Sunday, January 24, 2010
In Memoriam: Jean Simmons, 1929-2010
In the Siren’s mind, 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 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. (But the Siren loves most of her work from this era, 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 in his memoirs Granger claimed 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 had 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 for her fiery, willful 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 might 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 ironic contrast with her next vehicle, 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 1950s 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 1960s 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.)