Oscar winner Jennifer Jones dies

Starred in 'Song of Bernadette,' 'Duel in the Sun'

Jennifer Jones, who won a best actress Academy Award for her performance as the inspired child in "The Song of Bernadette" and received four other best actress nominations, died Thursday at her home in Malibu. She was 90.

Considered one of the great beauties of the silver screen, Jones was married from 1949-65 to movie mogul David O. Selznick, who greatly advanced her career. When not casting her in his own pictures, the producer deluged other studio heads and executives with memos on how best to use her.

Jones' last performance was in "The Towering Inferno" (1974), the Irwin Allen disaster movie; she played a beleaguered woman among a big-name cast that included Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

In 1971, Jones married industrialist and philanthropist Norton Simon after a four-week romance and remained with him until his death in 1993.

In addition to 1943's "Bernadette," Jones' most memorable films include "Since You Went Away" (1944), "Love Letters" (1945), "Cluny Brown" (1946), "Duel in the Sun" (1946), "Madame Bovary" (1949), "Ruby Gentry" (1952), "Carrie" (1952), "Madame Bovary" (1949), "Beat the Devil" (1953), "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" (1955), "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1956), "A Farewell to Arms" (1957) and "Tender Is the Night" (1962).

In all, she appeared in 22 films in a 35-year span and worked with many of the top directors of the day, including Ernst Lubitsch, John Huston, King Vidor, William Wyler, Vittorio de Sica and Vincente Minnelli. Her other Oscar noms were for her performances in "Since You Went Away," "Love Letters," "Duel in the Sun" and "Many-Splendored Thing."

Jones also made one appearance on Broadway, performing in a 1954 presentation of "Portrait of a Lady."

Jones was born Phylis Islely on March 2, 1919, in Tulsa, Okla., to parents who traveled with a performing stock company. As a young girl, she often pitched in with these "tent shows." She took early acting lessons, and following high school, enrolled at Northwestern, focusing on dramatics. She soon left Northwestern and enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, studying with the leading coaches of the day, including Lee Strasberg.

Jones married a fellow acting student, Robert Walker, in 1939, and they soon had two sons. She ventured to Hollywood and performed in two pictures, "New Frontier" (1939) and "Dick Tracy's G-Men" (1939), but nothing came of it.

Jones soon returned to New York and took dancing lessons and was eventually spotted by Selznick's New York office. The producer became enamored of her and began to shape her for stardom. In 1940, he signed her to an MGM contract, and tried to mold her, Pygmalion-like, into a leading lady.

Had Selznick met her earlier, it seems unlikely that he would have conducted such an extensive search for Scarlett O'Hara for 1939's "Gone With the Wind."

Selznick searched doggedly for a role that would be worthy of her beauty and cast her in the lead of "Bernadette." Her performance in that plum part -- she played a 19th-century French peasant girl who sees visions of the Virgin Mary -- catapulted Jones to an Oscar at age 25.

She divorced Walker in 1945, married Selznick in 1949 and remained married to him until his death in 1965. (Walker died in 1951 under mysterious circumstances).

Selznick used her in film after film, determined to make her the top female star of the screen. He placed her opposite Gregory Peck in "Duel in the Sun" (at $6 million, the movie was reportedly the most expensive picture made at the time). Against a parched mountainscape, she played a sultry, half-breed temptress, shooting it out with Peck.

The film was a huge moneymaker, and Selznick next cast her in "Portrait of Jennie" (1948), which would be her last film at MGM for some time. The next year, Jones starred in "Madame Bovary" as the tragic heroine, garnering the role after the Production Code censors suggested that they might look more favorably on this tale of adultery with her in the lead role rather than ultra-sexy Lana Turner.

With Selznick's obsessive support, she went on to star in three Fox films, "Many-Splendored Thing," "Good Morning, Miss Dove" (1955) and again with Peck in "Gray Flannel Suit." For MGM again, she starred in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" (1957) opposite Norma Shearer.

Under Selznick's intense scrutiny, all her movies were trumpeted as "prestige" pictures, but all were not successes. Selznick's longtime desire was to cast her in great literary works. He had her in a remake of "Farewell to Arms," starring alongside Rock Hudson, and subsequently, "Tender Is the Night." The moviegoing public embraced neither film, and Huston abandoned "Arms" when he learned that Selznick insisted that Jones would star in the film as Jake Barnes' nurse.

Jones made few movie appearances in the succeeding years, most notably in "The Idol" (1966) as a divorcee who falls for her son's friend and in "Towering Inferno."

In addition to her Oscar, Jones was the recipient of many honors, including the Stars and Stripes Award for "most popular actress" among U.S. troops and France's "Winged Victory" for "most popular actress" and "best actress." Additionally, she received Spain's Triunfo Award.

In recent years, Jones presided over the board of directors of the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena.

Jones had three children -- sons Robert Walker Jr. and Michael R. Walker with Walker and daughter Mary Jennifer Selznick with Selznick. Mary Selznick committed suicide by jumping off an office building in 1976, which, along with other personal problems, prompted Jones to attempt suicide herself. Eventually, the woes spurred her commitment to mental-health causes.

Survivors include son Robert Walker; a stepson, Donald Simon; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
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