I ran into her once at a Santa Monica open fruit stand, and managed to ask her if she ever planned to write her autobiography. She responded that she was reluctant to write about personal details of her life, saying, with a wink, that there were too many salacious things. I boldly pressed it by asking if she'd ever considered writing about her films and the myriad details and stories that must be connected to each of them. She responded by saying perhaps she would but I know she never did. Pity.
She could be coquettish and a vixen. She always looked far younger than she was and she was forever beautiful. She played strong women; they were smart, capable and often demure. She had that sassy gene that I am so attracted to in actresses. She looked as though she knew something you didn't. She could do comedy but was usually in dramas. She could sing. Well, um, okay Kiri Te Kanawa need not worry, but Jean could step up and do most anything required of her.
While she was born in Britain and never really lost a certain Englishness in her voice and her manner, she was forever more an actress on American shores. She lived mainly in Southern California since her early 20s. She had a stormy association with Howard Hughes who bought her contract (and her) from the Rank Organisation without her permission. She was not happy about that and would later sue Hughes to get out of that contract. She also came to America because her husband, actor Stewart Granger, was put under contract to MGM.
Like a number of other actors, I can remember the first time I ever saw her on the screen and where. I was in Peoria's flagship theater at the time, the Madison. She was in 1953's Young Bess, where she played a fiery Queen Elizabeth I. It costarred Granger and Deborah Kerr (a family pal) and the formidable Charles Laughton as Henry VIII. I was riveted by her larger-than-life posturing though she was actually a small woman. It was the start of something big.
Later on a film she'd made earlier, 1952s Angel Face came to town and I begged my mama to let me go see it. She thought it was too adult for me but with lots of cajoling, I broke her down and off I was to see Simmons as a murderess in this superb film noir. This was a Hughes film and considering how she felt about him, the murderess she displayed on screen probably came easily to her. The final scene where she deliberately puts the car in reverse, with Robert Mitchum (another good buddy) seated beside her and they careen over a cliff at the edge of their property, is unforgettable. It was to my 8-year old mind anyway and it still is.
In 1953 she played Spencer Tracy's turn-of-the-century daughter in The Actress, playing a young Ruth Gordon (later famous for Rosemary's Baby and Harold and Maude) and based on her memoirs. When I'd come to realize what a fine actress Simmons was and what a superb actor Tracy was, I came to quite admire this little film. Simmons counted the film and Tracy among her favorites. He was godfather to her daughter Tracy with Granger.
I read about her in the movie magazines I devoured as a kid. There were many glamorous shots of her and the handsome Granger. I would learn she had been nominated for an Oscar for 1948's Hamlet, in which she played Ophelia. It was by seeing her in So Long at the Fair (1950) that I became enamored of her costar Dirk Bogarde. I would come to see 1947's Black Narcissus where she was so young and exotic-looking. That youthful, exotic look served her well in The Blue Lagoon (1949), in the same role Brooke Shields would later play.
Once residing in America and working mainly at MGM and then 20th Century Fox, she played in a number of costume dramas. Along with Young Bess, there was Androcles and the Lion (1952), The Robe (1953), and in 1954 both The Egyptian and Desirée. I don't think her talents were best utilized in this genre, but she was no less effective. In 1955 she share the screen with Granger in the thriller Footsteps in the Fog about a maid blackmailing her employer whom she knows killed his wife. That same year she was an unusual choice, I thought, for the role of Sarah Brown, Salvation Army worker, singing alongside Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. She sure did pull it off.
I thought she was delightful in the under-appreciated Until They Sail (1957) where she was a sister to Joan Fontaine, her good friend Piper Laurie and Sandra Dee and the girlfriend to Paul Newman in an early role. That same year, in another under-appreciated film, This Could Be the Night, she took another brief tour in comedy and pulled it off with aplomb.
The next year, 1958, was a damned good one. In 1953 she almost nabbed the role that Audrey Hepburn eventually played opposite Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. She would now get to work with him under the same director, William Wyler, in the outstanding western, The Big Country. The western was not a genre she had worked in but she took to the saddle like the sassy lady she was.
That same year, 1958, she gave what I believe was the marquis of all her beautiful performances, as Charlotte Bronn, in Home Before Dark. She plays a mental patient returning home from a long hospital stay to a cold husband, a calculating stepsister and a domineering stepmother, all living together. Simmons' acting gifts were never more evident as the wife trying to understand why her husband is so cold and unloving all the while hoping her still-bruised emotional state will not unravel. Little-known Dan O'Herlihy was quite good in the role of her insensitive husband, but the film as a whole would have fared better with a more famous actor, say James Mason. As the stepsister Rhonda Fleming was also never better. Frankly, the entire cast was sensational.
Nineteen hundred sixty was a highlight for Simmons professionally and personally. To think that she was not even nominated for an Oscar for her luminous performance as Sister Sharon in Elmer Gantry is galling. She more than held her own as the common sense but sexually-repressed tent revivalist opposite the flamboyant Burt Lancaster in the title role. The director of this film was Richard Brooks, one of those Hollywood maverick types, and Simmons would marry him after divorcing Granger.
Lancaster's longtime acting pal, Kirk Douglas, cast Simmons as his wife in Spartacus. She was flawless as Varinia, the stalwart and faithful and loving wife of the slave who revolted against the decadent Roman empire.
She was fourth-billed in The Grass Is Greener, taking a backseat to three real-life pals, Kerr and Mitchum and Cary Grant. This would be her third and final pairing with both Mitchum and Kerr and she had socially known Grant for years. It was old home week and they all took part in a smart drawing-room type comedy about a down-on-their-luck couple who has allowed guided tours of their castle. When the wife, Kerr, begins an affair with Mitchum, husband Grant has Simmons, a family friend, to tell his woes to. It was good fun with a great cast.
She was off screen for three years when she returned in All the Way Home, heart-breaking as an early 1990's Tennessee woman trying to make life work after the unexpected death of her husband. Too bad it didn't have a wider following. Two years later she was Laurence Harvey's beautiful wife, plucky and determined to keep her marriage from falling apart, in Life at the Top.
In 1967 she was again fourth-billed in Divorce American Style, not as good as it should have been, but Simmons, Debbie Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke and Jason Robards all nailed their parts. That same year she made her second western, supporting both George Peppard and Dean Martin in Rough Night in Jericho. It wasn't much more than a B western, churned out in great gobs by Universal at the time, but Simmons was fiery and oh-so-watchable as a stagecoach owner.
The Happy Ending is interesting on several levels. Released in 1969 and written and directed by husband Richard Brooks, it has been said that the film is more or less the story of Simmons and her marriage to Brooks. She plays an alcoholic housewife who leaves her storybook-looking marriage, in which she's desperately unhappy, to find herself. The film wasn't terribly successful and I never thought Simmons' character was very likeable, although her acting was good and garnered another Oscar nomination. It came out around this time that Simmons was battling the bottle and her marriage to Brooks was a bit unstable.
It was only a few years ago that I finally got to see 1971's Say Hello to Yesterday in which she played a cougar to Leonard Whiting's (of Romeo and Juliet fame) smitten suitor. Filmed in and around London, I thought both of them were divine in a film I've never heard very much about.
Simmons spent the rest of her career doing a variety of things but leading lady status in big Hollywood films had come to an end. She acted on the stage in A Little Night Music and was in a number of smaller, often independent films. She did much television, including some miniseries, giving an award-winning performance in The Thorn Birds and later was one of the many radiant actresses in 1995's How to Make an American Quilt.
We're lucky to have had this English Rose in our midst and she was a name for a half century. Her body of work is mighty impressive. I still wish someone would write a bio on her. I know there's a lot more color than I've included here.
Jean Simmons was 80 years old when she succumbed to lung cancer two years ago in my old stomping grounds, Santa Monica, California.
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