Sunday, November 11, 2012

Flashback, November 1967: Jennifer Jones’ Suicide Try

In her prime, Jennifer Jones affinity for high-strung, depressed women led to an Academy Award and an additional four nominations in the Forties and Fifties. Filmgoers did not have an inkling that she brought much of herself to these roles until November 9, 1967, when the actress--after checking into a motel and taking an overdose of pills--was found unconscious at the foot of a 400-foot cliff on Malibu Beach.

Jones survived her suicide attempt, going on to live another 32 years. But it wasn’t her first or last brush with tragedy. Headlong passion continually brought her to the brink in such films as Madame Bovary, Indiscretion of an American Wife, Duel in the Sun, and Ruby Gentry. Offscreen, at the height of her fame, she remained deeply private. That instinct—perhaps a mode of self-preservation—may have led her to be all-but-forgotten by Hollywood, but it also enabled her to build a new life for herself, as an advocate for mental health and patron of the arts.

What brought Jones to her desperate act? The event immediately preceding it was the news that Charles Bickford, her friend and co-star in Song of Bernadette and Duel in the Sun, had died earlier in the day. But in all likelihood, that was simply the latest—and relatively small—blow in a series of increasing personal and professional setbacks. At age 48, she was receiving fewer and fewer film offers—and the death of her husband-Svengali, producer David O. Selznick, two years before, left her without a rudder in this difficult time. The producer, looking to re-enact his blockbuster Gone With the Wind success with Jones as leading lady in historic epics, drove directors as fine and varied in temperament as William Wyler, John Huston, and Charles Vidor to distraction with his micromanaging, multi-page memos, then pushed himself to the brink with all kinds of drugs, including benzedrine.

Some years ago—probably 20, 30 years after Jones’ suicide attempt--I was shocked by her appearance as a presenter on the Academy Awards. She looked matronly, heavier than the ingénue of Since You Went Away and Portrait of Jennie. It was similar to how crestfallen I felt when I saw Jones’ contemporary, Deborah Kerr, accepting an honorary Oscar a few years later.

Male stars of these actresses’ time were far less likely to register such an impact on film fans. They were allowed to continue to appear on screen, where they maintained a hold on lead roles well into their 50s, familiarizing with their gradually aging faces. (Plastic surgery, Grecian Formula and toupees can only go so far.) In contrast to that long-time tendency for men—as well as a newer trend, in which over-40 actresses such as Annette Bening and Nicole Kidman are finding themselves with choicer parts—Hollywood executives, “so often driven by the ids of 14-year-old boys, used to usher actresses into retirement after they lit their 39th birthday candle,” recalled Rebecca Keegan of the Los Angeles Times two years ago.

Jones, living in the middle of that era, struggled to adapt to that cruel tendency. It didn’t help that the kind of “women’s weepies” that made her a star had fallen out of fallen, nor that the man whose advice she had consistently followed regarding her career, Selznick, had first lost his sense of the market, then his life.

The Jones film that fascinates me the most is one that I’ve never seen in its entirety: the 1962 adaptation of Tender Is the Night. My interest stems not merely from curiosity of something unglimpsed, but also because I have long wondered how its source material, the haunting F. Scott Fitzgerald novel by that name, translated to the big screen.

Only industry insiders could have realized upon the release of this Henry King-directed film how closely its stars were enacting the fate of their characters offscreen. Jason Robards, as alcoholic psychotherapist Dick Diver, was well along the path of self-destructive drinking in the Seventies. As for Jones, while she was too old, by nearly 20 years, for the role of Dick’s troubled wife Nicole, her offscreen personality—“clever, insecure, gentle, pathologically shy, passive aggressive,” in the words of blogger The Alphabetician—ensured that she would have had no trouble relating to the character.

Jones’ impulsivity and emotional fragility were both in evidence even early in her career, as her illicit affair with Selznick reached its climax. As her guilt mounted over the dissolution of her first marriage to actor Robert Walker, she attempted suicide, yet the morning after her Oscar win for Song of Bernadette—elated as much by Selznick’s attention at the post-award party as by her victory itself—she had filed for divorce from Walker.

The actress emerged from both her early and late suicide attempts, but her daughter Mary Jennifer was not as fortunate. The girl, not even a teen when her father died, was crushed by his death, and never recovered her psychological balance. In 1976, while her mother was visiting her terminally ill father in Oklahoma, Mary Jennifer leaped to her death from a Los Angeles skyscraper.

Norton Simon, the billionaire art collector that the widowed Jones had married in 1971, now had something awful in common with his wife: each had lost a child to suicide. Following Mary Jennifer’s death, the two endowed the Jennifer Jones Simon Foundation For Mental Health And Education in 1980. In the early 1990s, she even volunteered as a counselor at the Southern California Counseling Center in Beverly Hills. Her longtime therapist Milton Wexler remarked, “Helping others helped Jennifer heal herself.” (Following Simon's death in the 1990s, she also became even more involved than before with endowing his major art philanthropy, the Norton Simon Museum.)

Her patronage of mental-health charities was important and welcome. Still, Jones will inevitably continue to be known for her work on film. If you’re a film buff such as myself, you’ll inevitably wonder what would have happened if she had not called it a day after The Towering Inferno in 1974.

What might be called “alternative film history”—i.e., how films might have turned out with different actors or directors—particularly fascinates me. (For instance, Emily Watson was up for the role of Laura Brown that eventually went to Julianne Moore in The Hours.)Two aborted late-life projects involving Jones especially intrigue me.

In 1981, Simon had acquired for Jones the rights to the story of headmistress-murderer Jean Harris. The role of a woman who loses everything in a desperate attempt to hold onto her lover, womanizing diet doctor Herman Tarnower, would have been made to order for the actress. But Ellen Burstyn’s appearance in the part in a hurriedly-made TV movie effectively killed interest in that.

The same year, Jones had acquired the rights to Larry McMurtry’s novel Terms of Endearment, but she withdrew after writer-director James L. Brooks did something that Selznick would rarely if ever tell his wife: i.e., that she was too old for the part. She withdrew, and it must have galled her a couple of years later when Shirley MacLaine won the role--and, ultimately, an Oscar--for it.

The life and career of Jones pose a number of questions: Would she have been discovered without Selznick? Would her career have taken its drastic downturn after A Farewell to Arms and Tender is the Night without his constant interference with directors? Would she have become a cult figure if she had died rather than lived following her 1967 suicide attempt?

(The photo accompanying this post comes from 1945, at the height of her youthful beauty, in the melodrama Love Letters.)

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