Sunday, February 19, 2012

Jennifer Jones: Like A Virgin

Two casting directors I knew in New York City totally agree with what Steven Spielberg told the American Film Institute in an interview -- it's essential for today's young actors and future filmmakers to watch and learn from classic films.  Films made well before the 1980s.  Films that are in black and white.  Some may be silent, some may be foreign and subtitled.  I agree with Spielberg and those casting directors.  I've told young actor acquaintances of mine that, if they cannot afford acting classes, they should watch classic films with actors at their best.  Learn from them.  Study their performances.  One performance I wish young women would watch and appreciate is the one that brought Jennifer Jones the Oscar for Best Actress of 1943.  The film is The Song of Bernadette, directed by Henry King.  When I was a kid in Catholic school, this was required viewing.  It's the story of Bernadette Soubirous, the French peasant girl who saw visions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes in 1858.  After her death, she was canonized as St. Bernadette.
 A little background on Jennifer Jones.  In her day, she was a top movie actress.  She got five Oscar nominations from the 1940s through the 1950s.  When she first hit Hollywood, she was married to Robert Walker, one of the most appealing, charismatic and talented new actors of the 1940s.  He had boyish good looks and major acting skills.  They were quite a team.  They played sweethearts in the World War II drama, Since You Went Away.  Jones got an Oscar nomination for that film.
Unfortunately, their marriage was collapsing as they played that romantic pair.  David O. Selznick, legendary film producer and notorious control freak, had become obsessed with her.  He produced Gone With The Wind and Rebecca.  Both films brought him Best Picture Academy Awards.  Selznick also produced Since You Went Away.  He guided Jones to a new height in her film career.  She divorced Walker and became Mrs. David O. Selznick.
After Selznick died, Jones fell apart briefly and then recovered.  She married multi-millionaire industrialist and philanthropist, Norton Simon.  If you watch the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena on television, you always see the floats and marching bands pass by the Norton Simon Museum.  That's the guy.
When he died, Jennifer Jones did many good deeds with his money and carried on his philanthropic spirit.  Her last film role was in a blockbuster hit, The Towering Inferno.  That disaster film with an all-star cast was tops at the box in 1974.  She wanted to play Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment but the role went to Shirley MacLaine.  Jones died at age 90 in 2009.  In her career, with her ephemeral quality, no Hollywood actress could switch so quickly and effectively from virgin to vixen like Jennifer Jones.  Besides playing St. Bernadette, she was the innocent time-traveling beauty in Portrait of Jennie....
...and she was the wholesome, lovely amnesia victim in Love Letters.
Then she turned it out as the sexy half-breed who can handle a man and a gun in the lusty western, Duel in the Sun.
She was equally non-virginal and loaded for bear as Ruby Gentry.
Her performance in The Song of Bernadette is a rarely-mentioned Best Actress Academy Award winner that deserves another look.  It's a very difficult role.  She earned that Oscar.  The role demands high concentration and specific interior work.  Bernadette is a sweet young girl of little education.  She's of a Catholic peasant family in a small town.  She gets her scholastic and religious education from the church.  It's very institutionalized and rigid.  Do as the nuns and priests tell you to do.  Memorize and, like a parrot, repeat back what you've been taught.  Don't question authority.  Believe all the Bible stories.  It's all very corporate and confining.  But there's a priest she likes and she loves the holy cards.  Especially one with a picture of the Virgin Mary.  She feels more spiritual freedom, more communion with Heaven, when she's out in the woods with her friends and family.  That's when her spirit sings.  There's also Antoine, the handsome young village hunk who's in love with Bernadette.  Then, one day in the woods with her friends, something seems to call to Bernadette's soul.  It's not something the others can hear.  Only she can.  She sees a beautiful lady in the grotto.  It's a radiant vision.  Bernadette sees the Virgin Mary.  Her soul is illuminated by this vision.  This vision occurs on land that is near a city dump.
This is where Jones' acting craft shines.  Her internal work is so specific and on point.  When this peasant girl sees that vision of radiant beauty and peace, she's not going to be wide-eye like Dorothy Gale seeing the dead legs of the Wicked Witch of the East under her house in The Wizard of Oz.  This is an intense spiritual transformation and a heavenly song shared between two women -- the Virgin Mary and that simple peasant girl.  We have to see that Bernadette is in an altered state, a heavenly state on earth, and having a vivid conversation that is telepathic.  Her soul is speaking.  Heaven is speaking to it.  This new female bond is so special that even Bernadette is unaware of how special it -- and she -- are.  She does not know what Immaculate Conception means.  Such a great, eloquent love story this is between two female figures.  Bernadette devotes herself to the Beautiful Lady.  Until the day she dies,  Bernadette will be in conflict with the Catholic Church.  The very institution that taught her to believe in miracles and to believe in Jesus Christ, a Savior born in poverty, will constantly put on her on trial.  The Church's stance is that miracles do not happen.  Saints do not appear to the poor.  But the faithful flock to Lourdes when miracles do happen.  They believe.  As they flock, religion proves to be good business for greedy local merchants and local officials.
If, for one minute, Jennifer Jones seems like she's acting in a fantasy film versus a spiritual love story, this whole film falls apart.  We must believe in her innocence.  We must believe in her visions.  We must feel her supreme love for The Lady of the Rosary.  We must know that Bernadette's grotto in the woods is more a more sacred and free place of worship than the convent where her spirit is humiliated and abused in the name of Christ.  Her spirit cannot sing within the thick cold walls of organized religion.
There are several hearts in this movie.  Anne Revere as Bernadette's durable and loving mother is memorable.  She knows that life goes fast, particularly life for a peasant girl in a bleak town.  Then there is the moment when the mother is an awe of the child.  She's humbled when she realizes that Bernadette was born for greatness.  The mother knows her child will become legend.  She will not be just another poor girl in that dreary French village who becomes old before her time..  She has been blessed with a great gift.
Director Henry King shows us how legend is born.  After a miracle happens with the help of Bernadette, the news passes from villager to villager.  Townspeople, mostly the women, gather and follow her.  This doesn't change Bernadette.  She remains devoted to the Heavenly Mother.  She does not seek fame or glory or special treatment.  While she contends with the men out to discredit her accounts, she enters a convent.  Here we have a gorgeously shot and acted love scene.  Bernadette leaves her village for a new life as a nun.  The love she has for the Heavenly Mother is more sublime than any romantic love she could have for a man on earth.  She will think fondly of Antoine.
She has committed herself to the Virgin Mary.  During her ride, Antoine stops her coach, gives her flowers and bids her adieu and good wishes.  He understands what she must do.  Yet he loves her so that he commits to her.  He shall never marry.  Again, Bernadette's soul is illuminated as she tenderly hands him a flower in return.  Her journey continues.  Bernadette can help miracles happen for others but not herself.  In the convent is her strict former teacher.  This nun is filled with jealousy because of Bernadette's fame and gift.  She will have to undergo a spiritual transformation herself.
Gladys Cooper played the jealous sister a year after playing the mean mother in Now, Voyager.  Even as Bernadette lay dying of bone cancer, the men of the Church try to get her to say that she lied.  That she never saw the Immaculate Conception.  "I did see her," she says with a weak voice.  Then she has one more vision and, almost orgasmically, proclaims her love Our Lady of the Rosary.  With her dying breath, she overcomes organized religion, archaic rules and Catholic male suppression.  Bernadette calls out to the Beautiful Lady in the room, "I love you!  I love you!  I love you!"  Yes, this is an outstanding performance you need to see.  Besides the Best Actress Academy Award victory, The Song of Bernadette also received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.  Spend some time with Jennifer Jones in Lourdes.  And try the water.  You'll feel better.

3 comments:

  1. A fabulous analysis of a good movie and a fine actress, Bobby. You have actually made me want to see this again. :)

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  2. This movie made me cry my eyes out when I was a child and still does. And don't forget Cluny Brown! One of her lesser-known film and one of my favorites.

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