…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
I have a guilty confession to make. Jennifer Jones’s nominated turn in the soap-opera weepie Love is a Many-Splendored Thing isn’t the main reason I rented this film from the library (just what does it mean for something to be ‘splendored’, exactly?). It was the image on the cover of the DVD of hunky William Holden in swim trunks that did it. There, I admit it. I have a huge crush on Mr. Holden and always will. So, the pic drew me in and honestly, once you’re past that, there isn’t too much substance to this film… at least, if you take my humble opinion. (hehe)
Jones plays successful, widowed doctor Han Suyin in Hong Kong, shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War. She also happens to be Eurasian – a fact that she brings up at least 50 times during the film (Truly, it gets annoying. The screenwriter couldn’t have beat that dead horse any further!). At a party, Suyin meets American journalist and war correspondent Mark Elliot (Holden) and as predicted, the two strike up a romance – though it isn’t easy at the start. Suyin peppers her conversations with Mark with Chinese proverbs and bon mots, mostly to defend herself staunchly against ever falling in love again after the death of her husband. Mark does his best with his charm to break down the wall Suyin has constructed around herself and make her fall madly in love with him. Which, of course, she eventually does – and the pithy sayings she is so fond of intoning to him throughout the film suddenly become poetic words of love.
As can also be guessed, local tongues start wagging (oh no! An interracial pairing!), and Suyin’s position in the hospital and her honor among her family in China are jeopardized because of her affair with ‘a foreigner’. Oh, and did I mention that Mark was also married? This distant wife never makes an appearance, but her presence is nonetheless keenly felt, for she will not grant Mark a divorce in order for Suyin to marry him. Instead, they palliate themselves with loving trysts on the top of a windy hill with a lone, bedraggled tree above Hong Kong (cue the orchestra to swell with the Oscar-winning title torch song underneath). Inevitably, the Korean war breaks out, Mark is called to duty and, well… you can probably guess the result. Needless to say, the film ends with a bereaved Suyin at the top of that same hill… cue that orchestra again, and this time, add the chorus of sappy female singers.
All right, yep… I was not a fan of this film. I felt it was very poorly written, as if every word needed to have some sophisticated, heavy meaning. Reportedly, Han Suyin’s story was a true one, based upon her memoirs. That being said, wouldn’t it have done her more honor to cast someone with a little more dramatic depth and less cheesiness to her expressions than Jennifer Jones? Even more important – why not cast someone Chinese or truly Eurasian, instead of almost making it a blatant insult by casting an American actress in the role? Her costumes are consistently Chinese in style (usually tight, silken dresses), and her severe make-up sometimes resembles a bad drag queen. She has a few good moments, but not a whole lot. And William Holden is way too old to be her lover. He – and even his sexy scene swimming with Jones – is wasted in this tearjerker.
Granted, for its time, this film was probably seen as epic and I am sure many women flocked to theaters, hankies in hand, to see it. This may have been a year where box office success and popularity swayed Academy voters, for it garnered a surprising 8 nominations (including Best Picture) and took home 3 (Costume Design-Color, Scoring, and Best Song, “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing”). Honestly, nothing could persuade me to watch this schmaltzy film again. In 1955, casting someone like Jones as a Eurasian woman was probably not considered the slap in the face that it is by today’s politically-correct standards, but that context aside, it just doesn’t gel in the big picture.
Jones was nominated a total of 5 times (winning Actress in 1943 for The Song of Bernadette, nominated as Supporting Actress in 1944 for Since You Went Away, and nominated for Actress in Love Letters in 1945, Duel in the Sun in 1946, and this film in 1955). She lost in 1955 to, no doubt, a much-more deserving Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo. I daresay I even found her fall from the scenic elevator in 1974’s The Towering Inferno filled with heavier drama – for once you get past that tantalizing William Holden DVD cover, this is one to miss, folks.