Film Studies: What Hughes, hooch and Hollywood did to glorious Jean

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The Independent Culture

She is 76 now, an American citizen, living in Los Angeles. She was, for a time, a real star, the female lead in big pictures like The Robe, Guys and Dolls, The Big Country, Spartacus and Elmer Gantry. Then something slipped. In the 1980s, she began doing mediocre work for television and, as she later admitted, she had a serious drinking problem brought on in part by her dismay at the roles available once she got past 40. It's not an unusual story. But the loss of Jean Simmons is too much to pass over: she wasn't just pretty, she was glorious; she wasn't just spirited, she could be filled with mischief, spite, poetry and madness. It's still not recognised - I fear - how very good an actress she is.

So this is a tribute, triggered not just by Howl's Moving Castle, but by the re-issue of one of her greatest films - Black Narcissus (1947), made when she was 16 and in such burning demand that maybe she felt a glory then that was bound to be disappointed later. To convey that heady time, I can't do better than quote Michael Powell, the co-director of Black Narcissus: "When Larry Olivier saw Jean Simmons on the screen doing Kanchi's dance in the Blue Room setting of Black Narcissus, he couldn't believe it was the same girl who had played Ophelia. When I saw Larry's Hamlet with Jean Simmons as his Ophelia, I couldn't believe it either. When Stewart Granger, my old pal, who was sitting next to me at the first night of Black Narcissus at the Odeon Leicester Square, saw Jean eating a squashy fruit with a ring through her nose, he went straight out, proposed to her and married her."

Powell exaggerates a touch (he often did): Simmons and Granger were not married until 1950 - so she was of age. Still, his account captures the staggering switch from a blonde Ophelia to a sultry Indian dancing girl in Black Narcissus (which, by the way, is a magnificent, moody melodrama about passion and melodrama in a Himalayan convent). But that is not the whole story. Simmons got a supporting actress nomination for her Ophelia (and Hamlet won Best Picture). She was also known for her young Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946). She had played three very different roles in three of the outstanding British films of the post-war period.

Then as she grew older, she starred in The Blue Lagoon, a chaste movie about two beautiful young people on a desert island, and So Long at the Fair (with Dirk Bogarde) a period thriller about a young woman who wakes up in a Paris hotel one morning to find that her brother has vanished and that the hotel says he never existed.

She made Adam and Evelyne (1949), with Stewart Granger, and she was brilliant, on the edge of disturbance, in The Clouded Yellow, with Trevor Howard. It was at that point that she married Granger and they both went off to Hollywood. It must have seemed inevitable at the time, and one can't deny that they both became world stars. But the marriage ended in 1960, and Simmons married the director Richard Brooks who cast her as the evangelist in Elmer Gantry and as the woman who leaves her husband in The Happy Ending (that got another Oscar nomination).

But the real sadness is that her reputation in the Fifties ignored movies that now seem a lot better than The Robe, or whatever. At first in Hollywood, her career was thwarted by a contract dispute with Howard Hughes. The tycoon was obsessed with her, and she wasn't available. So she was out of work for a while, but still she made one great film for Hughes - Otto Preminger's Angel Face, where she is alarmingly psychotic and brilliant. I'd also point to George Cukor's The Actress in which she played the young Ruth Gordon; Hilda Crane, playing a really liberated woman; Home Before Dark (1958), where she is a woman recovering from a nervous breakdown; and All the Way Home (1963), taken from James Agee's A Death in the Family. She had so much more to do in those pictures than in films like Spartacus or The Big Country.

She's still there, and cheerful, I hope. But it's a career that cries out for a life achievement award, just as there are at least 10 films as fresh as when they were made.

'Black Narcissus' (12A) is reissued on Friday