To celebrate the life of a great actress who happened to be a favourite of mine, I thought for a nice change of pace, I would discuss five of her best performances… or more, five of my favourites. I’ve always had something of a soft spot for her early British roles, so they tend to dominate the list. Really, I can’t say I’ve ever seen her in a performance I didn’t like. She brought something new and exciting to every role and every film she involved herself in.
Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946)
Jean Simmons plays the Young Estella, ingénue of the deranged and tragic Miss Havisham. She is a precocious child, with a shade of cruelty in her demeanour. In many ways she carries the weight of Miss Havisham’s failures on her young shoulders, and Jean Simmons channels the pains of a much older woman but from the understanding of a much younger person. She is however radiant and it is no surprise that she captures the attention of Pip and the audience. Even her arrogance is somehow alluring. Later in life, Jean Simmons would return to Great Expectations to play Miss Havisham in the 1989 television adaptation.
Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
It is interesting to note that Jean Simmons was not even twenty when she made three of the films on my list. It is not really surprising, looking at her; she not only had the stature of a teen but an almost child-like face, “baby fat” and all. Who can forget her turn in Black Narcissus as Kanchi? Her performance works on so many levels, the most remarkable being her natural sense of primitive sensuality. It is not the fabricated allure of Lauren Bacall; it is something basic, a state rather than a set of manners. Her presence in the narrative is fundamental to the psychological deterioration of the other characters; she orchestrates so much destruction and exercises so much power without having to do much of anything. It is not an easy role to play, at least not with the kind of nuance and appeal that Simmons does. In a film of great performances by great actresses, she more than holds her own.
Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948)
I don’t know much about theatre, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Ophelia is one of the most sought after female roles of the stage. Something else I assume (or more know) about the stage, is that one of its advantages over film is its ability to be a little more flexible with the age of its actors. You don’t need a twenty year old to play a twenty year old, and often times, you won’t. The need to use more age appropriate actors seems to be one of many factors that have contributed to Hollywood’s inability to faithfully adapt Shakepesare, though no doubt, bad casting and a general lack of understanding of the work at hand, also contributed to many failed attempts at adapting his plays. Olivier is not a Hollywood hack though, and neither is Jean Simmons. Her casting is not only age appropriate, Simmons dazzles with the same intensity through the full length of her rather dizzying psychological fall. Though she still has that certain sexual appeal that is present, especially in Black Narcissus, there is a new delicacy here. She is not as strong physically or emotionally as her previous characters were, though I am pleased to say she is not a helpless waif either; she is just a victim of circumstance… I think Olivier does a good job at emphasizing the universality of Ophelia as representative of the struggles and fate of countless other women throughout history.
The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953) & Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
I honestly don’t like either of these films too much, though I do like Simmons in both. In the Robe, I think she has better chemistry with Burton than she does with Douglas. Though, Burton has a fair number of laughably bad moments in this film, Simmons seems to ground his performance, especially in the crucial final scenes. This is not an exceptional performance by any means, but it is one bright light in a film that does not have much else going for it. Simmons is the heart of this picture and it is unfortunate she is not given the support she needed from the director or writers. The film is pretty nice to look at though. As for Spartacus, she is given far more support and more to do. Her character is given far more room to grow and she takes advantage of it. In both films, her character is more often a tool or a vehicle rather than a real person. On paper, they are rather boring stock female roles, but Simmons brings something to them that very few could.
Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960)
As far as I’m concerned, this is not only Jean Simmons’ greatest performance, but one of the most underrated female performances in all of cinema. She plays Sister Sharon Falconer, a charismatic travelling preacher who uses her audience’s fears of damnation to get ahead. She teams up with con-artist, Elmer Gantry, and makes more money than ever as the two try to sell religion to 1920s America. Though there is some sense of villainy in her methods, Simmons is able to appropriately reveal the weaknesses and desires in the character that make her human. In many ways, her methods seem all the more unsavoury because she is a woman, but the film and Simmons also demonstrate how much more necessary her methods are for this very reason. She has to work twice as hard as anyone else; she has to be twice as clever and twice as passionate. Her relationship with Gantry is complex, and as unclear it is if he is using her, one wonders if she has similarly self-serving reasons for courting him. Her character takes an interesting turn in the film’s final act, as she apparently seems to be far more truthful and sincere then one would have assumed. I don’t think there are drastic physical changes, but there is something in her demeanour and behaviour that suggest that her ambitions were somehow righteous.
One more film! The Blue Lagoon, this isn’t a film I’ve seen, but it’s my most wanted from the Jean Simmons’ filmography. It seems to be unavailable except for a really shoddy looking print floating around. A damned shame, because I’ll bet it’s sexy.