Jean Simmons, Olivier's Ophelia, dies at 80
After Shakespeare and Dickens, she went on to Hollywood stardom
Sunday 24 January 2010
Jean Simmons, the Hollywood star who first entranced cinema-goers with her portrayal of young Estella in David Lean's Great Expectations, has died. Thus ends, at the age of 80, the sometimes troubled life of an actress who leaves behind some memorable performances. She starred with Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry, with Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls, Gregory Peck in The Big Country, Paul Newman in Until They Sail, and as Ophelia to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet.
Simmons, the daughter of a PT instructor who represented Britain as a gymnast at the 1912 Olympics, was born in Lower Holloway, London. At stage school her precocious beauty was spotted and she was cast, at the age of 15, in the Margaret Lockwood film Give Us the Moon. Two years later she was young Estella beguiling the innocent Pip. Two years after Hamlet, she moved to Hollywood with future husband Stewart Granger. Her contract, with Rank in the UK, was sold to Howard Hughes.
"When I returned from the honeymoon," Simmons once said, "I learned that Hughes owned me. He had bought me from J Arthur Rank like a piece of meat." She made four films for him before she managed, with difficulty, to extricate herself from his contractual grip. It was then that she enjoyed many of her biggest successes. They included melodramas such as The Robe; Spartacus with Kirk Douglas; Desiree, where she was required to be little more than mere decor (she described it as one of her "poker-up-the-behind parts"); Guys and Dolls, dancing opposite the somewhat flat-footed Marlon Brando; and, perhaps the best of the lot, Elmer Gantry.
Richard Brooks, who directed her in Gantry, became her second husband, and she continued to turn in some striking performances. Her second Oscar nomination (her first was for Hamlet in 1948) came in 1970 as the runaway housewife Mary Wilson in The Happy Ending. Thereafter, she was most likely to be seen on television, where her best-known role was in The Thorn Birds.
She divorced Brooks in 1977, and began to drink heavily. Yet she was never short of work. She was made an OBE in 2003, and is survived by her daughters, one from each marriage.
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