My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1945: Jennifer Jones in "Love Letters"

On the first look, the Best Actress category of 1945 seemed like the usual combination of returning nominees and first-time contenders – ever since Norma Shearer became the first actress to receive a second nomination, the Oscars liked to honor both previous winners and nominees while also adding new faces and names to their list of nominees. Obviously the first Oscar years saw some line-ups that consisted only of actresses that were nominated for the first time but the appearance of women who would quickly turn into Academy favorites like the aforementioned Norma Shearer or Marie Dressler, Irene Dunne, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn made future races without a returning nominee highly unlikely if not downright impossible – it took until 1970 to find Jane Alexander, Glenda Jackson, Sarah Miles, Ali McGraw and Carrie Snodgrass as a group of Best Actress nominees that had all never been nominated for an Oscar before. And then there were other years that came close – in 1953, Deborah Kerr was the only returning nominee in a group otherwise consisting of first-time competitors Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Maggie McNamara and Ava Gardener and in 1966 Elizabeth Taylor was a true Oscar veteran compared to Anouk Aimée, Ida Kaminska and the two sisters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. Considering this strong standing of previous nominees in almost every year of the Academy’s history, the circumstance that 1945 saw only two newcomers in the Best Actress category does not seem surprising – but the fact that the three other contenders were not only previous nominees but actually previous winners adds an interesting angle to this line-up. Of course, Oscar voters were always eager to embrace the return of former Oscar winners, too, and only occasionally all five contenders were hoping to receive their first award, for example in 1953 (the year that saw Audrey Hepburn triumph), 1957 (when Joanne Woodward emerged as the winner), 1958 (with the long-awaited win for Susan Hayward) or 1963 (with Patricia Neal dominating her competition) – but these years are still rather rare as one or two Oscar winners are almost always a part of every Best Actress line-up. But just as the absence of an Oscar winner is an often unlikely scenario in this category, so is the presence of too many former winners as three returning champions are an equally seldom occasion. One year prior to 1945, Greer Garson, Bette Davis and Claudette Colbert already achieved this feat and later examples would be 1951 (with Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn and Jane Wyman), 1967 (with Katharine Hepburn, Anne Bancroft and Audrey Hepburn), 1968 (with Katharine Hepburn, Joanne Woodward and Patricia Neal), 1973 (with Glenda Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Joanne Woodward) or 1978 (with Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn and Ingrid Bergman). But there are still two circumstances that set 1945 apart from other examples like this and make it a truly unique case in the history of this category – for one, the three returning winners came from the three previous years as the Best Actress winners of 1942, 1943 and 1944 were all assembled together in the line-up of 1945. And furthermore, this was not the first time that Jennifer Jones, Ingrid Bergman and Greer Garson saw themselves competing against each other for the Best Actress Oscar – all three had already been nominated together in 1943 when Jennifer Jones triumphed for The Song of Bernadette and they were all also Oscar-nominees in 1944 but Jennifer Jones’s nomination in the Supporting Category for her performance in the World War II Drama Since you Went Away prevented these three actresses from competing with each other three times in a row. This dominance of these actresses and their constant presence at the Academy Awards emphasize their high level of popularity with audiences and Oscar voters during the years of World War II, maybe giving them a sense of familiarity and stability during these uncertain times before they were replaced by other actresses during the second half of the decade after the war was over and a new era was about to start. But in a short period of time, all three women were able to accumulate a vast number of Oscar nominations as Greer Garson received five consecutive nods, Jennifer Jones four (including her supporting nomination in 1944) and Ingrid Bergman three and this constant acclaim and prominence allowed them to strengthen their positions as the primary actresses of their generations and shape their careers and artistic developments on the basis of their own decisions. Ingrid Bergman played a large variety of different roles, aiming to find the most revered co-workers in front of and behind the camera and finally went to Italy to find more artistic challenges – only to find herself banned from Hollywood, too, after her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini caused a major scandal for the actress who had played nuns and saints on the big screen during her career so far. Greer Garson on the other hand seemed to feel most comfortable within her area of expertise, co-starring with Walter Pidgeon multiple times and playing roles that suited her personality on the screen, allowing her a display of quiet dignity and inner strength that she used as the constant basis of her most beloved and acclaimed characterizations. And in the course of their careers, Jennifer Jones might appear like an intriguing combination of these two actresses – like Greer Garson, she enjoyed the presence of a precise co-star as she appeared opposite Joseph Cotton four times in five years and she also shaped her characters according to her own personality more times than the other way around but she was also willing to explore different aspects of this personality nonetheless. She followed her saint-like work in The Song of Bernadette with an equally innocent portrayal of youthful ideals and first feelings of love in Since you Went Away but was then aiming to find darker facets in her work as ultimately displayed by her controversial portrayal of the dangerous Pearl Chavez in the equally controversial Duel in the Sun. And one year before that, she already took a first step into a different direction with her performance in the romantic drama Love Letters in which she played a mysterious woman who suffers from amnesia and might or might not be a murderess who forgot all about her past and her possible crime. There seemed to be a definite unwillingness to be cast in specific roles too easily and Jennifer Jones also established herself as an actress whose major interests were the parts themselves rather than the wider stories they were presented in. But while Love Letters maybe gave Jennifer Jones a chance to show a different side of her former self, it limited its own possibilities underneath a conventional execution and the characteristic melodrama that often accompanied and influenced her work, pushing the performance closer to the vapidness of Love Letters itself even if Jennifer Jones found certain chances and possibilities to add the strength of her own distinct style and occasionally balanced the opposing spectrums of the role with captivating clarity.

Throughout her career, Jennifer Jones appeared eager to realize a variety of different characters and roles, trying to act outside of her comfort zone that she set with her star-making role of Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette and that saw her strengths in the quiet aspects of her work, a gentle softness, the use of her rich and vibrant voice and her expressive face that could easily communicate a vast variety of emotions with distinct lucidity but still kept a vague depth and inexplicability, allowing Jennifer Jones to always display a strong maturity even if her characters were defined by naivety or inexperience. But even if Jennifer Jones occasionally moved to characters or movies that appeared to be outside her own comfort zone, she still adjusted these characters to her own personality and style of contrasting emotions, therefore actually taking this zone with her and simply using it in different circumstances and surroundings. This maybe limited her possibilities in different parts but it still allowed her to emphasize her main strength as an actress, namely her ability to combine a certain youthfulness and unawareness with a sensible mystery and inscrutability, letting her characters often appear both strangely ordinary and undeniably unusual – but it is a clash of opposites that only worked in Jennifer Jones’s favor when her characters were actually asking for these qualities and therefore defined by their ability to keep their feet on the ground but get their head lost in the clouds. And so it is not surprising that this display of both commonness and unusualness was beautifully realized in her work in The Song of Bernadette which presented her with a character that clearly guided her within her own comfort zone but also grew with her interpretation of quiet conviction and childlike helplessness, of maturity and simplicity. This combination of different aspects in her work enabled her to fill the characters she played with an intriguing ambiguity but at the same time she was also dependent on the script she was given to find the right balance within the realization of her roles, needing the right part and the right circumstances to benefit from her distinct talents since she could otherwise easily get lost in her characterizations and either emphasize the secrets of her characters too strongly or fail to keep the familiarity of her parts inside the necessary boundaries. This was mostly visible in Jennifer Jones’s own tendency to adopt the style of the movies around her and often surrender to the melodrama that accompanied them, consequently failing to find the ability to raise above their quality or fill her characters will an inner life independent from the script or the direction. And so she was on the one hand almost always an integral part of her stories and able to seamlessly fit into her environments, from the piety of a French home to the salacious world of an American cattle ranch, and she always allowed herself to become the vessel of the vision behind the story but on the other hand the level of success of her precise performances completely depended on the material she was given and how far the part she was playing took advantage of her on-screen personality. She was given all these necessities in The Song of Bernadette as the movie carefully crafted itself around her central portrayal while giving her the right atmosphere to focus all her features on the sincerity and mystery of her character, almost reducing her presence for the sake of her inner strength and therefore giving her the chance to carry the story with her aforementioned ability to represent youthfulness and maturity as well as familiarity and inscrutability. The next year, she focused more strongly on the qualities of a girl next door with her work in Since you went Away and was again helped by the structure of the story which allowed her to position her personality with the right amount of straight-forward honesty while preserving an inner depth beyond the written words. And so it does not seem surprising that the Academy also nominated her for her performance in 1945’s Love Letters where Jennifer Jones played Singleton, a woman who suffers from amnesia and might have killed her husband and later falls in love with Joseph Cotton’s Allen who has written various love letters to her in the past – but not for himself but for one of his friends who was also the man whom Jennifer Jones apparently killed. It’s a role that undoubtedly appears to be an ideal vessel for Jennifer Jones’s distinct talents – as a character, Singleton exists in two worlds, one defined by love and romance, the other by oblivion and enigma and it asks for the mysteriousness of a woman who might be a murderess and constantly expresses the ideas of a lost past and an unknown future and also demands a display of girlish charm and accessibility to realize the on-screen romance with the character of Joseph Cotton. But even if the role of Singleton appears like a blueprint for the personality of Jennifer Jones, the script too often pushed her undecidedly into different directions, throwing both Singleton and Jennifer Jones too often off-balance as the story lacks the needed depth and mostly rested on the effects of murder and romance without giving further explanation to its plot or its characters. It’s a thin narrative that could have been a perfect vehicle for the star and the actress Jennifer Jones but in the end it denied her the chance to craft a stronger characterization by leaving too many questions open and letting her either over- or misuse many of her strengths on the screen – even if she sometimes found room to add a much-needed spark and captivating intensity that would provide Love Letter’s most memorable moments and strongest scenes.

Right from the start, Love Letters makes it obvious that all its goals and themes from love and drama to murder and amnesia are embodied in the single character of Singleton, using her as its constant point of reference that moves the story and re-changes it focus between different genres. It’s a task that poses various challenges and traps for an actress as she needs to find the right tone and style to combine these different aspects of the character and letting them appear as a natural part of her role while also highlighting them whenever necessary. This almost fusion of identities is also the driving force that creates the mystery of Love Letters and the character of Singleton needs to inhabit less and less of these different circumstances as the stories unpeels her true identity. And so Love Letters begins its tale with Singleton at her most inaccessible as the mystery that is surrounding this woman also guides her short and vague introduction after which she again leaves the picture – in fact, Love Letters goes on for over thirty minutes before Jennifer Jones truly establishes herself as its leading lady and Singleton as its central character but even these thirty minutes are shaped and influenced by her ambiguous presence. But the first introduction of Singleton unfortunately turns into an unfulfilled promise by the time Jennifer Jones truly enters the movie because both the script and her acting are constantly undecided just how much to reveal of the character and where to position her between unknown enigma and ‘girl next door’. In her first scene, Jennifer Jones seems to tease both Joseph Cotton’s Allen and the audience as she eagerly wants to embrace the mystery that defines her character – she delivers the line ‘Just Singleton’ which tells Alan that not only her character but even her name is a secret, with the right amount of reticence and playfulness but the effect comes and goes without leaving a lasting impression because the movie behind Jennifer Jones’s efforts does not create the right atmosphere to support her intentions, almost letting the character feel like an intruder to the story, creating a disharmony and inconsistency between the actress and the story. Consequently, Jennifer Jones’s portrayal suffers from the contradicting aims of the screenplay – Love Letters often forces her to make the obvious even more obvious, letting her either overstate the pains of a lost memory or the happiness of a newfound love with the same kind of solemn dedication, hence often pushing her to act against her usual strengths on the screen, letting the mystery of her character disappear behind a palpable execution. The indetermination of the movie and Jennifer Jones becomes particularly visible in the scene that follows the first introduction of Singleton – the strangely confusing atmosphere that Love Letters was so keen to create is suddenly turned around by Jennifer Jones who plays her next encounter with Joseph Cotton with a combination of girlish giggles and playful behavior even as she opens up about her own secrets and her inability to recollect her own preceding life. Of course, such moments that constantly define previous impressions could easily create an intriguing continuity in the character of Singleton, especially since her amnesia leaves vast room for different interpretations of different emotions and could easily result in a characterization that often contradicts all expectations but both Love Letters and Jennifer Jones are too single-minded in their executions of these moments to overcome the limitations that they have imposed on themselves and never use the chances for a deeper and more equivocal portrayal that truly combines the contrasting traits of Singleton instead of presenting them singularly whenever needed, letting the name of the character influence the overall work too strongly. And so Jennifer Jones has to work very hard in this scene to let Singleton come to live again and find a logical string within her own performance – and surprisingly, she does succeed as the moment goes on as she now begins to unfold her ability to combine both commonness and mystery in her role and temporarily finds the right balance of these two extremes, showing that, behind the mystery, Singleton is a simple woman with simple dreams. It was an intriguing choice by Jennifer Jones to let Singleton appear much more down-to-earth than a movie like Love Letters would have expected even is she sometimes uses certain lines of dialogue to evoke an unknown mystery in Singleton – a mystery that is actually never there because the audience is right from the start more aware about the character than she herself and the simple structure of the script gives Singleton no live apart from her own focus on a single memory that is coming and going inside her mind, the memory of a few poetic and romantic lines that have already shaped her entire existence before she lost her memory. But in this scene, Jennifer Jones also knows how to use her charming personality and the chemistry that she develops with Joseph Cotton creates the right tension for this second, more detailed meeting – the way she teases Alan for not remembering their first encounter and her display of innocent shame for her own amnesia works very well in the context of the story. As the scene goes on, Love Letters begins its process of slowly uncovering the character of Singleton, revealing facts about her past without revealing the truth behind them, and letting Singleton slowly lose the enigma that surrounds her and turning her into a woman who tries to find the ordinary within the extraordinary – in those later moments, when Jennifer Jones is allowed to take hold of her character and uses her own presence to create these scenes of mystery and commonness, she finally truly embodies Singleton without overdoing it herself or being forced to overdo it by the movie as she finds dignity and quiet peace in her role when she expresses Singleton’s thoughts about the future, about what may have been and her newfound love for Alan. Moments of Singleton wondering about her past, eager to know what has happened, why she suddenly remembers a certain name or a certain deed and what they mean in the larger context of her own life give Jennifer Jones the chance to express her distinct intensity which shows her in perfect control of her own voice, filling it with the right amount of secret, adding an unexpected emotional level to her speculations about her lost memory.

But overall, such moments still happen too rarely within Love Letters and not all scenes truly benefit Jennifer Jones’s acting style or screen personality. She often limits her own possibilities by expressing both her love for Allen and her wondering about the past with the same kind of earnest whispers and for every moment that finds her performance captivating and surprising she adds others that show her rather lost and inconvenient. Most of all, Jennifer Jones is an actress that knows how to subtly express a storm of different emotions on her face but many times feels oddly forlorn whenever she needs to use her whole body to bring a moment to live – because of this, scenes that show her ironing a shirt, putting tea into a cup or turning around and looking for Alan often feel strangely out of place and can even distract from her overall performance. And so it is not surprising that her long monologues which she fills with both tension and tenderness provide Love Letter’s with its most distinguishable moments – when she talks about the letters from the man she loved during her murder trial she beautifully overcomes the banality of her lines with compelling pathos and sincerity and she equally realized similar moments with the same captivating intenseness, reciting lines from a letter that suddenly came back into her mind or remembering about the fateful night that changed her life forever. As the story goes on, Jennifer Jones’s performance continues to reveal the past of Singleton and her shy nervousness when she addresses her postman, telling him that she is not scared, or her sudden breakdown in the garden are moments that add to the tension of the story but also make her character quietly accessible and real, suddenly reminding the audience that Singleton is not only a mystery but also a human being – but nevertheless, Jennifer Jones unfortunately never adjusted her performance to the ongoing inner process of her character, missing many opportunities to add more layers to Singleton and her destiny. But Jennifer Jones also finds beautifully calm moments, especially when she lets Singleton reflect about herself, commenting on her own constant worries and speculations with an almost amused 'Me again', finding a short moment of relaxed unrestraint in a story that constantly intends to keep Singleton on the edge of her mental stability. Playing a victim of amnesia, Jennifer Jones might not have tried to truly challenge the audience but instead constantly kept her performance in the tone of the melodrama around her but she still crafted a strong feeling of longing for something else, something unknown and she let her light awareness of her own condition, the quietly increasing fear of her own past and her slow route to the truth always be set in the context of the love story between Singleton and Alan, maybe letting too many opportunities pass by but still turning into Love Letter’s most noteworthy aspect even if she also too often underlined the one-dimensionality of the part, denying Singleton her own identity and only letting her act out of her admiration for the romantic lines that had been written to her before she lost her memory. Sometimes, the banality of the situation defeats her – her delivery of the line ‘Who are you?’, again forcing her to make the obvious even more obvious, lacks the needed cogency and almost suffocates the story under its own overbearance. And the final scenes of Love Letters also show that Jennifer Jones too often lost the balance within her own performance and between her different strengths as an actress – she played Singleton’s realization of the truth with soothing quietness and finds the right tone and style for the scene, turning it into the payoff the audience has been waiting for, but again both Jennifer Jones and the script contradict any atmosphere and tension they created by following with a moment that destructs the delicate balance of Love Letters when Singleton, after having uncovered the truth and the lies that have been told to her for so long, runs into the waiting arms of Alan, forgetting everything that just happened, beaming with an exaggerated smile and wide-eyed happiness that she finally learnt who has written her precious letters to her in the past – it’s a moment that sums up the constant imbalance that has haunted both Love Letters and Jennifer Jones’s performance up so far.

In the end, the character of Singleton combined many features that usually suit Jennifer Jones very well and the part could have fitted her like a glove if it had not asked her to work against her usual strengths on the screen too often and instead had guided her more clearly inside her own comfort zone of equating different opposites within her characters – but Jennifer Jones too often mixed the two worlds of Singleton, finding no difference between the romance of the story and the personal journey of a lost soul, lacking the ability to rise above the script while working in the context of its tone and themes as well. And so, Singleton is a character that is more defined by the chances it missed and what it could have been instead of what it is but what remains is still an often captivating and haunting performance that provides the needed combination of mysteriousness and subtlety to amplify the effect of the character and makes her past, her present and her future the driving force of the story and lets her search for answers be the only absorbing aspect in an otherwise lifeless and unassuming tale.


Nues20 said...

Great review Fritz!
Haven't seen it yet but I think I'll give it a watch :)

joe burns said...

Great review! I have not been able to find it! Where did you find it? On Youtube?

Fritz said...

Thanks a lot to both of you! :-)

@Joe: Yes, I found it there but it's a movie that is often taken down again. It's worth checking from time to time if it's back...

joe burns said...

Oh, and what year are you doing next? i'd suggest 1977 next. If you can't do it next, do it soon! Because I'm really interested in your opinions on all of them.

Fritz said...

I have one year planned. It will not be 1977, I'm sorry, but rather one of the earlier years.