Jean Simmons

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.

More pictures;

6 responses to “Jean Simmons

  1. You’ve done a remarkable job on very short notice here!

    Jean Simmons was curiously a big presence in my high school-era viewing, because films like Spartacus and Olivier’s Hamlet were on very heavy roTtation with me, and I was always watching those sword-and-sandals epics whenever they were on TCM or thereabouts.

    But I wasn’t exposed to Black Narcissus, and I don’t recall much of her in The Egyptian, so I think I thought of her as a very wholesome sort of girl?

    It’s funny to recollect the range of her output. I imbibed the idea early somehow that her Ophelia was considered a bit of a camp performance, on account largely I think of the Goldilocks wig. I wonder if Simmons ranks highly (I mean in a recognized sense) as a sexual or a gay icon, what with her turns from frigid Victorian minx to nose-adorned Himalayan hootch to Roman concubines or whatnot . . . and there’s later television work too, “The Thorn Birds” and such, of which I have no first-hand knowledge but for which she received acclaim.

    Those publicity stills you wrap up with are quite fetching too . . . that grinning Ophelia is luminous. A study in contrasts, as apparently she was herself.

  2. Pingback: RIP Jean Simmons « Nerves Strengthened with Tea

  3. I am extremely sad to hear the news of the passing of the British born Hollywood screen legend Jean Simmons in Santa Monica over the w/end. She was the greatest Ophelia there ever was. A few tears crossed our faces in the Payne household here in England over the w/end.

    It was a privilage to speak to her on the phone for 45 minutes in early 2000, after she phoned me up thanking me for sending copies of articles abour her from 1940’s and 50’s Picture Post and Illustrated magazine articles. I still have her on a phone tape, leaving a message.

    Sir John Mills, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Alec Guiness came up in conversation. Not only because they were all great friends, but because Sir Jojn Mills and Sir Alec Guinness had starred with Jean in GREAT EXPECTATIONS. She even asked me how Sir Alec and Sir John were. It was also a time when quite a few stars from the era of the silver British screen were still alive and well.

    Sir John Gielgud, who apparently Jean never worked with, met her at a function once in London, and he was very welcoming indeed. I was also living not too far from Sir John Gielgud in BUCKS at the time.

    Sir John Mills had just brought out a photographic Memoir of his life called STILL MEMORIES and I mentioned this book to Jean, telling her quite enthusiastically that there was a lovely photo of her and Stewart Granger in it. Whether she ordered it from her local book store in Santa Monica is anybody’s guess now.

    This experience of talking to Jean on the phone eventually got me writing to anybody and everybody who knew or had known Jean and that included Sir Alec and the above. I sent them all the same Picture Post and Illustrated magazine articles I had sent Jean. Sir Alec sent me a brief note with a signed photo. I must add I never once mentioned STAR WARS to him in my letter. It was all about Jean. I remember that there was a line from Sir Alec on the envelope stating that I had not put enough stamps on my initial envelope and that he had kindly paid the difference. Mark of the man I say.

    The overall experience of talking to Jean on the phone eventually involved me in a Fox Star/Vann Ness film documentary about her called JEAN SIMMONS – PICTURE PERFECT in 2001 aired across the USA on the A&E Network. The magazines articles I sent her were featured in that documentary.

    I eventually felt it was about time that a tribute to her was long overdue and I asked Vann Ness films for a donation to help me start one and they gave me the equivalent of £100 in dollars. This was then used to get a portrait painted of Jean by a former pupil of Jeans former school, Mill Hill County High School, and it was unveiled by the then Hendon Mayor in July 2003 at the schools Summer fete and fayre. My wife and I will never forget the fantastic support and kindness showed me by those at the school at the time.

    It is a memory and experience I will never ever forget and it lead me to have correspondences with Jean’s two daughters, actors she starred with like Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston and directors who helped to make her a star like Ronald Neame and Val Guest, Not forgetting wonderful local people in areas where she grew up, like Hendon, Cricklewood and Golders Green, who had many anecdotes and memories of her growing up in the area and not forgetting the hard work put together by the staff and pupils at Mill Hill County High in 2003.

    In many respects all the above also got me on track to do similar tributes to Midland thespians like Richard Wattis and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Ironically Tim Wallace, the guy who got me involved with the Fox Star documentary and who appeared on it also and put together the only indepth internet biography about her, has recently got back in touch. Jean had also starred in a film called THE CLOUDED YELLOW with Richard Wattis, before hitting the Hollywood dream and of course America.

    One hilarious epsode that came out of the above project was when I told the BBC about my experiences in 2001 and asked for a Jean Simmons films on BBC TV. I recieved a post it note on my original letter to the BBC. The note had Nutter and Fob him off on it and it led me to complain verciferously to the BBC. This story then got noticed by major players in the newspaper media and media generally and eventually the BBC apologised. It was serious then, but of course now quite hilarious looking back.

    Jean did her bit to give us great performances and films in ADAM & EVELYNE, GUYS & DOLLS, THE ROBE, SPARTACUS, ELMER GANTRY, BIG COUNTRY, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, etc and performed many of her earlier films at the old Denham Studios.

    Jean is now with Marlon Brando, Larry Olivier, Chuck Heston, Stewart Granger, Sir John Mills, Sir Alec Guinness, etc, in the great theatre bar in the sky remembering all those great experiences in her life, which made her a great actress and one of the most beautiful women in the world.

    In the words of her character Sargeant Sarah Brown in GUYS & DOLLS, she can honestly say with her head held high :

    If I were a bell I’d go Ding-Dong-Ding-Dong-Ding !!!!

    In the inimitable words of Jean Simmons the person I spoke to on the phone I remember her saying ‘Darling – I’ve worked with them all……..’

    RIP JEAN we are missing you already.

  4. My wife and I watched ” daisies in winter” Jean with Joss Ackland last night here in the USA and as an old SCOT exile who grew up on Jeans movies after WW2, Still the beautiful lady even tho aged and another great performance

    RIP Jean

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