Posted by Moira Finnie on January 27, 2010
In the days since Jean Simmons‘ death at age 80 on January 22nd, many appreciative comments have been written in the press. In honor of Jean Simmons, Turner Classic Movies has scheduled an evening of three of her best movies this Friday, January 29th, 2010. The scheduled films are as follows (all times shown are EST):
Great Expectations (’46): David Lean’s definitive adaptation of Charles Dickens novel tracing Pip’s odyssey from his encounter with Magwitch (Finlay Currie) to his rise to prominence in London gave John Mills one of his first leading roles as Pip, who was played by Tony Wager as a youngster. Pip’s lifelong bewitchment by the cruel Young Estella played by Jean Simmons is quite understandable, even if the spell is eventually broken (and Valerie Hobson played a grown-up Estella). A beautifully filmed movie with cinematography by Guy Green that might make you wonder why David Lean ever thought he needed color, which was not needed to convey the teenage Simmons lush beauty either.
Elmer Gantry (’60): Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis’ once controversial 1927 novel was banned in Boston for its lacerating depiction of evangelical religion in America was adapted by director Richard Brooks, whose casting of Burt Lancaster and Shirley Jones won the actors an Academy Award as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Jean Simmons’ half believing, half artful Sister Sharon Falconer is the mercurial fulcrum at the center of the story. Ironically for the British born actress, her performance won a BAFTA as Best Foreign Actress in the UK. Simmons also found herself happily in love with the director, to whom she was married from 1960 to 1977.
A disturbing film about a middle class wife and mother whose delusions and disappointments in life have led her to a futile existence fueled by drugs, alcohol and classic romantic movies on television. Simmons is exceptionally good as the leading character who ultimately turns her back on her life, though not without an emotional cost. The movie ends with Jean Simmons asking her contrite husband (John Forsythe) if he would marry her again if he had to do it over again. Filmmaker Richard Brooks, according to Jean Simmons, who was then married to the writer-director, wrote the movie in the hope that it might help his wife face her own issues with aging and alcohol. Ms. Simmons would triumph beautifully over both in real life, though this film, reflecting the upheaval of its time, is not quite as hopeful.
Remembered best for the big blockbusters she graced, such as The Robe (1953-Henry Koster), Spartacus (1960-Stanley Kubrick), and The Big Country (1958-William Wyler), the classic film noir, Angel Face (1951-Otto Preminger), and the prestigious adaptation Elmer Gantry (1960-Richard Brooks), I’d like to shine a small light on some of her less well known films, celebrating the “intelligent gravity” that she brought to them and her capacity for unearthing something untidily human in each of her characters–even amidst the glossiest films of her time. Rather than just reiterate the biographical details of the life of the girl from the North London town of Cricklewood, I would like to recall some of the elements that went into her exceptional blend of beauty and talent, as well as the singular intelligence that blazed from her arresting, changeable hazel eyes in her many roles.
Merry, fierce, sometimes sad and other times mellow, those eyes changed over the course of a lifetime, but one of her loveliest qualities was also one of her most imperishable: that laugh. Erupting with a giggle bubbling over with natural warmth and genuine delight, dissolving into a deliciously impish, sometimes painfully real laugh at some moment in almost all of her accomplished portrayals on screen or in the middle of an otherwise prosaic interview, it seemed unforced, whether full of a robust earthiness or tinged with a slightly rueful self-knowledge .
Simmons later recalled that in real life, while trying to sort out what she candidly described as “the terrible highs and lows” of life, she even found herself consulting a shrink for a time, but, at the end of the day, she confessed that “he was of no use to me. I got the giggles.”
Nonetheless, the actress appeared in far too few comedies, and the few that were offered her in her career, such as The Grass Is Greener (1960) and Divorce American Style (1967) were a bit feeble, (though Jean was often the best thing in them, even in The Grass Is Greener, with Cary Grant, an admitted comic master, normally).
By Jean Simmons‘ own admission this delightful weakness may have sprung from a shyness that never entirely left her, despite some hard won perspective on life she’d earned after being given opportunities at stardom on both sides of the Atlantic.
With it went the feeling of “being managed…and traded like a piece of luggage”, as she put it, by men like the obsessive and eccentric Howard Hughes and her two husbands, actor Stewart Granger and writer-director Richard Brooks. Commenting on her marriages in a 1984 interview, Jean Simmons characterized the experiences this way:
Eventually learning to trust her own rather sane judgment of life, Simmons ultimately made herself something more interesting, and more fondly remembered: a working actress with a gift for truthful portrayals that shone through in even the glossiest of Hollywood fifties and sixties productions.
In a sea of phlegmatic and pouty blonds who flooded the movies in the 1950s, Simmons managed to keep her head and her dark, wavy hair*, though both could threaten, like the lady herself–when left unshorn or unbridled–to become wonderfully unruly. Determined to avoid the “Deborah Kerr fate” in America when, as Simmons described it, “every time [Kerr] walked through the gate at MGM, they placed a tiara on her head”, the younger actress used her fetchingly modern composure and worked to adapt her beguiling British speech pattern to an acceptable mid-Atlantic accent in time. So many of her characters were women whose lives took unexpected turns, perhaps she first learned to appreciate the unexpected swells that rose and fell in her own life. By her own estimation, it took her a lifetime to learn to navigate the crests of these waves, but, beginning on the day when she was singled out of her dance class, she showed early signs of negotiating the unexpected with some honesty, poise and good humor.Take a look at one of the first times she stepped in front of a camera after director Val Guest singled her out for a key role as Margaret Lockwood’s sister in Give Us the Moon (1944), a farcical look at an imagined post-war world, though made while the Allies were still struggling to end the war. Look for a rambunctious fourteen year old youngster whose raw bluntness and infectious high spirits electrify this brief clip at about four minutes into the fast-paced sequence:
An emergent naturally flirtatious beauty can be detected in this brief, artless appearance in the wartime film, The Way to the Stars (1945-Anthony Asquith). Appearing in only one scene, the seemingly artless but flirtatious youngster brimming with life sang the saucy folk air, “Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry” to a crowd of soldiers and those trying to distract them for a few moments. Simmons is a bit off key, but she comes across as blissfully uncaring about that as she gave herself over to the spirit of the song :
Thinking of the cinematic memories that the mention of Jean Simmons name evokes, one of my earliest recollections of her is in the critically much-maligned The Blue Lagoon (1949-Frank Launder), a fairy tale really, about two proper Edwardian children who were shipwrecked on a lush South Sea island for ten years as they grew into the nubile Jean Simmons and fairly lumpish Donald Houston (my apologies to all you D.H. fans, but it is a sad but true observation. The role did not fit this actor like a glove, much less like a fig leaf). This movie, which once seemed to be shown once a month on American television, has now disappeared from view, eclipsed in part by the literal-minded, much more explicit (and unimaginative) 1980 film version of this Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s 1908 novel and the apparent loss of all innocent sensuality in contemporary society. Seeing this film again recently, I now realize that it is Jean Simmons‘ unaware beauty, the lushness of a Technicolor Fiji photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth for this film, and the endearing Noel Purcell as the children’s seaman protector that made this simple movie so compelling for a youngster, despite the lack of realism. Years later I caught up with the other roles that first earned Simmons an international reputation.
Her devastating heartbreaker-in-training Estella under Martita Hunt’s Miss Havisham in David Lean’s brilliantly made Great Expectations (1946), her contrary Tibetan temple dancer in Powell and Pressburger’s dreamlike Black Narcissus (1947), (Simmons Tibetan nymph came complete with a nose ring, which fell out, the actress said, every time she smiled), and her Oscar nominated, touchingly lost Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), all tapped into some aspect of her mysterious and unknowable allure in this period. They also earned her an offer of the role of Delilah from Cecil B. DeMille when he was preparing one of his epics, Samson and Delilah (1949), (imagine how hard it would have been for Simmons to keep a straight face in that one as she watched), and that ticket to Hollywood, though happily, the laughing girl never entirely left the woman she became.
Reviewing a series of interviews by the actress from the last six decades while preparing this post, a number of times Jean Simmons confessed that during the most serious sequences in films such as The Actress (1953) and The Robe (1953) she often suffered from the “unprofessional” (her word) tendency to laugh aloud. George Cukor, who was her director in The Actress, based on Ruth Gordon’s autobiographical play, Years Ago, claimed that there was “no nonsense of any kind about Jean, but she does have one trick: when she’s nervous in rehearsal, she has a way of giggling.” In one scene in the movie, Cukor found a way to use this tendency effectively. “There’s one scene in this picture where Spencer Tracy, who played her father, is telling her off for buying an expensive magazine. He had to be in a very bad temper, rather terrifying, and Jean giggled at him. Tracy was amused by it, saying ‘Well, I know I’m lousy, but why does she have to laugh at me?’ I got them to keep it in: in the scene she giggles at him out of sheer terror when he is bawling her out. And that is the sort of thing that happens in pictures: suddenly they take on the texture of life.”
The underrated film, which has some successful moments of real fun (a demonstration of Tracy’s gymnastic abilities, for one) and insights, such as the halting rapport between Tracy and his daughter, played by Simmons, has a nice edge to it, even if his statement that her character’s ambition to go on the stage may be hampered by her physical plainness is jarringly hollow. (Jean Simmons, btw, would name one of her two daughters Tracy and another Kate after you-know-who).
It isn’t that I don’t appreciate Simmons‘ serious side. Her dramatic gifts were on display far more than her mirth, in beautifully rendered roles such as the portrait of grief she created in the seemingly forgotten All the Way Home (1963-Alex Segal), an adaptation of James Agee’s A Death in the Family, which co-starred one of my favorite actors, Robert Preston as a husband and father whose loss colors every other action in the film, especially affecting Michael Kearney, who plays their young son. Featuring splendid character support from Aline MacMahon, John Cullum, Pat Hingle and Thomas Chalmers, the movie never flinches in this examination of the reality of death’s presence in everyday life, though the film is ultimately not grim, but, thanks in large part to Jean Simmons‘ sterling performance, as she undergoes an unexpected transformation from wife and mother to widow:
In several of her earlier films, Simmons found herself playing characters that tapped into the river of female discontentment that ran beneath society’s surface in the post-war years, sometimes to inadvertently amusing effect, but more often with considerable feeling. While ultimately a studio product that strove to be a bit daring in its subject matter, with lines such as “in case you wondered what courtesan means, it’s another term for tramp!” delivered with a straight face in a movie like Hilda Crane (1956-Philip Dunne). Based on a Broadway play by Samson Raphaelson that had a tragic ending and a performance by Jessica Tandy in the lead, the movie version gave Jean Simmons a chance to portray an angry, confused character who was a “disappointed career gal with a past” who returns to her home town to lick her wounds while listening to her bitter Mom’s kvetching. Apparently a boatload of guys from caddish French lit prof Jean-Pierre Aumont to sweet Mama’s boy Guy Madison are more than ready to share Hilda’s well-dressed misery with or without the marriage band. Vexed by her need “to settle” and simmering with dissatisfaction, Hilda’s image of herself and what she wanted and needed out of life came into focus when she finally found a way to express her righteous rage, as it did in this florid scene in which she takes a bullying Evelyn Varden down several pegs. Judith Evelyn plays her prim mother in this scene. :
This kind of truth-telling scene became an insignia of the maturing Simmons’ presence in films. As early as The Robe, Jean gave the emperor a look at the hollowness of his worldly power by her final scene, defiantly undermining the conventions of the formal worlds that hemmed in her characters in Young Bess (1953-George Sidney) and dramatically sashaying through Napoleonic France but keeping her dignity in the potboiler Desirée (1954-Henry Koster), which asked her to play a nitwit opposite Marlon Brando, an actor she became friends with and was happily paired with again in Guys and Dolls (1956-Joseph Mankiewic). I don’t care for either of the films with Brando, I’m afraid, though the latter has some charm when Simmons sings of her love. Her work in the underrated Until They Sail (1957-Robert Wise) opposite Paul Newman gave her an opportunity to express a basic dissatisfaction with the roles assigned to men and women in peace and war. Based on James Michener’s stories about life in New Zealand during the Second World War, she played the mature and romantically cynical sensible sister to a trampy Piper Laurie, a frosty Joan Fontaine and an antsy, boy crazy Sandra Dee as they each coped with war’s dislocations, liberating them, willy-nilly, from their often staid lives. Simmons performance in this soapy tale is highlighted by her eloquent sighs and circumspect avoidance of anything smacking of emotional involvement with Newman’s equally lonely, passing soldier. She completely surpasses the limitations of the script, along with her on screen sisters, giving a realistic tinge to a slight story.
Jean Simmons brought a sane directness to a decade of female roles that so often descended into florid and artificial displays as movies became more grandiose and lurid. Even her unbalanced femme fatale in Angel Face (1952) lacked the deviousness of her kind. She clearly acted out of an unhealthy but intense love for her father, and a youthful Princess Elizabeth in Young Bess (1952) behaved out of her bottomless need for her father’s and her beloved Thomas Seymour’s attention. Her characters were not always behaving in conventionally genteel ways, though Hollywood tried to fit her into those slots in a few hopeless movies, such as The Egyptian (1954-Michael Curtiz), a project that was, at least to me, an amazing hodge-podge of the school of”sex, slave and sandal cinema.” This epic, begun by director Howard Hawks, and completed by Michael Curtiz when that director’s protean gifts were flagging, does make amusing viewing, but, by contrast, could not compare with the intelligent and dynamic storytelling of Spartacus (1960-Stanley Kubrick), which utilized Simmons’ beauty and warmth much more deftly. (I realize that The Egyptian inspires devotion in some viewers, but, alas, I am not one of them).
Simmons seemed to hit her stride when she found a way to play roles that caught the rising sharp edge of female discontent as a generation of women began to take a hard look in the mirror. Her best work in this vein would come in The Happy Ending (1969-Richard Brooks), a lacerating look at marriage and upper middle class drift a decade after another forgotten film that I feel deserves attention, Home Before Dark (1958-Mervyn LeRoy). One of the first of the “mad housewife” movies, in Home Before Dark Simmons played a woman whose return from a spell in a mental hospital causes her to reassess her own place in her family pattern, and to ask the dangerously brazen question “Do you love me?” This movie, which has not been available commercially on home recording for some time, deserves to be revived. As you may see in this clip, here, Simmons character, is, once again, a woman who looks for the truth. She may not be entirely prepared for life’s answers, but there is, in her determined, brave manner something poignant and compelling:
I should add that in later years, Ms. Simmons carved out a welcome spot as a voice-over actress and narrator as well as continuing to appear in a few films as well as television programs. Of her voice work, a particularly choice use of her beautifully modulated, cello-like voice can be found in Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki’s masterwork, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004).
Jean Simmons’ last film, Shadows in the Sun (2009-David Rocksavage), filmed in Norfolk in the British countryside, has been well received on the film festival circuit, with a DVD release in Region 2 debuting this month in the UK. The muted tone of the film, centered around the life and reflections of an old woman(Jean Simmons) reminded reviewers that the leading lady “still has the charisma of a star” as the 80 minute story unfolds. Based on the trailer below, I suspect that it may be worth seeking out, if only for a last glimpse of Jean Simmons still beautiful face.
A scene from the 1995 film, Daisies in December, directed by Mark Haber and featuring two fine actors, Joss Ackland and Jean Simmons:
For a chance to hear Jean Simmons own further reflections on her life and work, there is an extended audio interview with the actress from October 19, 2007 at Icons Radio with hosts Stephen Bogart and John Mulholland linked below:
Update! Classic Images Magazine has published a wide-ranging interview with Jean Simmons about her career and life. “I’m a Realist” An Interview with Jean Simmons was written by James Bawden for the August, 2010 issue. That fine article can be seen here.
*Roles that required Jean Simmons to mar her dark beauty with some very spurious looking blond tresses:
1.) “Ophelia” in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), which required her to wear a wig woven with flowers.
2.) “Charlotte Bronn” in Home Before Dark (1958) as a jarringly unreal looking towhead recovering from a mental collapse. Jeez, maybe that dye job precipitated the psychic break?
3.) “The Blonde” in Mister Buddwing (1966), the story of an amnesiac and his women, which required the actress to play an enigmatic, gambling fiend/harridan who may or may not have been leading man James Garner’s wife. Forty years later, even Ms. Simmons couldn’t tell who she was supposed to be when an interviewer inquired about this film.
Davis, Victor, Jean Simmons: The Actress Is Finally Taking Control of Her Life, Oct. 9, 1984,
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