December 29, 2015

Jennifer Jones, Duel in the Sun

as PEARL CHAVEZ
How does one begin to discuss the topic of Jennifer Jones's performance in Duel in the Sun? I find that once I begin to type, my mind then runs in several different directions on account of all the thoughts and feelings I have towards this film and performance. Days after the viewing, I'm still trying my very best to gather and package them up in an organized manner, so bear with me here.

In his never-ending, haphazard quest to produce a successor to Gone with the Wind, David O. Selznick gave us Duel in the Sun--a film that, while recalling Gone with the Wind's lush aesthetics, is otherwise completely out-of-its-mind bonkers. And while shooting Duel in the Sun, Jones had told a fan magazine, "I sort of hypnotize myself...I find myself really living the roles I play...and I think that my own mental state is something like a trance when I’m acting." Now, my very first impression--and I'm sure many feel this as well--was that Jennifer Jones should not have been anywhere near the role of Pearl Chavez. For starters, Jones was a white woman and Pearl is not one. Jones literally sounds too smart to be playing an uneducated teen girl who wants Joseph Cotten to "learn" her, she's too American and can't seem to figure out whether or not she wants to attempt an 'exotic' accent, and she physically looks too mature to be playing a character written so young and childishly naive. And yet that latter element--Jones's 'maturity' if you will--is the absolute crux of this performance. Completely gone from Jones are any semblances of a saint Bernadette, a girl-next-door Jane Hilton or an innocuous Singleton. Here, in this crazed film and crazed performance, lies the spirit of a wholly oversexed, brazen little minx, "curved in the flesh of temptation" as Walter Huston puts it. I found it so extremely stunning to see this side of her after having seen three consecutive performances where she is no more than a harmless, soft-spoken entity. The film crams as much implicit and explicit sex into the film as it could have possibly gotten away with and, really, who'd have thunk that Jennifer Jones of all actresses would be more than up to snuff in keeping up? It's as if she was possessed by some sort of demonic sex spirit, as if she was truly in a sexualized trance, and I really, really enjoyed watching it happen.


Sure, there are bits and pieces to her performance that are actually quite silly--I was dumbstruck by how bad some of her line deliveries were in the very beginning ("is that...is that your house?"), her method of cocking one of her eyebrows up while smizing the shit out of the entire southwestern United States to convey "I'm sexy" can come off as try-hard (I can't quite make out what the fuck she and the crew were thinking when they filmed that "all right Jesse, you said you'd never forget" scene), her insane posing as she's laying down crying is not right whatsoever, her literal attempts in some scenes to emulate Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara are glaringly obvious, and her loud hysterics might just be viewed as horrific by some. Say what you will about how 'bad' she may be (I've read a couple articles that call her performance 'hilarious' so to speak), I understand that. But couldn't you make an argument that Jones's glorious hamminess is befitting for such a wild, operatic picture? Isn't the raging, carnivorous sexuality that seeps out from her quite perfectly matched with the film's motif of smoldering heat? In fact, I'd argue that the film lives and dies on how well the lead actress can nail Pearl as a stimulus, and therefore Jones ought to receive a helluva lot more credit for being able to do that so well (can you imagine Teresa Wright, originally slated for Pearl, actually doing this role? The film would have been an utter disaster!!). I'm of the belief that Jones is attempting a kind of acting here that doesn't literally equate to what the general populace of today would consider as 'fine acting'. In fact, I think she definitely fails at our definition of 'fine acting'. But I think that in failing, she's inadvertently channeling some sort of sick, twisted, over-the-top greatness that she likely wasn't hoping to achieve, the kind that craziness which exists in revered camp classics. Ultimately, I found that the things she does wrong didn't break the picture at all for me, but the things the does right really drives the picture into being what it is. And what exactly is Duel in the Sun? An unsuccessful prestige picture...but a successfully campy popcorn flick that's fun to watch in spite of how you might feel about its flaws. In short, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I liked this performance a lot. A lot more so than others (obviously). And I know that I shouldn't, but I do. And I don't even care that I do. But when it's right, it's right. And Jones is all sorts of wrong and all sorts of right in this film, but I've felt nothing but enjoyment when I reflect upon this performance, and I think that means something.

5 comments:

  1. Wow, great review. I have to say I have seen her performance a couple of weeks ago for the first time and I cannot yet say anything about it. It's so bizare that I surely need a re-watch but at the moment I can only remember bad moments...

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    1. Thank you Fritz! I actually put some thought into this one for once instead of rapidly pounding out a review. Every so often a performance comes along that requires that I provide it extra special attention, wondering if I should give them its own special label. :)

      But yes, this was much more bizarre than I was expecting it to be (i was just expecting it to be bad). I think that it's easy to write this one off as bad because, as I mentioned, the flaws are glaring, but I was ultimately more fascinated by Jones than I was turned off.

      Sounds to me like you've been making your way through the last of the '40s, no? Any reviews happening over the horizon on your end?

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  2. I didn't care for the film or the performance (and I often like Jones) but I get why you appreciated it. The movie's bizarre but she gives it her all and she's the best thing about it.

    If you liked this, you might try "Beat the Devil". It's a John Huston send up of the mystery/espionage genre (a la "Maltese Falcon") that's pretty bizarre itself. It bombed in the fifties (folks didn't get the humor) but was sort of a cult favorite in the '70s, '80s and '90s and has been called the first intentional "camp" film. Jones is over the top here, too, in an eccentric sort of way, but this time she seems in on the joke. This came out of left field for me, especially for a film from the fifties, and it's rather quirky, but Jones is a hoot. You might enjoy it.

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    1. Interesting! I'll keep a mental note and be sure to visit when I can. I admit this performance has got me a little more curious towards Jones than I was before (didn't really give her much thought prior to this), though I had a sense that she'd be reverting back to the work she had been doing before Duel in the Sun. In any case, Beat the Devil might provide some additional goodwill, especially since I've still got Love is a Many-Splendored Thing coming, and I'm not anticipating the best with that one.

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  3. "Splendid Thing" is a woman's picture from the fifties, kind of like the Bette Davis ones from the forties where Jones plays a Eurasian (!) doctor. I won't say more so you can make your own decision.

    Two of her more offbeat (for her), neurotic characters are in the films "Madame Bovary" and "Carrie". They're costume dramas, but the roles are hardly admirable and are more complex as well. I'm sure that's down the road a ways for you, but if she's piqued your interest maybe keep them in mind.

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