She has the look, the life and the Oscar, yet we hardly know her


Few women who have forged a top-tier career in the motion picture business have led as unexplained, mysterious and fascinating a life as Academy Award winner Jennifer Jones, best known to many today for her work as the lusty screen sinner in the epic Western "Duel in the Sun," the radiant saint in her Oscar-winning "The Song of Bernadette" and as the hilariously exasperating liar in John Huston's black comedy "Beat the Devil."

Her Oscar for "Bernadette" was handed to her on her 25th birthday — how about that for a present? — and because of her win, Jones' boss and mentor, David O. Selznick, nixed her doing what became the film noir classic "Laura" because he felt "it is not distinguished enough for an Oscar-winning actress."

She might have lost out on being Laura, but her string of successes was quite unrelenting. She was an Academy Award nominee four years in a row (for films released from 1943-46), a streak rarely matched or topped. She also can claim an amazing number of ace leading men as co-stars — among them Humphrey Bogart, Montgomery Clift, Laurence Olivier, Charlton Heston, William Holden, Rock Hudson, Fred Astaire and Paul Newman — plus such notable directors as John Huston, William Wyler, Ernst Lubitsch, Vittorio de Sica, Vincente Minnelli, King Vidor and Michael Powell. Two of her husbands were major world figures: Selznick, to whom she was married from 1949 until his death in 1965, and businessman and art collector Norton Simon from 1971 until his passing in 1993.

Besides being an extremely beautiful woman with at times an usually high intensity lurking behind her eyes, she carved out her career in a way no other major Hollywood actress did during the so-called Golden Era — the one exception being Garbo.

Only on the rarest of occasions did Jones give an interview, not even in the days when such gossip queens as Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper ruled the roost. Jones never has appeared in a TV movie of any length or magnitude. She has only fleetingly appeared on television at all and has never sat on a couch beside a Johnny Carson or an Oprah. Numerous books have been written about her, but, most emphatically, none has been written by her.

But no reclusive Norma Desmond is she. As both Mrs. Selznick and Mrs. Simon, she led an active social life. She has traveled the globe (often to acquire paintings for the Norton Simon Museum), and I once spotted her selling tickets at the museum in Pasadena; she had jumped in to help in a crunch. An intriguing woman? You bet. But to a large extent, the many facets of her and the special allure she possesses have nonetheless tended to overshadow the excellent screen work she's done.

On Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will make up for that oversight with the launch at the Walter Reade Theater of a retrospective involving 14 of Jones' films, including the aforementioned "Duel," "Bernadette" and "Devil" along with such other essentials as "Madame Bovary," "Portrait of Jennie," "Ruby Gentry" and "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing."

There also will be a rare chance to see on a big screen the 1939 B-Western she made with John Wayne titled "New Frontier," in which she was billed under her real name: Phylis Isley. It's a film Selznick initially refused to acknowledge, aghast that the new protege he was attempting to build into a distinguished world-class star had once appeared in a churned-out Western made at low-rent Republic Studios.

The series also offers a rare chance to see two of the most underrated films of any in the Jones portfolio: Lubitsch's thoroughly delightful 1946 "Cluny Brown," co-starring Charles Boyer and Peter Lawford, which for some reason has been allowed to fall through the cracks at 20th Century Fox despite it being one of Lubitsch's masterpieces of sophisticated comedy, and Wyler's sadly underrated "Carrie," made at Paramount in 1952 and based on Theodore Dreisler's "Sister Carrie," about a disastrous love affair involving an elegant, married restaurant manager, played by Olivier, with Jones as a country girl who comes into his life.

On hand to introduce the movies in the series will be film critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris, Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Jones' stepson Daniel Selznick and biographer Edward Z. Epstein. I'll also be there, introducing "Carrie" on Sunday. The program was organized by Joanna Ney; following the Jones retro, there'll be a nine-film salute to her "Cluny" co-star, Boyer, from May 23-27.

Robert Osborne is the primetime host and anchor of the Turner Classic Movies television network.