Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Memoriam: Jean Simmons, 1929-2010


In the Siren's head, there is a triangle of aristocratic mid-century actresses, one that goes Europe-America-Britain--Hepburn, Kelly, Simmons. Jean Simmons, who has died in California, age 80, is the apex. Alas for the Hollywood in my head, Simmons isn't a household name like the other two. But her filmography is packed with layered and intelligent performances as well as darkly ambiguous characters the likes of which the other two ladies, great as they were, never dared.


Simmons began as a child actress, an excellent one. The Siren hasn't seen much of her juvenile work but like everyone else she's seen Great Expectations, and Simmons was fine as the young Estella, wounding and luring young Pip. In Black Narcissus her body makeup was the one false note in the masterpiece, but as the sensual, predatory serving girl Simmons put it all into her movements and snake-charmer eyes. In Hamlet, James Agee said she was "the only person in the picture who gives every one of her lines the bloom of poetry and the immediacy of ordinary life." She earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress and Hollywood was interested, but she was still under contract in Britain and continued to make films there.

She made the 1949 version of The Blue Lagoon and if the Siren's memory is to be trusted, that one was no less silly than the remake, although Simmons worked valiantly. Much better was the beloved So Long at the Fair, a mystery-romance centered on the old legend of a disappearance at the Paris Exposition of 1889. There are many reasons to cherish this atmospheric, dreamy movie; for one thing, the sinister Parisians who take turns gaslighting poor Vicky (Simmons) fit neatly with the perception one can get of customer service in that city. But more credit goes to Simmons, who displayed her signature ability to yank a damsel-in-distress role out of mothballs and make the girl seem courageous, intelligent and worth saving.

Simmons had her own distress in the early years of adult success. There was her romance with Stewart Granger, who left his wife for her in 1950, causing some anxiety for Simmons and her employers in those sterner times. She weathered the Granger publicity, then endured a long series of contract disputes that held up her career and occasionally forced her into parts she didn't want. Rank, the studio that had the actress under contract, averted their eyes as Hollywood beckoned, casting Simmons in pictures that did well at the box office, if not always with critics. (There are a number from this era that the Siren would like to see, including Uncle Silas, The Clouded Yellow and Cage of Gold.) Finally, as Granger prepared to go to MGM, Simmons was permitted to go with him as Rank loaned her to RKO for Androcles and the Lion.

The Siren thinks she's charming as Lavinia, but the movie must have been a bad memory for Simmons. The filming dragged on and on, she couldn't take any of the offers pouring in, and then Rank sold her contract to RKO with just six months left to go. RKO, then being run into the ground by Howard Hughes, claimed she made an oral agreement to stay on. Simmons said she did no such thing, and indeed it seems unlikely as Hughes made his sexual interest in the newlywed vulgarly obvious. She was so miserable that Granger claimed in his memoirs that the couple discussed the advisability of pushing Hughes off the cliff near their home. Instead, she agreed to do three more films and in a fortunate move for everyone, not least Simmons' fans, she made Angel Face.



Robert Mitchum biographer Lee Server says Hughes hired Otto Preminger to direct the movie in hopes of making the leading lady's life as difficult as possible: "I'm going to get even with that little bitch," quoth the ever-gallant Hughes. Preminger was often brutal to his actors for the sheer hell of it. Given explicit encouragement by a studio boss he "absolutely, totally destroyed me," Simmons said later. But she was no fragile Jean Seberg, thank goodness; when Hughes made one too many demands about her hairstyle she cut it all off and was made to wear a wig during filming. A scene where Mitchum slapped Simmons resulted in the legendary moment when, after Preminger had done take after take, Simmons bearing each blow until her eyes watered from the pain, Mitchum turned around and slapped the director instead. But oh, the film they made. Simmons is magnificent, an evil, father-obsessed, psychopathic beauty to place beside and even eclipse Gene Tierney's similar turn in Leave Her to Heaven. Simmons, so often cast as a schoolteacher or a missionary, takes her Black Narcissus sexiness and turns it full force on Mitchum's chauffeur. Their erotic chemistry is as potent as any in film noir.

Hughes continued to be a putz, refusing to loan Simmons out for Roman Holiday. The RKO dispute landed in court and Simmons eventually won a qualified victory and the ability to work at other studios. At MGM she made Young Bess, a movie notable mostly for Charles Laughton's return to his Henry VIII role (his scene with Simmons is the best in the movie) and her fiery, wilful Elizabeth, a girl you can easily see growing up to defeat an Armada. She made another film at RKO and then it was back to MGM to play The Actress, a role intended for Debbie Reynolds, who would have been pleasant, I suppose. Under George Cukor's direction, Simmons turned it into the definitive portrait of stagestruck youth. Part of Simmons' talent is that she never tries to signal the audience that she sees a character's flaws--she plays foolishness straight up. She takes the girl beyond the acting bug into a place for all adolescent dreaming. It is one of Cukor's best films and the Siren's favorite Simmons role. But the movie did poorly and David Shipman notes the irony, in a verdict the Siren agrees with; "she was wan as the heroine of The Robe with Richard Burton, a tremendous success...[but] a rotten version of a rotten novel by Lloyd C. Douglas."

The 50s were Simmons' years at the top, as she was cast in big-budget fare like Desiree and The Egyptian. Neither was very good, though the Siren gets plenty of pleasure from both. The Siren has little use for what Samuel Goldwyn and Joseph Mankiewicz did to Guys and Dolls, but no less an authority than Steven Sondheim called Jean's joyous dance in Havana "a high point of the picture." (In the 1970s, Simmons toured as Desiree in A Little Night Music and originated the role in London; she's said to have been terrific.) The Siren does think Simmons is swell in a somewhat anemic, but enjoyable women's picture, Until They Sail, about sisters in New Zealand experiencing World War II chiefly as man trouble.



Just after that, Simmons made The Big Country with William Wyler, who thought highly of her talent although he annoyed her as much as he did any other actor. The Siren cares not what others say of this movie, when she hears that music she sits and watches it all over again, yep, all three hours. Simmons, as she often did, had the hardest character of the lot, a well-bred orphan meant to be a battleground as vital as the movie's Big Muddy watering hole. Instead she breathes such intelligence that certain less-plausible ideas, like courtly treatment from Burl Ives' otherwise ruthless rancher, cause nary a flicker of disbelief. Of course he would defend this woman. Such is her radiant dignity, he might even lumber off his horse and bow. (He doesn't, but he could have.)



The marriage with Stewart Granger began to fail, as marriage with Stewart Granger must, and Simmons made Elmer Gantry with Richard Brooks, who became her second husband. It was one of the finest roles of her career, an evangelist doomed by belief in her own cant. Simmons is remarkably free of any condescension to Sister Sharon, her conflicts or her beliefs. There haven't been many performances like it since, as we live now in an age where we see a preacher address thousands and just assume there must be a Jim Bakker backstory somewhere. Incredibly, Simmons did not get an Oscar nomination though her work was as great as that of Burt Lancaster, who won.

She was professional as always in Spartacus, but while the movie is good and has acquired a devoted following, the Siren thinks Simmons' part isn't particularly interesting. She gets a couple of chances to shine near the end, however. Her kiss for Laughton is so loving you feel his reaction may not be acting at all, and the moment where she sees Spartacus dying, and the camera stays and stays on her face, is the most heartbreaking in the movie.

Shipman says that around this time, "to protect this marriage and to bring up her children," (she had one from each marriage) "she began to refuse work." Simmons is darling in The Grass Is Greener, her giddy Mitford-esque flirt out-shining onetime Granger love Deborah Kerr. She was great again as the mother in All the Way Home, a beautiful movie based on Agee's A Death in the Family that had an equally fine Robert Preston. But the downbeat story was a flop.

As the 60s hurtled on, Simmons found her offers getting fewer and less interesting, as they do for most actresses with the nerve to get older. Her beauty was striking to the end, but what does that ever matter in Hollywood? The Siren hasn't seen much of her work past about 1967, including her Oscar-nominated role in Brooks' The Happy Ending. The Siren did see her in The Thorn Birds; she was lovely. Simmons was always lovely, even in silly fare like North and South where her presence was like using a Stradivarius to play "Oops, I Did It Again."


Joseph Mankiewicz called her "a fantastically talented and enormously underestimated girl. In terms of talent she is so many head and shoulders above most of her contemporaries, one wonders why she didn't become the great star she could have been." He went on to theorize, "it doesn't matter to her much." The Siren isn't so sure; stardom means good parts, and those mattered a great deal to Simmons, enough to keep her working nearly her entire life. "Maybe it doesn't help to have been so good so young," said Shipman. Well, Simmons deserved better from the movie business, as did so many actresses. But the Siren, a Jean Simmons admirer now and always, got much indeed from her.

(Please note: the beautiful picture at the bottom is copyright-held by the gentleman we know as Yojimboen. He took it himself, the lucky devil.)

84 comments:

Mercurie said...

Jean Simons was so extremely talented. While she was hardly young, it is still hard to lose one whose star shone as bright as hers.

Gloria said...

I can't single just one performances: to me she was so good everywhere, and so gorgeous.

Still, among her fine roles, I love her in "Guys and Dolls"... never a prude got drunk so well: it makes me think what a great Major Barbara she might have been (anyone around here knows if she played the role onstage?).

And of course, I also love Varinia's parting kiss to Gracchus! If more respectful of Howard Fast's original novel, Laughton and Simmons' scene should have been much longer, but I have to say that the scene, as filmed, sums up their relationship in the novel beautifully and effectively

PandoraMTodd said...

Wonderful. No one could deliver a line as crisply and beautifully as she did. This is a worthy tribute. I completely agree with you about Gantry -- that scene with her in the milkmaid getup is straight out of Aimee Semple McPherson's act, and she even got her delivery just right - that slightly sing-song quality. And I was crazy about Desiree and Young Bess, guilty pleasures that they are. And anything else she did. Goodbye, angel face.
Mary Hess

Yojimboen said...

Chère Madame Sirène, I am overwhelmed with pride and humility that the photo is published – for the first time anywhere – on these pages.

Tony Dayoub said...

"The marriage with Stewart Granger began to fail, as marriage with Stewart Granger must..."

Please explain the crack at Granger, Siren. Unfortunately, I'm not too familiar with him.

The Siren said...

Y., I only wish I had published it on a happier occasion! I love the picture. I may banner it. In fact I believe I will, if it's okay with you.

The Siren said...

Tony, I love Granger but his memoirs are full of his unapologetic, full-throttle womanizing, so that is the only reason for the joke, which I hope isn't too waspish. As I recall (it's been a while) he didn't much blame Simmons for eventually saying "ta ta" and called her the most professional actress he ever worked with.

The Siren said...

Gloria, don't you love the Young Bess scene too?

Mary, I always say I have no guilty pleasures but Desiree comes close.

Mercurie, I agree, I took it hard despite her age.

Gloria said...

Why, of course I love it, she hands at the hips mimicking him... Chip of the old block!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Lovely work Siren. I'm in Sondheim's corner (when am I not?) on Simmons in Guys and Dolls.

I saw the original on Broadway in 1951. I was four but rememebr ever nanosecond of it. In fact I must say that when Stubby Kaye stood up to sing "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" (the greatest 11 O'Clock number until "Rose's Tunr" in Gypsy) my life began.


Do endeavor to see The Happy Ending. It's a wonderfully rueful anti-romance about a marriage gone sour in middle-age. Jean leaves stuffy hubster Joh Forsythe and takes off to Bermuda where she parties with pal Shirley Jones and meets a gigolo played by an actor who at this point in his brief but brilliant career billed himself as "Robert Darin."

Michel wrote the score which is highlighted by one of his great4est songs "What Are You Doing the Res of Your Life?"

I'm obliged to say "spilers" but I must mention the film's unusual end. Returning to home base again Jean asks John "If you ahd to do it all over again would you marry me?" And at that exact point the film runs out of the projector and the house lights go up.

No"The End." No end credits roll. Just this quesntion.

Brooks was quite a character. I was writing for the "Los Angeles Herald-Examiner" when the paper was breathing its last. Brooks, who liked our lively little rag, came by and had a spoecial screenign for us all of his great Deadline USA. At the party afterwards I spoke with him at length about this and that. Suddenly he voluenteered to me that it was his fault that his marriage to Jean failed and he would do anything to get her back.

This is the first time I've mentioned this to anyone.

DavidEhrenstein said...

And "If I were a bell. . ."

MrJeffery said...

great tribute.

The Siren said...

David, it seems that I am the only one in the whole dang film blogosphere who does not care for Guys and Dolls as a whole, though Simmons is very good and nothing can dim the luster of that glorious score, Stubby Kaye or Vivian Blaine. My problem is with the terrible casting of Sinatra, who would have been a perfect Skye, and Brando, who just didn't belong in the movie. And to me the abstract sets don't work and while you know I admire him overall, Mankiewicz just didn't have much musicality as a director. I would give a great deal to have been able to see the original on Broadway, though.

What a story about Brooks. You have me determined to see Happy Ending although I skipped the spoilers and will come back to them when I do!

Kevyn Knox said...

There are so many Simmons films I have yet to see - first and foremost being Angel Face. Everything I have seen her in I have liked her performance therein - including the miscast and imperfect but still quite engaging Guys & Dolls (of course Sinatra should have been Sky Masterson, though I must politely disagree and say the set design is one of my favourite parts of the film).

DavidEhrenstein said...

Sinatra thought he should have been SKe too. And to prove it he made an album right before the film came out of all the key songs in the score that he would have sung had he played the part.

We're at logger heads over that Oliver Smith set, Siren. I really love it. Speaking as a native New orker I found it perfectly abstracted the Times Square I grew up with in the 0's -- which alas is no more.

Tony Dayoub said...

Siren says: I love Granger but his memoirs are full of his unapologetic, full-throttle womanizing... he didn't much blame Simmons for eventually saying "ta ta"...

DavidEhrenstein says: ...it was [Brooks'] fault that his marriage to Jean failed and he would do anything to get her back.

A quote attributed to satirist Clive James in Richard Brooks' Wikipedia entry (which one should always, of course, take with a grain of salt), "[Hugh] Hefner's estate teemed with voluptuous young women and the dining-room where free hamburgers were available 24 hours a day was impressively populated with Hollywood male notables. But it was sadly apparent that most of them were superannuated lechers. The film director Richard Brooks was typical. He hadn't directed a film in decades and one of the reasons was that he had been here, chomping the free hamburgers, while he eyed the women. He was in Hef's hamburger heaven, sizing up the poontang on his way to a final resting place in Hillside Memorial Park."

The Siren said...

David & Kevyn - I know Smith's work and the sets look great, it's just that they don't integrate with action, in my humble view; instead they add to the off-kilter feel of the whole thing for me. Like I said, I'm apparently unique. And kind of surprised by the movie's legions of fans! Who knew?

Tony, oh my, that Brooks quote is MUCH worse than my little Granger aside! He was talented and I hope it isn't true...or at least it's exaggerated.

Keira said...

On the subject of Brando being mis-cast as Skye Masterson--I loves me some pre-corpulent Marlon Brando. I could watch his pudgy hand (complete with straining pinky ring) holding Jean Simmon's face forever. (Though I do not believe for a minute that their marriage has any hope of ending happily.)

Also, I just love her lips--they are the window to her soul. Jean Simmons was in turns sexy and vulnerable and lady-like...and her lips do all of it.

Finally, Angel Face! That's the problem with you Siren. My Netflix queue is growing and growing...

The Siren said...

Keira, I confess to getting a charge out of their love scenes as well. And Brando in his heyday was as beautiful a man as ever breathed. He just couldn't sing. At all. And the Siren, on the alert for Hollywood sexism, wonders why poor Ava and Audrey, who actually sounded pretty good singing, got dubbed while Brando's tuneless wanderings remain. At least Jean got to sing her own songs!

Yojimboen said...

“The film director Richard Brooks was typical. He hadn't directed a film in decades…”

Brooks directed his last film seven years before his death in 1992. I’m not sure how that adds up to “decades”. I respectfully submit we take Mr. James's entry with a ladle full of salt.

Vanwall said...

I'll stay out of the crossfire from the Guys and the Dolls, don't wanna end up a mushroom. I like it for parts, but not whole, tho.

I loved Ms. Simmons for all her "little" films, the curiosities, like "The Clouded Yellow", which I watched initially for Trevor Howard, and Jean turned out to be the icing; "Uncle Silas", a grand Le Fanu film that had plenty of the dark soul in his work, much of this provided by Katina Paxinou, BTW, and Jean was perfect as a plucky heroine in it; "Cage of Gold" where she was at possibly her most strikingly lovely, much more than the film can ever hope to live up too, but she hauls it up anyway; "Home Before Dark", where her ability to convey intelligence and inner strength is remarkable - a little seen gem; "Footseps in the Fog", where she is as duplicitous and evil as possible, amazingly so, and of course, "So Long at the Fair", a great little thriller. She had one helluva a career, and I see in her last film, from 2009, she played a woman who has unexpected depths, the kind of character she'd been playing all her life.

The Siren said...

Uncle Silas is one of my favorite Victorian novels and I would love to see Simmons in it. So Vanwall, you've seen my entire wishlist!

Vanwall said...

It's all about timing, and good luck with it, Siren, it shouldn't be too difficult now - I think all of those have been on TV in the last coupla years - it took me forty-some years, but it was a good hunt.

Dan Callahan said...

David, that's very sad that Brooks wanted her back and thought he'd screwed it up; she herself blamed her drinking.

I'd love to see this last movie, "Shadows in the Sun," and also "Home Before Dark," which seems to have disappeared.

One of her friends told a reporter that in the last few years Simmons liked to stay in and watch her own movies on television, over and over, which is sweet and a little sad, too.

I actually tried for a while to get several people at various institutions interested in doing a Simmons film festival and inviting her, but that didn't work out, alas. She did such fine work and she didn't get the parts she deserved, especially after 1965 or so. Lord, there's so few Old Hollywood people left now.

Karen said...

I have enough Guys and Dolls love for the both of us, Siren. For all the performances and for the sets, too.

I remember when I first saw So Long at the Fair, Robert Osborne said in his intro that Simmons was being pitched by the UK studio execs as the new Elizabeth Taylor. I tend to be suspicious of "The New ____" but when you see Simmons in her early rows she is so luminously beautiful that you can see where the studio was coming from. She and Bogarde make an exquisite couple in that film, which only adds to its haunting surreal qualities.

She was a fine spirited actress with a mellifluous voice, and I was terribly sorry to hear of her passing.

The Siren said...

Oh Dan, your tribute is beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes. Here is the link, everyone.

M.A.Peel said...

Don't forget her guest appearance on Murder She Wrote. She looked terrific, and it was just great to see her with Angela Lansbury.

I always wondered if her career suffered because she looks so much like Vivien Leigh, it undercut her being seen as her own individual talent.

The Siren said...

MA Peel, I love Murder She Wrote and I never saw that one! She did look like Vivien Leigh from certain angles, and also Elizabeth Taylor sometimes as Karen says, and to me she also resembles Audrey Hepburn at times. I don't think that undercut her career, though; I think it was more that twice when she had the chance to capitalize on burgeoning success, when she first came to Hollywood and then later after Elmer Gantry and Spartacus, circumstances intervened. It is sad, she was only in her thirties when her career began to peter out. But it seems that a lot of actresses have the same fate.

Arthur S. said...

In Chris Fujiwara's recent biography of Otto Preminger, he notes that Preminger disapproved of her lack of interest in the film and hence why he pushed her. He stopped of course until Mitchum stepped in. It wasn't a film that Preminger wanted to do either though he did his level best to make it the masterpiece that it is so it was bad blood all around. For me, Angel Face is one of the most modern of Hollywood films noir, goes way beyond the easy fatalism of most of the films and Jean Simmons' performance is a rare instance where actresses got to play a genuinely complex character with no explanations and allowances are given. That extended scene where walks in her empty house is haunting.

Her career is fantastic, not many famous films but great films. And she and Brando make one of the hippest couples in cinema history in Guys and Dolls.

Speaking personally as an Indian(though someone not a native to Northern India), her role in Black Narcissus never bothered me at all. The film is an exoticized subjective landscape, essentially an image of the other of the civilized and civilizing mission of the nuns. Some would argue against such a representation on general principles but it strikes me as more honest than what Powell called the usual Korda epic, "half shot in India, half shot in England, neither very good" which is also leagues ahead of the phony colonialist apologia that's all over Gandhi

The Siren said...

Arthur, her role in Black Narcissus and the way she plays it never bothered me either, for all the reasons you state. The body makeup does, though it's a small quibble and easy enough to ignore when you focus on those eyes of hers.

Preminger made some fine films, and I would count Angel Face as one of the best. But I would not have wanted to act in one of them. Do follow the link to Dan's place, where he has interesting analysis of Angel Face and a story about Simmons discussing it late in her life; apparently Simmons never did think much of the film and was surprised when others did.

Millie said...

Wonderful post! Jean Simmons is one of my very actresses.

Peter Nellhaus said...

My own memory of The Happy Ending isn't as positive as others. I mostly want to re-see it just to see downtown Denver as it was almost 40 years ago.

I did like Divorce American Style, where Simmons and Jason Robards outshined stars Debbie Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke (no surprise there).

Arthur S. said...

Preminger only yelled at some of his actors. Like on The Cardinal he submitted Tom Tryon to what Fujiwara describes as "A Season in Hell" but was totally charming with Romy Schneider and John Huston. You get the impression from reading Fujiwara's book that Preminger had a kind of Artaudian style of direction, he was trained as an actor himself and people who witnessed his rages noted that he went into a kind of altered state in his rages, his face would go red and his eyes would become scary.

Not that I want to lessen Jean Simmons bad experiences. I certainly won't go so far as Richard Brody's ridiculous defense of Howard Hughes' behaviour as producer in his tribute in New Yorker,
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2010/01/in-memoriam-jean-simmons.html

The reason ''Angel Face'' is as good as it is that Hughes left Preminger alone during production. The same reason why ''The Lusty Men'' by Ray is so interesting. These exceptions don't excuse Hughes' raping of RKO studios and certainly not for ruining the structure of Ray's ''On Dangerous Ground''

gmoke said...

I saw her once on a corner of Fifth Avenue a few blocks away from the Plaza in the 1970s. She was standing with two men, one of whom I realized later was Richard Brooks who should be remembered for many things, not the least of which was writing the book that became the great anti-prejudice movie "Crossfire."

I thanked her for her work and received a word and a smile in return. I kept walking, my usual procedure in such circumstances. She was beautiful, of course, and had a face that was lived in by then, a few wrinkles and laugh lines. It enhanced her beauty.

One of her recurring TV roles was as a queen of some mythical country who liked to play poker with The Odd Couple. Reportedly, she had a lot of fun with the role.

The Derelict said...

Siren, great post.

I'm so happy you mentioned "The Grass is Greener"! I've always been fond of that movie and Jean Simmons's performance is the main reason (also, what a cast!). I haven't seen the movie in years, but just thinking about her flirting with everything in sight in that movie brings a huge smile to my face.

Juanita's Journal said...

The Siren did see her in The Thorn Birds; she was lovely. Simmons was always lovely, even in silly fare like North and South where her presence was like using a Stradivarius to play "Oops, I Did It Again."


I liked NORTH AND SOUTH . . . even if it was overwrought at times. Like GONE WITH THE WIND. As for THE THORN BIRDS, Simmons won an Emmy Award for her performance. I've always considered Fiona Cleary as one of her more interesting and complex roles.

Juanita's Journal said...

"Sinatra thought he should have been SKe too. And to prove it he made an album right before the film came out of all the key songs in the score that he would have sung had he played the part."


I have to be honest. I've never been a fan of Sinatra's version of "Luck Be a Lady". He may have been ten times a better singer than Brando, but there is something about the latter's version of the song that really appealed to me. Maybe it was the attitude.

Also, Brando and Simmons were sexy in that movie. I don't know if I could have felt the same about Sinatra and Simmons.

The Siren said...

Arthur, when Hughes produced a good movie, as far as I can tell it was in spite of his contributions, not because of them. He has zero fascination for me and when I reach the part in (too many) actress bios where the woman starts dating him I engage in many deep sighs and long sessions looking around the room.

Preminger is a different matter, as no matter what he was like personally (and he was certainly much, much more than a bad temper) he was also talented, although I am not as a big a fan as you are, I suspect. It's true, according to people like Michael Caine and Henry Fonda, Preminger tended to pick out one or two in the cast and just go after that person day in, day out. John Ford did the same thing but Ford often picked on his big stars, like Wayne. With Preminger it was seldom a powerful star, more often someone relatively green. The trouble with saying that he didn't pick on everyone is first, he was also known for yelling at the crew; and second, it is still most unpleasant to see someone being abused. And there is a personal element to having your acting trashed that is uniquely humiliating. (I speak from experience.) That said, Fonda remarked in Otto's defense that if you weren't on Preminger's blacklist he could be very good at working with you, giving sensitive, good directions.

It's interesting that Preminger has come down to us as a byword for a difficult director, when John Ford, who seems to have been equally unpleasant at times, hasn't as much. I personally think that Preminger's being German makes him fit the image more than an Irishman.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, I love that story! I never seem to see anyone interesting in NYC and when I do (Leo di Caprio, Rod Stewart) they're just walking.

Derelict, isn't The Grass Is Greener cute? It is a near miss overall in my view but Simmons is a hoot, and it's a nice departure for her too.

Juanita, I saw Thorn Birds in its initial run, ditto North and South. Even back then I was watching for the old stars; I liked Stanwyck and Simmons but thought the script wasn't much. And North and South -- well, to me it was overwrought at all times but I did think Swayze was very cute, may he rest in peace.

It is true, I don't necessarily see Sinatra and Simmons melding well but then you never know with Sinatra. He can have great chemistry with someone you don't expect and lousy chemistry with someone red-hot.

The Siren said...

Peter, I lost you up there. Divorce American Style was always low on my to-see list because that particular kind of 60s movie often doesn't work well for me; but if I encounter it I will watch on your say-so.

Arthur S. said...

I personally never found Ford's image as a crusty director to be especially foreboding. But then I wasn't there. I'm sure if I was cast in a Preminger film, I'd get the third degree. Preminger according to most of his collaborators, only yelled when he saw incompetence because he was strict in maintaining control and pace of production.

One big star he rubbed the wrong way was Laurence Olivier, when they made Bunny Lake is Missing, one of Olivier's finest roles. Carol Lynley initially got the impression that Preminger was made with her after Otto he halted a take and ran out of the set in fear. Otto called her back and assured her that he was trying to get rid of Olivier's theatrical baggage(Olivier always had a problem transitioning between theatrical and film modes, it was never on and off with him). Olivier noted that the experience nearly made him lose his love for Preminger's Carmen Jones which he was very taken with.

Another rare occassion when Otto remained cool was The Man With The Golden Arm where Kim Novak's inexperience was delaying the production. But Sinatra's cool and patient mentoring kept Novak in check and Otto accepted that and didn't yell or do anything.

Chris Fujiwara's recent biography clarifies a lot of the Otto myths while never falsifying the realities and it's also a great book for why Preminger is such a great film-maker. He was a real pathbreaker. The only film-maker of the Golden Age who took on censorship directly and consistently and won and lived to make films.

lylee said...

I knew we'd get a great tribute from you! My dad had a thing for Jean Simmons, and I can't say I blame him. (My mom didn't, either.) She was luminous.

And thanks, as always, for the nod to the severely underrated "The Big Country" (and its music)!

X. Trapnel said...

Many, many posts back I expressed a mild demurral at the suggestion that Jack Cardiff's cinematography in Black Narcissus should cause Delacroix to chew off his arm in envy. The image of Miss Simmons as Kanchi has caused me to reconsider.

And now Yojimboen gives cause for Walker Evans to poke his (own) eye out.

First Brugh, now F. Granger/S. Granger. This too shall pass.

The Siren said...

It's a great picture, isn't it? I feel very privileged to be the Exclusive Source on the Web. Maybe Yojimboen has some other pictures he's hiding--the divine Danielle, perhaps? (I'm dreaming, I know.)

I find Stewart Granger dead sexy so I understand his gathering rosebuds while the gathering was good. "Sparks Fly Upward" is a good read; think my copy wound up with a roommate who had a crush on him too. Need to get another. And when I get around to Farley's memoirs it will probably be even better since his gate swung both ways, or so he says.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, I have nothing really against either Granger; S. a little dull/F. somewhat insipid. Several years ago I was strolling along the Bowery with a young woman recently arrived from Russia (We were going to an off off off etc. Bdway show) when we noted a large shoal of roughs gathered outside an establishment providing strong drink. A pretty good shindy was in progress and my companion insisted we watch. I demurred; she insisted. As we sought an opening I caught a glimpse of one of the combatants--bulging veins, frenzied beefy eyes--bellowing "I TELL YOU IT WAS FARLEY GRANGER IN THAT PICTURE!!!"

You had to be there. I'm glad I was.

A lovely wreath, Siren, for Jean Simmons, my one and only Ophelia.

The Siren said...

XT, I am laughing so hard my eyes are watering. I think that is my new favorite New York story. Indeed I do wish I had been there.

Vanwall said...

M X - Did you recognize the film critics involved?

Yojimboen said...

Sounds like Sarris and Rex Reed at it again.

X. Trapnel said...

V, I'd like to think that one of them was Bosley Crowther in retirement, but he was long gone.

camorrista said...

Siren, if you can track it down, you might want to take a look at THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT, directed by Robert Wise and released in 1957 (a couple of years before his bloat period began).

Simmons plays a virginal teacher who's hired as a part-time secretary at a downscale New York nightclub (read, strip club). The joint (and, unusually for the era, it actually feels like a joint) is run by Paul Douglas; his second in command is Anthony Franciosa (fresh from Broadway's HATFUL OF RAIN).

The cast also includes the great club singer, Julie Wilson, in one her rare screen appearances; Joan Blondell, and Zasu Pitts.

Charming, sexy romantic comedies were pretty rare in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and this is one of the best--helped enormously by the heat between Simmons & Franciosa.

The Siren said...

Camorrista, I was wondering what had become of your mysterious Neapolitan self. Glad my attempt at honoring Ms Simmons smoked you out. I just located Home Before Dark (on Ebay) and now I have another to track down. I watched A Hatful of Rain again recently and was pondering how talented Franciosa was. All this, and Julie Wilson too.

Welcome back.

camorrista said...

Siren, "attempt" is the wrong word. As Rick says to Victor Laszlo, "We all try--you succeed."

In any event, sorry for the absence. Life, as they say, sometimes intervenes.

D Cairns said...

My late friend Lawrie worked on Black Narcissus and was enchanted by Jean. It sounds like the feeling was reciprocated. He was never bothered by her body makeup, since he had the job of washing it off in the bath after filming... (Do I believe this? I choose to.)

You must see Uncle Silas, it's a fantastic box of directorial tricks as well as an excellent melodrama, not quite up to a David Lean Dickens adaptation but in a similar ballpark.

Karen said...

Oh, man, I just saw Uncle Silas a couple of months ago. As soon as I saw it was based on a LeFanu novel I knew I was in for a wild ride, but in no way did I expect it to be quite that wild. Just a treat to watch.

Trish said...

I completely agree Siren. I must watch The Big Country. Burl Ives is so over the top, he's brilliant. And if she were anyone else but Carroll Baker, I'd call her a terrible actress. But Baker is a wonderful, shrill nag. Most of all I love the animosity between the two leading men, back in the days when Mr. Heston didn't take himself quite so seriously.

Trish said...

I love This Could Be the Night. It's one of those small movies about New York, made in the 1950s, like The Bachelor Party. I've never seen a Hatful of Rain, darn it.

I'm also partial to Guys and Dolls. I wish it weren't so set-bound, but I enjoy both Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando. Vivian Blaine seems a tad old for the part.

Trish said...

I once saw Stewart Granger interviewed on Canadian television, and he told that story about plotting to throw Hughes off a cliff. But if I remember right, he claimed it was because Hughes was hitting on Jean Simmons.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Last week I saw The Strange One on TCM. Julie Wilson has a small non-singing role in it.

J said...

Siren,

I've been checking your blog since I heard that we'd lost Jean Simmons, knowing that you would come through with a magnificent and moving tribute. Many, many thanks! I can second Vanwall's recommendation to see Clouded Yellow, which is extremely fine. I also wanted to mention the surprise and pleasure that I experienced a few years ago when I saw the dubbed version of Howl's moving castle and heard Jean Simmons' voice, which was perfection itself; it was a brilliant idea--I wonder whose--to cast her.

Vanwall said...

Uncle Silas was one of the last on my list of little Simmons films, and I, too caught it a couple of months ago. I don't count partial viewings as having seen a film, and Uncle Silas in its entirety was so much better than the small segment of it had seen so long ago, which didn't include much of Katina Paxinou - she's worth the price of admission alone, what an amazing performance.

Siren - Home Before Dark is a great character's development story, and not what you might expect. It's another of Simmons' unexpected depths performances, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. will make you wonder why he was so stiff in so many other films and TV shows. I liked him when that was required, but this'll make you wish he'd not jumped right into 77 Sunset Strip. I hope you'll enjoy it, it's one that should be on a quality DVD release.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"In the Siren's head, there is a triangle of aristocratic mid-century actresses, one that goes Europe-America-Britain--Hepburn, Kelly, Simmons. Jean Simmons, who has died in California, age 80, is the apex."

As the line, I think, goes, you had me from "hello".

Lovely tribute.

I also love "The Actress", where both she and Spencer Tracy do some great work, and I love the dry humor in the script. What bothers me about the movie is what to me seems the way Teresa Wright is chucked into the matron's role at too young an age. That would be fine if it were one interesting character part in one movie, but it seemed to doom her to neurotic matrons and spinsters for the rest of her film career. Thank heaven television came along to give her better roles.

Kendra said...

I loved Jean Simmons and was so sad to hear about her passing away. I know someone who just wrote to her a couple months ago and received an autographed photo in return. RIP, pretty lady.

Meredith said...

I've only seen her work in great expectations, black narcissus and the thorn birds (still in the midst of hamlet) but in each she is absolutely breathtaking. She becomes each role but doesn't lose her core power, if that makes sense. Such a loss.

Robert said...

Wonderful tribute. I too have no love for Guys and Dolls. Even Simmons luminous presence can't rescue what, to me, is a poorly refined musical with bad casting, ill conceived wardrobe and flat sets.

Simmons, coming into her own in the 50's and early 60's, just when the American studio system was dying, is one of the few actresses who might have thrived at MGM, where the star making machine was in full throttle.

As a free lancer, Simmons was left with an ill defined image that was never properly sold or exploited to American audiences.

Nevertheless, her work had a profound effect upon me as an aspiring screenwriter and her death has left me profoundly sad.

panavia999 said...

I am glad to find SOMEONE who has seen "Home Before Dark". Nobody has mentioned it on any movie blogs which I follow, so I have been plugging it in comments. Home Before Dark is one of my favorite Simmons movies. HIGHLY recommended. I hope others will get a chance to appreciate this film. Simmons won a New York Critic's award for her performance.

As For Guys and Dolls - I did not like it either. Brando was miscast. He was also miscast as Napoleon in Desiree.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

With her many high-profile films and sparkling talent, I wonder why Simmons wasn't paid tribute to more often in her lifetime. I don't remember much of anything in the way of career retrospectives during the last ten or twenty years. She kept such a low profile that, even though I'm a huge fan of her work, when I attended a 50th anniversary showing of Elmer Gantry last Saturday night and the gentleman hosting the event stated Simmons had died the night before, I thought he must be mistaken, as I was sure she'd passed away many years ago.

I'll throw Home Before Dark out there- have you seen it, Siren? It's at the top of my list of Simmons titles to see, as her work in it gained a Globen Globe nod and, more impressively, a thumbs up from Pauline Kael.

Noel Vera said...

Siren, I loved Simmons' voice in the English dub of Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle--she put great warmth and spirit into that vocal performance, as the older Sophie. Try check it out--with the kids, if you like.

Merle Kessler said...

UNCLE SILAS showed up on TCM a few months back. It was surprisingly good, given the Peter O'Toole tour de force many years back. She brought um spunk to the ingenue role, which surely needed it.

Propagatrix said...

One of Miss Simmons' final projects, 1995's "Daisies in December" is well worth viewing. It shows up on the Hallmark Channel every so often. She's simply magnificent in every way.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Heads up! The Happy Ending is showing on TCM tonight at 12:45 a.m. EST as part of a Simmons tribute (Great Expectations and Gantry precede it).

Siren, I followed your My Son John Scorsese link and he has a review at the site regarding another little-know Simmons gem, 1950's So Long at the Fair. Looks like a good bet.

Groggy Dundee said...

Lovely tribute. Jean always reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, but more overtly sensual and extroverted.

Noel Vera said...

David, I did see The Happy End. That finale, it's brutal. For all the artifice and Hollywood in the margins, it's still a painful confessional of a film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Indeed it is. It shows why Brooks and Simmons were well-matched. It wanted to make brutally honest films and she delivered the goods in them without so much as blinking.

Iris said...

What a lovely tribute! I think my favorite Simmons movie is Angel Face but she's been great in everything I've seen so far.

Uncle Silas is really good; I actually recorded it from TCM and would be happy to send a copy if you are still looking for it!

Glamour Daze said...

just heard. She was an immense talent. Thanks for this lovely tribute

Juanita's Journal said...

Juanita, I saw Thorn Birds in its initial run, ditto North and South. Even back then I was watching for the old stars; I liked Stanwyck and Simmons but thought the script wasn't much. And North and South -- well, to me it was overwrought at all times but I did think Swayze was very cute, may he rest in peace.


That's okay. I thought that movies like GONE WITH THE WIND and miniseries like NORTH AND SOUTH were always overwrought.


I'm not a major fan of THE THORN BIRDS, but I must admit that I was very impressed by Simmons, Stanwyck and Richard Chamberlain's performances. And I also believe that Simmons won a much deserved Emmy.

cgeye said...

Saw THE HAPPY ENDING too -- where can one hire such fabulous enabling help? Miss Simmons went through the entire feminist consciousness-raising gantlet without that F-word ever being said, from confronting her husband about their harmful secrets to starting up college again. The only trope missing was AA, but that might have been before people even mentioned 12-step programs regularly.

And whoever said on this blog their allegiance to the hottness that remains Miss Shirley Jones, surely you were not joking -- she was incandescent, and this during the PARTRIDGE FAMILY years.

tero said...

Finns were heartbroken when "Sinuhe" was grabbed by Hollywood and turned into the insipid "The Egyptian". My dad was particularly pissed off even a couple of decades later - that was the only NYT number one bestseller by a Finnish author and Hollywood screwed it up.

I saw the movie late nite a few years ago and Jean was pretty much the only thing it had going for it. She really could have run away with "Holiday in Rome".

Marcelle said...

When I was in the first or second grade I saw Jean Simmons in Blue Lagoon. From that day until now she has been my favorite actress-- for all the reasons others have written--her beauty, her voice, her aura of empathy, understanding,vulnerability, her charm, her intelligence, all she projects on the screen in those big dark rooms. That was long before mammoth TVs, Cable, TIVO, VHS, and DVD. She became my fairy godmother, my role model,my idol.
And, didn't she have a way of making you feel she was speaking directly to you? How many actors could or can do that?
Years later when I learned how Hughes prevented her from taking the Hepburn role in Roman Holiday I felt a sense of her frustration and, most likely, rage at the damage his must have done to her career. I've seen almost all of her films. Some I have seen more times than I can count. She added a touch of class, to use a cliche, to even the worst of them (i.e. The Egyptian). I always thought one day I'd meet her and tell her what she'd meant to a young girl growing up in the sexist unconscious 50's. Now that will never happen.
Though I've met young people who don't know who she was, I believe she touched everyone who saw her. I don't think she ever made a mistake on film, and I will miss her more than I can say. I'm sure she could never imagine how many people are missing her now, and will for a very long time.

William said...

Siren - there is a wonderful hour long interview of Jean in the Icons Radio Hour (down-loadable from the web).

Richard Brooks said of his wife: "Every man who comes up to me says that he loves my wife".

Me too.

Mark T Lancaster said...

Hello Siren,
I enjoyed this tribute to Jean Simmons. On 10/09, I used the email link on your blogsite to send you an offer to gift you with some DVDs, including "Angel Face", but I fear those emails (one plus a follow up when I thought of more I could give you) may have been lost to your spam filter. Well, I do know that when I post a comment, you get a notification, so this seems a sure-fire way to get my message through!
So, if you could use a DVD copy of "Angel Face" for your collection, I have a spare one I'd be happy to send to you. I had bought one on the secondary market (like new), a skinny case that I later learned was part of a Mitchum box set. Now I've got the Mitchum set and don't need the extra Angel Face. I read on your blog how your faithful readers send you films from time to time. If this is one you can use, it would be my honor to send it your way.
Also, I realized I have three other DVDs to offer as well, if you can use them. I've upgraded to blu-ray the following titles, so my DVDs are of no further use to me:
Black Narcissus (Criterion edition)
The Red Shoes (Criterion edition)
Citizen Kane (two disc special edition).
You're welcome to any and all of these four titles. It's not much compensation for the joy you bring with your blogging and the wonderful folks you attract to discussions, but it's something!
One other thing -- if you don't need any but know of someone who does, I'll be happy to send to them with your compliments.

Mark T Lancaster said...

Hello Siren,
Following up on the prior post, which may have run under your radar. I'll check back here periodically, or you can email me at marktlancaster at gmail dot com.

Revanchist said...

"Angel Face" is probably considered her best work, and with good reason, but my favourite JS scene is the one where Ophelia's madness is depicted in "Hamlet". Grigori Kozintsev's version is far better than Olivier's, but I rate Simmons' performance slightly, very slightly, ahead of Vertinskaya's.

Another performance that I've always liked her was in "Elmer Gantry"

Adair said...

Jean Simmons---one of the very loveliest, most intelligent actresses of all time. I wonder what she was like off-screen, in her personal life.

Any love for "Say Hello to Yesterday"? I think that she is more beautiful than ever in that film. But it seems not get much praise.