Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Late, Great Jean Simmons

Actress Jean Simmons OBE passed yesterday evening at the age of 80. The cause was lung cancer. Her career spanned sixty five years.

Jean Simmons was born in Lower Holloway, London on 31 January, 1929. During Germany's air attacks on Great Britain during World War II, her family evacuated to Winscombe in Somerset. It was while her father taught at Sidcot School that she sometimes took to the village stage. When the family returned to London she was enrolled at the Aida Foster School of Dance. It was there, when she was 14, that director Val Guest discovered her. He cast her as Margaret Loockwood's sister in the 1944 film Give Us the Moon.

Jean Simmons' career was already well under way. In 1944 she also appeared in the films Sports Day and Mr. Emmanuel. The next several years would see her appear in major motion pictures. David Lean cast her as the young Estella in Great Expectations, while Michael Powell utilised her talents in Black Narcissus.  She played Ophelia opposite Laurence Olivier in his version of Hamlet, a role that earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. It was in 1950 that the Rank Organisation sold the last six months of her contract to Howard Hughes and RKO. Simmons sued Hughes and the studio, as he had claimed an oral agreement with the Rank Organisation would preclude her being loaned out to other studios. While the suit resulted in Simmons being under contract to RKO for three years, it also resulted in the studio having to pay Simmons' legal fees and it gained her the right to be loaned out to other studios.

The next few years saw Jean Simmons appear in  Hughes: Otto Preminger's Angel Face, The Robe, and The Egyptian. The late Fifties saw her appear in some of her best known roles: Sergeant Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, Julie Maragon in The Big Country, Sister Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry, and Varinia in Spartacus. The Sixties saw her appear in such films as The Grass is Greener, Divorce American Style, and Rough Night in Jericho.  The Sixties also saw her appear on television for the first time,  in two episodes of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, an episode of Hallmark Hall of Fame, and the famous 1968 television movie adaptation of Heidi.

In the Seventies Jean Simmons' career changed course and she did more television and work on stage. On television she appeared in the telefilms Decisions! Decisions! and Beggarman, The Easter Promise, Thief. She guest starred on The Odd Couple, and Hawaii Five-O. She toured the United States in Stephen Sondheims's  A Little Night Music and later played it on the West End in London. Jean Simmons did appear in films, including Say Hello to Yesterday, Mr. Sycamore, and Dominique.

In the Eighties Jean Simmons appeared in the mini-series The Thornbirds (for which she won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special), North and South, North and South Book II, and Great Expectations. She guest starred on Hotel, the new version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Murder She Wrote (for which she was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series). She appeared in the telefilms A Small Killing, December Flower, Perry Mason and the Case of the Lost Love, and Inherit the Wind. She appeared in the films The Dawning and Yellow Pages.

The Nineties saw Jean Simmons starring in the short lived remake of the TV series Dark Shadows. She guest starred on Star Trek: the Next Generation and In the Heat of the Night. She appeared in They Do It With Mirrors and other telfilms, as well as the movie How to Make an American Quilt. The Naughts saw Simmons do voice work for the animated feature films Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle), and Thru the Moebius Strip. She appeared in the telefilm Winter Solstice. Her last appearance on screen was last year as the star of Shadows of the Sun.

 If Jean Simmons had a remarkably long career, it is perhaps because she had a remarkable amount of talent. She was an amazingly versatile actress. In her long career she appeared in nearly every genre of film and TV show that exists, from film noir to musicals to sword and sandal movies. And she often played vastly different roles. In Angel Face she played a murderous femme fatale. In Elmer Gantry she played Sister Sharon Falconer, a none too honest revivalist obviously inspired by the real life Aimee Semple McPherson. In Spartacus Simmons played Spartacus' wife Varinia, whose quiet gentleness masks a hidden strength. Jean Simmons was capable of playing nearly any role she which she wished to. It is for that reason that her career lasted 65 years and for that reason she will be remembered as one of the greatest actresses of the silver screen.


Millie said...

Wonderful post!

Victoria Helen Turner said...

I will always remember the great Jean Simmons, especially her wonderful performance in Young Bess as the young Elizabeth I, also in the biblical epics, especially The Robe. You remember these REAL stars when they were young and you were a child and forget that they get old, I am very sorry tosee her passing as she was also a favourite of my recently deceased mother and aunt, also her late ex husband, the dashing Stewart Granger! It is interesting to know that she lived for a time in Winscome as I live in Weston Super Mare, the childhood home of Deborah Kerr, I wonder if she is remembered in Winscombe? Thank you for your lifetime of talent Miss Simmons and your truly beautiful face, not like the plain vulgar stars of today!...from Victoria Helen Turner

Raquel Stecher said...

I knew I could count on you for a detailed and wonderfully written eulogy to Jean Simmons! Great overview. She had an amazing career.