Monday, January 25, 2010

The Lonely Passion of Jean Simmons

The sad thing about British actress Jean Simmons’s death this past weekend is that she never truly had the career she should have. While some today often complain about the diminishing roles for older women in motion pictures, many of those aging actresses – Christine Lahti, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Angelica Huston - at least have had careers worthy of their talent. Simmons was trashed and mostly forgotten before she could even fulfill her ambitions.

Jean Simmons was the most graceful, quiet beauty who ever gently commanded the screen. She began acting at the age of 14, but she was quickly relegated to appearing in largely terrible and forgettable pictures. (When she went to Hollywood with her actor husband Stewart Granger in 1950, Howard Hughes bought out her contract from J. Arthur Rank. Hughes then stuck her in rank pictures like She Couldn’t Say No and Angel Face.) She began as a sprightly adolescent as Estella in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), but as she grew into adulthood, she developed into a more ethereal screen icon. Besides Great Expectations, and her heartbreaking Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), her best roles came towards the end of the fifties in Richard Brooks’ potboiler Elmer Gantry and Stanley Kubrick’s exciting and moving sand-and sandal epic Spartacus.

In Elmer Gantry (1960), adapted from Sinclair Lewis’s novel, a con artist (Burt Lancaster) manipulates a tent show evangelist (Simmons) who sincerely believes in her calling. Simmons’s gentle charisma complements and contrasts with Lancaster’s more physical acrobatics. Her evangelist is an angel with a lusting heart, but that lust doesn’t diminish her service to the Lord, on the contrary, it enhances her. Simmons’s muted sexuality tempers the bravado of Elmer Gantry’s theatrical barn-burning. Her serene acceptance of her faith makes it possible for Gantry to acknowledge his deceit, but it also draws him to her as passionately as she draws the congregation so devoted to her. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s equally compelling evangelist in Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman (1931), Simmons isn’t a fiery orator; she’s a graceful presence with a spiritual hunger almost inseparable from carnal passion.

Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry

In Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Simmons plays the slave woman Varinia who falls in love with the gladiator warrior (Kirk Douglas) who tries to bring down Rome. Simmons, once again, finds the character’s strength in calm defiance. There’s a perfect example early on at the gladiator school when the fighters are given women to satisfy them before they go out to possibly die. When Spartacus lays eyes on Varinia, he is so taken by her beauty and quiet integrity that he declines to have sex with her. When the masters, who have been watching this display, ridicule Spartacus, he yells, “I’m not an animal.” But Varinia also replies, “Neither am I,” while looking at Spartacus. Simmons makes you feel in that scene that sex with Varinia is only the beginning of what could be possible – if one were to show the dignity to accept her on human terms. Her loveliest scene comes later in a duet with Douglas, beautifully underscored by Alex North’s music, after their escape from the school, where they finally pronounce their devotion to each other. They make promises that we know can’t totally be kept because circumstances will tear them apart. But we still believe in their union because Simmons and Douglas make love itself feel like an evolutionary step towards perfection.

Jean Simmons made a lot of movies and appeared on many television shows like In the Heat of the Night and Murder, She Wrote, but she was merely ornamental in those lazy genre pieces. Simmons’s screen persona had an elegance matched by an innate intelligence that transcended being simply a supporting character. She brought an air of refined passion to the screen without a whiff of drawing room stuffiness. But she was also someone beyond our grasp, to hold in awe, in respect, and maybe, too, in regret that we didn’t love her as fully as we might have.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. Kevin, just wanted to add, in the early 1990s, Simmons made a very memorable appearance in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called The Drumhead. She played a respected politician who descends into fascism as she attempts to bring false charges against the android Data. It was a startling performance from a very under-rated actress

  2. There is a little known TV gem, "December Flower," directed by Stephen Frears. Simmons plays opposite the great Mona Washbourne. I caught it once but I never saw it scheduled again. Both actresses are superb. The cast also includes Pat Heywood, Bryan Forbes and June Ritchie.