Aug 5, 2008

Current Love: Jennifer Jones

'Tis a rare thing in classic film, a movie star is so believable as a celebrated historical or iconic figure as to transcend the studio system that redoubtably landed him or her the role in the first place - but I must admit that it does happen. Henry Fonda, for instance, was as complete an embodiment of Young Mr. Lincoln as anyone could dare to conjure; Gary Cooper suffered and stayed stoic just as we imagine Lou Gehrig did in his decline. But Jennifer Jones, that sweet wide-eyed thing I knew only from a handful of good forties films, trumps them all. She is - and I will swear to this, honest, I will - Jennifer Jones is Bernadette Soubirous.

How did the eminent awesome escape me until now?

Last week's impromptu viewing of the awe-inspiring Song of Bernadette moved me profoundly. The appeal of the film is in the sincerity of its story and the myriad levels on which it can be meaningful, but its beauty is that even a superficial appraisal cannot find fault with the performance, the presence, of Miss Jones, nor can it contest the clarity with which she channels the trusting piety of the young, uneducated peasant girl in rural nineteenth-century France. Void of any of the telltale mannerisms of then-contemporary studio actresses that threaten to date a decades-old drama or hinder its impact, Jones so convincingly becomes 14-year-old Bernadette that it is just that, a becoming. To see Jennifer accepting her Best Actress Academy Award for the role in 1944 - on the eve of her 25th birthday, no less - is to be stunned that any aspect of her could be removed from the humble and unassuming, unlearned and makeup-less teenager she so artfully revived, and immortalized, on the silver screen.

Henry as The Great Emancipator, Gary as Gehrig, and a young Oklahoman actress with limited stage experience and only 3 bit parts in films on her resume playing, being, the loved and lauded French peasant who became a saint? Only in Hollywood, mes chers. Only in Hollywood.

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