Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones (born Phylis Lee Isley), who won an Academy Award for her performance as saint-to-be Bernadette in The Song of Bernadette (1943), died today at her Malibu home at the age of 90. The accomplished actress was married to two famously self-made men, motion picture producer David O. Selznick, who died in 1965, and millionaire industrialist Norton Simon, who died in 1993. Her first marriage, to actor Robert Walker, ended in divorce in 1945; she married David O. Selznick shortly after the divorce was final. Her final screen appearance was 35 years ago, in the big-budget disaster film The Towering Inferno (1974), but despite a successful Hollywood career in which she won the award for Best Actress and garnered several additional Academy Award nominations for her exceptional acting, she is notorious for having starred in the Sixties film produced by American International Pictures (AIP), Angel, Angel Down We Go (1969), subsequently re-released and re-titled Cult of the Damned.
In writer-director Robert Thom’s Sixties oddity, Jones, then at or near 50 years old and in her penultimate film performance, portrayed the icy, abusive mother of a painfully insecure daughter played by folk singer Holly Near. In the course of the film, Jones delivered perhaps one of the most oft-quoted lines in all of trash cinema, “I’ve made thirty stag films and I never faked an orgasm.” Yet despite its widespread reputation as a trash cinema classic, Angel, Angel Down We Go is not a total waste of time despite the efforts of some to transform it into camp, and is perhaps best described as a low-brow Teorema (1968), although Joseph Losey’s Boom! (with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams) was released earlier the same year, and has a number of contingent connections as well. I cannot say whether Robert Thom was directly influenced by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial film, Teorema, which, according to the IMDB, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 1968, but Angel, Angel Down We Go—this again according to the IMDB—opened in New York almost a year after, in August 1969. In Pasolini’s earlier and overtly allegorical film, a strange visitor, played by Terence Stamp, arrives at the household of a wealthy family and sexually seduces all of them—the maid, the son, the mother (played by Silvana Mangano), the daughter, and eventually the father. The family members all seem to have something close to a transcendent experience as a result of their intimate experiences with the charismatic young man, but soon after his final seduction, he leaves, and each member of the family (except for the maid, a peasant woman) undergoes an emotional breakdown, presumably because they are selfish, self-indulgent, and coldly materialistic (except for the good maid—salt of the earth) bourgeoisie.
Produced by Jerome F. Katzman, son of the legendary exploitation film producer Sam Katzman, Angel, Angel Down We Go starred Jones (but why not Thom’s wife, actress Millie Perkins?), Jordan Christopher, Roddy McDowall, Holly Near, Lou Rawls, and Charles Aidman. The Terence Stamp role is played by Jordan Christopher (playing “Bogart Peter Stuyvesant”) who, while not exactly a dead ringer for Jim Morrison, is close enough in appearance to the Lizard King that the resemblance is hard to miss (and just so connection can’t be missed, he’s the leader of a rock band). The band plays a slew of songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, including Angel, Angel Down We Go, “Mother Lover,” “Hey, Hey, Hey,” “The Fat Song,” and “Hi Ho,” and has been considered by some as a sort of companion piece to AIP’s earlier Wild in the Streets (1968), about a pop star becoming President of the United States, which was also written by Thom. (According to Louis Black, Renata Adler and Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, “Wild in the Streets is a kind of instant classic, a revved up La Chinoise or Privilege for the drive-ins in summertime.”)
Hence my belief that Angel, Angel Down We Go, which like Wild in the Streets also features a pop star as demigod, should be considered the Teorema of the drive-in set. After insinuating himself into the Steele household, Stuyvesant first seduces the plump neurotic debutante daughter, Tara (Holly Near), then the (neurotic) mother, Astrid (Jones), and finally the ineffectual father (Charles Aidman), with whom he is shown taking a shower - daring stuff for AIP in 1969. Thom seemed to wish to expose the ideological bankruptcy of Tara's materialistic parents, revealing their utter failure to be beneficent, nurturing parents as well as positive role models, in effect encouraging their hapless daughter to seek acceptance from a self-absorbed nihilist such as Bogart Peter Stuyvesant (“Bogie”). Thus, like other films of the 1960s such as The Chase (1966), it explores with a cynical eye the ideological exhaustion of that most cherished of American institutions, the American family. If you go over here, you can find a reasonably accurate transcription of the film’s action and dialogue, along with a rather interesting speculation about the way the film interacts with Gone With the Wind (1939), produced by Jones’ once husband, David O. Selznick (the Holly Near character is named Tara, after the name of the plantation owned by Scarlett O’Hara’s father).
Rather than disparage her participation, I have always considered Jennifer Jones’ appearance in the film as both bold and audacious, a “risk” that someone in her position could, and in fact, was ideally suited, to take. (She certainly did not need to work.) Although she gave up acting decades ago, the death of Jennifer Jones reminds us of the ever-receding cultural distance of Old Hollywood, as well as that elusive quality that made her a star, glamor.