Jean Simmons: Actress who dazzled opposite the likes of Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier
Tuesday 26 January 2010
Jean Simmons was one of the great beauties of British cinema, and she had a talent to match. She played Ophelia to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948) when only 18, and won her first Oscar nomination. Audiences were captivated by Simmons from the moment she first appeared on the screen, climbing on to a dance band stand to sing a spirited "Let Him Go, Let Him Tarry" in the popular movie about the RAF in wartime, The Way to the Stars (1945), and she was to swiftly become one of the UK's strongest box-office draws.
Early roles included her memorably arrogant and impudent young heart-breaker Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946), disdainfully advising young Pip, "You may kiss me now if you wish". She was ravishingly enigmatic as the passionate slave girl lusting after an Indian prince (Sabu) in Black Narcissus (1947). In 1950 she topped a poll as the most popular British actress. Shortly afterwards, she went to Hollywood, where she and Deborah Kerr were the only two British actresses of the time to achieve truly international stardom – a few years later they were joined by the Anglo-Dutch Audrey Hepburn. Her first marriage, to the actor Stewart Granger, ended in 1960 when she divorced him to marry director Richard Brooks, who later recalled, "Every man I would meet would say to me, 'I have always loved your wife.'"
The youngest of four children, she was born Jean Merilyn Simmons in Crouch Hill, London, in 1929. Her father was a gymnast who competed in the 1912 Olympics and later coached. She recalled her childhood as happy, though she was devastated when her father suddenly died at the age of 57 when she was only 16. She and her sister Edna had been attending the Aida Foster School of Dance for a few weeks when Jean was spotted by the writer-director Val Guest, who was looking for a spirited girl to play Margaret Lockwood's brattish 12-year old sister in Give Us the Moon (1944). (Labour laws necessitated that the performer be over 14 years old.) "She had such intuitive talent," said Guest. "You never had to explain anything to her more than once."
She is said to have cried inconsolably when shooting finished on Give Us The Moon and she had to return to school, but Rank realised her potential and cast her in Mr Emmanuel and Meet Sexton Blake (both 1944). She also had a small role as a harpist in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), produced by Gabriel Pascal, who signed her to a seven-year contract. Simmons later said she regarded filming as "fun and games" and did not take it seriously until Great Expectations, "when I realised I could make a career in acting."
It was her portrayal of Estella that convinced Olivier to cast her in Hamlet, though she had never read or seen the play. When the film opened in the US (where it was to win the Best Film Oscar), she was on the cover of Time magazine, the journal's critic James Agee stating, "Compared with most of the members of the cast, she is obviously just a talented beginner. But she is the only person in the picture who gives every one of her lines the bloom of poetry and the immediacy of ordinary life." She won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival.
She received star billing in the Gothic horror tale, Uncle Silas (1947). She was the daughter of a confidence trickster (Ursula Jeans) who sends her out begging in The Woman in the Hall (1947), and looked ravishing in Technicolor as one of two youngsters who grow up shipwrecked on a desert island in The Blue Lagoon (1948).
While filming Caesar and Cleopatra, Simmons had developed a crush on Stewart Granger, and they later became sweethearts, though Granger was 16 years older and married. In 1949 he suggested they star together in Adam and Evelyne, in which a penniless orphan is raised with the support of a mysterious benefactor. It proved a perfect showcase for the couple, and demonstrated Simmons' expert handling of romantic comedy.
Granger departed for Hollywood laterin 1949 after being signed by MGM, and in 1950 Simmons joined him when cast by Gabriel Pascal in a screen version of Shaw's Androcles and the Lion. Granger and the actress Elspeth March had divorced in 1948, and in December 1950 he and Simmons eloped to Tucson. The same year Simmons had been in four British films, all successful. In So Long at the Fair she was a tourist at the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1889 who awakens to find her brother missing and hotel staff denying all knowledge of him. In the Somerset Maugham compendium Trio, she was achingly moving as a consumptive patient who falls in love with another sanatorium inmate (Michael Rennie). Cage of Gold was a serviceable thriller, and The Clouded Yellow, in which Simmons intriguingly suggested a fragile grip on sanity, was a tense thriller.
In Hollywood, Simmons and Granger were shocked to find that Rank and Gabriel Pascal, who shared contractual rights on Simmons, had "sold" her to Howard Hughes (who confessed an unrequited passion for the star) and his company, RKO. The dull film version of Androcles and the Lion was released in 1952, but while Granger fought Hughes with a lawsuit, Hughes prevented Simmons from making films for other studios and forced her into mediocre fare, with one exception, Otto Preminger's masterly thriller, Angel Face (1952), in which Simmons startled audiences with her powerful portrayal of a homicidal, father-fixated psychopath.
In 1952 Simmons won her freedom and signed a non-exclusive contract with 20th Century-Fox. She immediately starred in three prestigious movies. In MGM's Young Bess (1953) she was a radiant Queen Elizabeth I; in The Actress (1953), based on the autobiography of actress-writer Ruth Gordon, she was a stage-struck teenager, buoyed by the fine performances of Spencer Tracy and Teresa Wright as her parents. Simmons adored Tracy as both actor and friend, and The Actress was to remain her personal favourite of her films, partly because working with him was "sheer heaven". She and Granger were to name their daughter Tracy after him.
Her third film, for Fox, was the initial feature to be made in Cinema-Scope, The Robe (1953) in which she was a Christian in love with a centurion (Richard Burton) who presided over Christ's crucifixion. Burton confessed to being one of several leading men who fell in love with Simmons but found their advances rejected.
Simmons starred with Marlon Brando in Desiree (1954), based on a best-selling novel about an early love of Napoleon. The couple became good friends, and the following year their rapport was even more apparent in the screen version of the stage musical, Guys and Dolls. Producer Sam Goldwyn, recognising the spark they generated, decided against his original plan to have the pair's singing dubbed, and let them sing for themselves. Though the bloated screen transfer has its faults, it is at its best when Simmons and Brando are on screen. There is a genuine erotic charge between Simmons and Brando, one a "Save-a-Soul" missionary, the other an unrepentant gamble. Simmons' drunk scene is hilarious, and her performance of "If I Were A Bell" is arguably the musical highlight of the film.
Director Joe Mankiewicz said, "In terms of talent, Jean Simmons is so many heads and shoulders above most of her contemporaries, one wonders why she didn't become the great star she could have been." He was another who fell in love with his leading lady, and Simmons told his biographer Kenneth L. Giest, "Yes, I was aware that he was in love with me, and I think I was with him, really."
Simmons and Granger returned to the UK to star in an Edwardian melodrama, Footsteps in the Fog (1955), another role (like that in Angel Face) in which Simmons proved she could successfully suppress her inherent sweetness, and played a vindictive cockney maid in love with her ruthless master (Granger). Hilda Crane (1956) was a star vehicle in which she shocks her native small-town by returning from New York a liberated woman.
In 1956 Simmons gave birth to Tracy, and the same year her husband's children from his earlier marriage, Jamie and Lyndsay, joined them as their mother was ill. "We became friends instantly," said Lyndsay, who was to become a leading London agent and was frank about her own father's failings ("He was a bully"), saying that he would often treat Jean as if she were one of the children.
Until They Sail (1957) was a superior war soap opera with Paul Newman as an army major in New Zealand and Simmons a widow initially hostile to his view of wartime marriages. This Could Be the Night (1957) was a frothy comedy with Simmons schoolteacher moonlighting as a nightclub cashier.
The Big Country (1958) was an epic western with Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston as her leading men, and she then gave one of her most acclaimed performances, as a woman who returns home from a mental asylum, in Home Before Dark (1958). Though the film is overlong and its script muddled, it has a stunning, fearless performance from Simmons as a woman on the edge of another breakdown. She then made two of her finest films, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), with its memorable ending in which Simmons shows their baby to a crucified Spartacus (Kirk Douglas), and Richard Brooks' Elmer Gantry (1960), in which she is beautiful and slightly scary as a fanatical evangelist.
In 1960 Simmons and Granger were divorced, Granger describing her as "'like a child breaking away from an over-protective parent", and she married Brooks, with whom she had a daughter, Kate (after Katharine Hepburn). Though Simmons loved her role in Stanley Donen's The Grass is Greener (1961), it was an inconsequential movie that marked the end of her career as a top movie star.
After taking a year off to bring up the children, she discovered that choice parts were no longer offered. There were occasional good roles – a widow in All The Way Home (1963), a bitchy wife bruised by her husband's infidelities in Life at the Top (1965), the recipient of large alimony payments in the satire Divorce American Style (1967). But when not working, she took to alcohol. When Brooks wrote a script for her, The Happy Ending (1969), he said later that he hoped its portrait of an alcoholic wife would make her realise she had a problem. Simmons earned an Oscar nomination, but the film was bleak and wordy. The couple divorced in 1978, and Simmons would later state, "If you have a workaholic married to an alcoholic, that's not good."
When she was working, Simmons would stay sober, and in 1974 she starred as Desiree Armfelt in a touring production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music, bringing her distinctive blend of resignation and pathos to "Send in the Clowns" and sparring delightfully with Margaret Hamilton as her mother.
Working on television, Simmons starred in Valley of the Dolls (1981), and campaigned for the role of the formidable Fiona in The Thorn Birds (1983), which won her an Emmy. Angela Lansbury, who had become a friend when they made Mister Buddwing (1966), cast her in Murder, She Wrote (1984) as a thriller writer pathologically jealous when her popularity is usurped by that of Jessica Fletcher (Lansbury). She also had a leading role in the epic mini-series North and South (1985) and its sequel (1986).
In 1986 she admitted to her alcohol problems and had treatment at the Betty Ford Center, after which she returned to TV, appearing in such series as Perry Mason and Star Trek: The Next Generation. She appeared with Trevor Howard in The Dawning (1988), Howard's last film, and viewers with memories of her Estella were unsettled when she played Miss Havisham in a TV movie of Great Expectations (1989). She had a moving cameo as a frail poet in the film How To Make An American Quilt (1996). Her last film, Shadows in the Sun (2009), was a touching story of ageing in which she had a personal triumph.
Jean Merilyn Simmons, actress: born London 21 January 1929; OBE, 2003; married 1950 Stewart Granger (divorced 1960, one daughter), 1960 Richard Brooks (divorced 1978, one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 22 January 2010.
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