Jennie and Sam

Take yourself back to 1948, when David O. Selznick produced a romantic gem called "Portrait of Jennie". Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones appeared together for the fourth and last time in this evocative film, along with Lillian Gish and Ethel Barrymore. Debussy's music fills some of the score, conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin, who also wrote additional lyrics. The paintings of JMW Turner come frequently to mind with the lush cinematography. I think of the film as a chiaroscuro love poem.

It is said that both Vivian Leigh and Shirley Temple were suggested for the title role, but Selznick was adamant in his choice of Jennifer Jones. The film is shot entirely in black and white, except that the tidal wave is shown in eerie green and the final portrait at the museum in shades of blue.

The movie received dreadful reviews at the time and failed to draw audiences. Some considered it Jones' worst film ever. Now it is considered one of her finest. "Portrait of Jennie" won an Oscar for special effects and was nominated for best black and white cinematography. At the Venice Film Festival, Joseph Cotton was named Best Actor and Willliam Dieterle, the Director, was nominated for a Golden Lion Award. Artistry at so many levels makes this a rare experience.

Sam Dawson raised his daughter until she was seven years old, when his custody was challenged because of his mental retardation. There have been mixed reviews of "I Am Sam": some found it overly sentimental. On the contrary, if you simply watch the mesmerizing performance of Sean Penn as the father I suspect you will be astounded at the depth of his portrayal. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the high-powered attorney who takes Dawson's case pro bono in order to prove something about herself to her co-workers: Pfeiffer's performance is a bit brittle and tends to the simplistic. Richard Schiff and Dianne Wiest have supporting roles, but it is Sean Penn's movie throughout. Penn received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for his performance. It reminds me of Dustin Hoffman's powerful acting in "Rain Man". If you can allow the film a little leeway, you will be amply rewarded by Sean Penn's remarkable work.

c.Corinne Whitaker 2005