Jennifer Jones as “Madame Bovary” (1949)

jones4She is the best Emma we’ve ever had–including Isabelle Huppert’s great 1991 Emma–because her director, Vincente Minnelli, not only made a story about a woman’s self-destruction, he made a film about a female actor’s narcissism. In the movie, Jones, who had won an Oscar five years before playing a saint, is ravaged by her own craven desire for her dreams to become real; in order for that to happen she must buy more than she can afford and then sell her body–her various passions–for more than her body can stand. As her husband, the sweet and somewhat dim witted Charles, Van Helflin looks, interestingly, like Jones’ first husband–the unstable actor, Robert Walker. Some of the more fascinating scenes in one of Minnelli’s best pieces occurs after Emma has her baby daughter; she can’t cope with a child’s needs, nor with her femaleness–she’s repulsed by them, just as she’s repulsed by her lies and her own body. (Jones own daughter, Mary Jennifer, committed suicide in 1976, aged 22.) But Emma can’t take her eyes off herself. Minnelli surrounds her with mirrors; when she catches sight of herself she cannot look away. Jones’ lips–she was a model for a time before she became an actress but was criticized for her “negroid” features–are a counterpoint to the deadness in her eyes; her lips sneer, smear the thoughts in her head on her face, betray her over and over through a series of hungry kisses. But nothing can fill her up; her dreams for more, a better life, a more dreamed life, have left her hollow, shrieking, all too real. Men eventually avoid her because no man in the film is equal to her fantasy about them. Emma is an object fetishist who’s hobbled by her connoisseurship; nothing measures up, certainly not real life. She should have been a writer like the writer who created her, but she could not be alone–the isolation writing requires. Her romanticism was rotten because she exploited it, and let it exploit her.

I saw this movie as a boy and it was one of the first that made me want to write for films, specifically for women in films; Minnelli’s fascination with Jones inspired me to see the camera as an instrument of interest; you could record someone and that someone told you who they were through word, gesture, silence, a mouth. Years after I saw the movie, a friend hosted a Hollywood dinner for me; they asked who I wanted to meet, and I said Jennifer Jones. (Some time before that, another friend, knowing of my great interest in her and her no doubt “negroid” features, bought a pair of her blue jeans at a charity auction.) Jones picked my friend and I up in her enormous limo; it was as if she had arranged all the lights in the world around her. I gave her Jane Bowles’ “Collected Works,” because that’s who she was playing in the Truman Capote scripted movie, “Beat the Devil,” and I told her that. We arrived at the restaurant and Jones, wearing a pants jones1suit, got out first; the street lights were arranged around her there, too; someone–God?–had called ahead to make the world look good around her. At dinner the conversation turned to her once best friend, Truman Capote, who not only wrote “Beat the Devil,” but Jones’ vastly underrated film, “Indiscretion of an American Wife,” produced by her then husband, David Selznick, and co-starring Montgomery Clift. It was rumored that Jones fell in love with Clift during the making of the film, and it’s all there in the movie: her inability to accept who the Montgomery Clift character is, her character’s need for convention, and Jones’ own need to be near the power of powerful husbands. Jennifer said that Capote’s fall was leaving her for Babe Paley; girl fights go on forever, but JJ had a point: his friendship with Paley removed him from the “arts.” Another actress at the table said that she remembered how, as a little girl, she was in a hotel with her father, a famous director, and there was a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door of a very elegant suite; they were in Switzerland. Her father said: Do you know who’s in that suite? Jennifer Jones. And when the real and unreal Jennifer Jones heard that at that dinner table she crinkled her nose and smiled, flattening us with her strange, strained, but real charm, just like Jennifer Jones in the movies.
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