Actress Jennifer Jones, whom producer and future husband David O. Selznick groomed into a major leading lady in his films, and who later married Norton Simon, died Thursday in Malibu of natural causes. She was 90.
The raven-haired actress was nominated for Oscars five times, winning for her first starring role, in “The Song of Bernadette,” in 1944. Known for her intense performances, Jones was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1940s and ’50s. But other than her role in 1974 melodrama “The Towering Inferno,” she largely stayed out of the limelight after the 1960s.
Among her most memorable roles were the vixen who vamps with rowdy cowboy Gregory Peck in “Duel in the Sun” and the Eurasian doctor who falls for Korean War correspondent William Holden in “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.”
Jones, born Phyllis Isley in Tulsa, Okla., met Selznick when she was 20. She was already married to actor Robert Walker and had appeared in a Republic Western called “New Frontier” and a Dick Tracy serial under her given name. Her parents, who owned the Isley Stock Co., had allowed her to move to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when she was 18. A year later she met and married Walker, and they trekked to Hollywood for their honeymoon.
Selznick met her after an audition for the film version of “Claudia” and took her under his wing, arranging for her to study with Sanford Meisner of the Group Theater and giving her a four-year publicity build-up, capped by her debut role in “Song of Bernadette” as the peasant girl of Lourdes who witnesses a miracle. “It is an inspirationally sensitive and arresting performance” was Variety‘s assessment of the role.
She was next cast in the Selznick-penned wartime romance “Since You Went Away,” for which she received a second Oscar nom as supporting actress. Her co-star/romantic interest was husband Walker, from whom she was separating amid fan magazine rumors of her affair with mentor Selznick. Jones’ third Acad nom in a row came for “Love Letters.”
The 1946 overblown Western “Duel in the Sun” drew Jones yet another nomination as the passionate “half-breed” Pearl Chavez. In 1949, after Selznick obtained a divorce from his first wife, Irene Mayer Selznick, he and Jones were finally married. But Jones’ career curiously began to careen downhill as Selznick took great pains to cast her in usually heavy-handed “important” literary adaptations.
There were high points in Jones’ later career, like Vincente Minnelli’s underrated version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” with Jones doing a fine turn as a dreamy-eyed and tragic Emma Bovary. And she was deliciously wry in John Huston’s noir comedy “Beat the Devil” from a Truman Capote script.
Her performances were less successful in the film version of Theodore Dreiser’s “Carrie” and in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” Her Broadway debut in a stage adaptation of Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady” ran only a week.
She had a few hits in the 1950s, including the sudsy Technicolor “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” opposite William Holden and a remake of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Her later films included another “Tender Is the Night” and the lesser-known pics “The Idol” and “Angel, Angel Down We Go.”
Selznick died in 1965, and two years later, upon learning of the death of an old friend, actor Charles Bickford, Jones tried to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. In 1976, her only daughter by Selznick jumped from the roof of a high-rise.
By then, she had married industrialist Norton Simon in 1971 and made a rare foray back to the screen in disaster melodrama “The Towering Inferno.” In 1989, with Simon in failing health, Jones took control of her husband’s Pasadena-based Norton Simon Museum, serving as chair of the board. She initiated the museum’s gallery renovation and spearheaded outreach initiatives.
She is survived by a son, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)