had a vision too: that the desperately shy Jones would be his greatest star. She never reached the heights of Vivien Leigh or Ingrid Bergman, but she earned Oscar nominations in the three years after Bernadette — for Since You Went Away, Love Letters and Duel in the Sun — and epitomized Selznick's ideal of womanhood: ethereal or earthy, but always perched above the lusts and comprehension of the men who pursued her.

Her marriage to Selznick lasted from 1949 until his death in 1965. Six years later she wed the Hunt's Foods magnate Norton Simon, whose magnificent art collection she tended after he died. She initiated the Simon Museum's gallery renovation by Frank Gehry and heightened its public profile. In life as on screen, she was treating the world to artistic visions.