A graceful leading lady of British and American film for over six decades, Jean Simmons was an Oscar-winning actress whose outward fragility belied an emotional power wielded with skill and precision in such film as “Great Expectations” (1946), “Hamlet” (1948), “Spartacus” (1960) and countless others. A novice when she made her debut in 1943, she quickly blossomed into a talented dramatic performer under the direction of such noted filmmakers as David Lean. After leaving the UK for America, she starred in a wide variety of features, ranging from musicals like “Guys and Dolls” (1956) to stark dramas like “The Happy Ending” (1969), directed by her second husband, Richard Brooks. Though her screen appearances diminished in the 1970s, she remained active on television, where her star power illuminated productions like the epic miniseries “The Thorn Birds” (ABC, 1983). Still active in films and television in her eighth decade, she remained an enduring talent from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema.
Born Jean Merilyn Simmons on Jan. 31, 1929, she was raised in the London suburb of Cricklewood by her father, former Olympic gymnast Charles Simmons, and his wife, Winifred. During World War II, the family was evacuated to the village of Winscombe in Somerset, where her father taught physical education and Simmons received her first taste of performing by joining her sister in singing for local audiences. After returning to London, her father helped her enroll in the Aida Foster School of Dance, where she was discovered by director Val Guest, who was looking for new talent to star in his upcoming feature, “Give Us the Moon” (1943). Her big break came as Estella, the headstrong love interest to Charles Dickens’ hero Pip in “Great Expectations” (1946). Some four decades later, Simmons would return to the novel for a UK television adaptation (Harlech Television/Walt Disney Television, 1989) that cast her as Estella’s tragic guardian, Miss Havisham.
Prior to “Great Expectations,” Simmons had not regarded her acting career with much seriousness, but praise from the film’s director, the legendary David Lean, spurred her to take a deeper interest in her craft. The change in focus seemed to have had a positive impact on her, as she soon began landing more substantive roles in features, starting with Michael Powell’s “Black Narcissus” (1946), where she played a young Indian girl who seduces Sabu’s naïve Young General at a nun’s cloister in a remote part of the Himalayas.
Two years later, she won the greatest praise of her early career as the doomed Ophelia opposite Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” (1948). Olivier had spotted the 18-year-old in “Great Expectations” and committed to casting her in the film, despite the fact that she had never read the play, much less had any experience with Shakespearean text. He arranged for her to be privately trained, which resulted in a remarkably delicate, nuanced performance that yielded her an Oscar nomination and a Volpi Cup from the 1948 Venice Film Festival. However, not all the press swirling around her breakthrough performance was positive; rumors began circulating that a rift between Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, had been created because she believed he was having an affair with Simmons. Gossip wags were quick to point out that Olivier had spurned Leigh’s interest in playing Ophelia due to her age – she was 33 at the time of filming – and replaced her with a much younger woman who looked remarkably like her. Though no actual romance occurred between Simmons and Olivier, his marriage to Leigh began to falter soon after the release of the film.
The scandal appeared to have little effect on Simmons’ career. By the following year, she was top-billed in a wide variety of British product, from adventure-romances like the 1949 version of “The Blue Lagoon” to thrillers like “So Long at the Fair” (1950) and “Cage of Gold” (1950). She was also caught up in a romance with actor Stewart Granger, who was best known for his athletic roles in swashbucklers like “Scaramouche” (1952), and was some 15 years older than Simmons. Both actors were under contract to producer J. Arthur Rank, who did his best to dissuade the relationship on the grounds that Granger was still married, which turned out to be false. The pair was forced to keep their love secret until 1950, when Simmons and Granger were married in Tucson, AZ. The event took place at the home of a lawyer friend of producer and industrialist Howard Hughes, who developed an interest in the young actress that was motivated by his twin interests – profit and attractive actresses.
Hughes bought Simmons’ contract from the Rank Organisation and immediately began hatching plans to make her the toast of Hollywood. Simmons’ introduction to American filmmaking came via the overwrought historical epic “Androcles and the Lion” (1952) with Victor Mature. Simmons immediately made plans to evade Hughes’ clutches, but found that his influence carried greater weight than expected. After refusing to sign a new contract that would extend her connection to Hughes for seven years, he blocked her chance to appear in “Roman Holiday” (1951) in the role that would win Audrey Hepburn an Oscar. She eventually completed the number of pictures Hughes required of her in the original contract, including the semi-classic noir “Angel Face” (1952) with Robert Mitchum. Hughes reportedly told director Otto Preminger to spare her no quarter on the film, which included a scene in which Mitchum was required to repeatedly slap Simmons across the face. After several bruising takes, Mitchum turned and belted the notoriously difficult filmmaker, asking “Would you like another take?” Not surprisingly, Preminger stopped.
Eventually, Simmons refused to sign Hughes’ second contract, which resulted in him announcing to Hollywood that anyone who hired her for a film would essentially be entering into a legal conflict with him. Her career in Hollywood seemed doomed, but Simmons and Granger sued Hughes and won in an out of court settlement. She quickly returned to work in a string of notable roles: Queen Elizabeth I in George Sidney’s “Young Bess” (1953), which earned her the National Board of Review’s top acting honor; Richard Burton’s beloved in the epic “The Robe” (1953); and as actress-writer Ruth Gordon in a 1953 adaptation of her play “The Actress,” opposite Spencer Tracy. Some of her efforts were more critically acclaimed than others – few had good things to say about “The Egyptian” (1954), which reunited Simmons with her “Robe” co-star Victor Mature, or “Desiree” (1954), which cast her in the title role opposite Marlon Brando’s Method-driven Napoleon – but the success of both films at the box office was a testimony to her popularity among moviegoers.
In 1955, Simmons and Brando made for the unlikeliest of movie musical duos in “Guys and Dolls,” based on the hit Broadway musical. But both shined in their respective roles as Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army worker who falls for Brando’s gambler with a heart of gold, and Simmons impressed by using her own singing voice in a cast filled with heavyweight vocalists; most notably Frank Sinatra. She won a Golden Globe for her performance, which was only topped by the personal joy of giving birth to a daughter, Tracy Granger, born that same year.
However, her personal happiness would be short-lived. Though her career was going strong with Golden Globe-nominated performances as a virginal new employee at a flashy New York nightclub in “This Could Be the Night” (1957) and as a woman struggling with her mental health in “Home Before Dark” (1958), as well as box office hits like the William Wyler-helmed Western “The Big Country” (1958), her marriage to Granger was on the rocks. Money troubles and schedule conflicts were the source of the friction, which came to a head when Granger nixed the couple’s chance to appear together in Wyler’s adaptation of “Ben-Hur” (1959).
The following year, Simmons was cast as the love interest to Kirk Douglas’ “Spartacus” (1960) for director Stanley Kubrick. Though not Douglas’ first choice for the role – he had intended for English actors to handle all the Roman roles, and Simmons’ character was a slave – her powerful turn as the proud Varina was a clear indication that she was made to play the part. Its success at the box office was followed by another hit, “Elmer Gantry” (1960), where she earned numerous nominations, including the BAFTA and Golden Globe for her portrayal of an ambitious and seductive female preacher. Though praised for her performance, she was shut out of the Oscars, which instead went to star-producer Burt Lancaster and co-star Shirley Jones.
Simmons did walk away from the production with more than just another hit film – she also fell in love with its director, Richard Brooks. Despite his reputation as one of the toughest filmmakers in Hollywood, the 30-year-old Simmons saw through his rough exterior. She asked Granger for a divorce in 1960 prior to both departing to work on features – she to England to make the comedy “The Grass is Always Greener” with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr; he to northern California to make “North to Alaska” (1961) with John Wayne. When both pictures were completed, the divorce was final and Simmons married Brooks that same year.
Following her marriage, Simmons would begin to appear less frequently on screen. After “The Grass is Greener,” she was completely absent from features until 1963′s “All the Way Home,” an adaptation of James Agee’s A Death in the Family. The films that followed in its wake could be charitably described as colorless – “Life at the Top” (1965) was an inferior sequel to “Room at the Top” (1959), while “Mister Buddiwing” (1966), “Divorce American Style” (1967) and “Rough Night in Jericho” (1967) were passable entries in the thriller, comedy and Western genres, respectively. More successful was the Emmy-winning TV version of “Heidi” (NBC, 1968), though its reputation was overshadowed by the network’s notorious decision to pre-empt a Jets-Raiders game in overtime with the film.
In 1969, Simmons enjoyed her strongest part in over a decade courtesy of Brooks, who wrote and directed her in “The Happy Ending,” a marital drama about a middle-aged woman who struggles to escape the confines of her loveless marriage. Summoning the full bore of her talents, she raged beautifully in the feature, and foreshadowed the many features about independent women that would follow in the 1970s. She received Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for her work, as well as the renewed respect of audiences and critics alike. Sadly, her own marriage to Brooks would come to an end just seven years after the film’s release, though by her own admission, they remained friendly until his death in 1992.
The role would prove to be her last major lead on film, and for much of the 1970s and 1980s, Simmons could be seen on television in countless miniseries, TV movies and episodic dramas. The most significant of these was the monster miniseries success, “The Thorn Birds” (ABC, 1983), which made excellent use of her aristocratic bearing by casting her as Fee Cleary, a former woman of means whose child out of wedlock has consigned her to a dreary fate in an arranged marriage to a Irish sheep farmer. She earned an Emmy for her powerful performance, and soon found herself a regular in major TV miniseries and productions like “North and South” (ABC) and a remake of “Inherit the Wind” (NBC, 1989), which reunited her with her “Spartacus” co-star Kirk Douglas. During this period, Simmons also went public with her treatment for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1983, and spoke about how she hoped her admission would serve as inspiration for others struggling with addiction.
In 1989, Simmons was cast in a US/UK production of “Great Expectations” as Miss Havisham, the melancholy caretaker of Estella, whom she had played some four decades before. She again earned lavish praise for her performance, which focused as much on the character’s ruined dignity as her spiteful nature. More television followed in its wake, including some turns in offbeat productions like the short-lived revival of “Dark Shadows” (NBC, 1991) and an impressive turn as a race-baiting Admiral on a 1991 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (syndicated, 1987-1994). She also enjoyed a fine supporting role in the 1995 all-star feature “How To Make an American Quilt,” which cast her alongside Winona Ryder, Alfre Woodard, Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn. Simmons made the most of her part, a long-suffering wife of an unfaithful artist. She later shared a Screen Actors Guild nomination with the film’s cast in 1996.
As the 20th century passed into the new millennium, Simmons was still active in features and television, and even made in-roads into a new medium – voice-over work in several animated projects. She lent her distinctive voice to “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” (2001) and to the English dub of “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) by acclaimed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Her long and distinguished career received its proper respect in 2003 when she was made an OBE (Officer of the British Empire), as well as a Fellow of the British Film Institute for her outstanding contributions to film culture.
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Filed Under: Actor Profile