How can I not comment on the passing of beautiful Jean Simmons who died on Friday at her home in Santa Monica? Above is a photo of Simmons in one of her first (and best) movies—the magnificent 1946 version of Dickens’ “Great Expectations” directed by David Lean. How I loved the teenaged Jean Simmons in this role. She was so deliciously beastly to young Pip that I used to imagine the part must have been close to her actual personality. But by all accounts, Jean was a lovely woman and, in my opinion, a wonderful actress who had the misfortune of later being cast in a series of overblown and not very good costume dramas. While she became famous for her roles in bloated epics such as “Androcles and the Lion,” “The Robe,” “The Egyptian,” and, the best of the bunch, “Spartacus,” her exquisite acting chops were on much better display in films such as Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” (at 19 she was nominated for an Oscar for her haunting take on Ophelia), “Black Narcissus,” “Angel Face,” “The Actress,” and “Elmer Gantry.”
I enjoyed Simmons’ performance in the misguided film version of the musical “Guys and Dolls.” Misguided because even though Simmons fit the spirit of Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown, neither she nor co-star Marlon Brando (playing gambler Skye Masterson) could sing a note. And in an era of many leading stars being dubbed in musicals, the surprising decision was made to let Brando and Simmons do their own singing. Producer Sam Goldwyn reportedly said, "You might as well wreck it with your own voice than somebody else's. Ouch. Simmons said she enjoyed the rehearsals with Brando trying his best not to step on her and choreographer Michael Kidd looking very worried. Though Brando and Simmons were excellent actors, their creaky pipes especially paled when matched up against Frank Sinatra and Vivan Blaine as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide. But after so many somber roles, it’s still a delight to watch Simmons in such a fun part. Sing out, Jean!
In one of our first dates in the early 1990s, Kendall and I went to see Jean Simmons and her former “Big Country” co-star Charlton Heston in the A.R. Gurney play “Love Letters” at the old Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. She was 60 years old at the time but looked as beautiful as she did as Estella in “Great Expectations.”
My only problem with that film is when Jean’s character turns into Valerie Hobson in the later scenes. Hobson wasn’t half as effective as the grown-up Estella. In Feburary 1947, a New York Times reporter writing from London heralded the rise of the beautiful teen:
The big star news of the month is Jean Simmons, a 17-year-old Rank property who is tipped as the hottest favorite discovered over here in seasons. Little Miss Simons smashed through just before Christmas in a almost terrifyingly mature performance as the young Estella in “Great Expectations,” and pulled off another smart trick in “Hungry Hill” a couple of weeks ago. As a bonus, she has been given her first starring part as the frightened heroine in Sheridan Le Fanu’s period thriller, “Uncle Silas.” Laurence Irving, grandson of Sir Henry Irving, who is producing “Uncle Silas,” says Miss Simmons is “the nearest thing to a young Ellen Terry I’ve encountered in a long career in the theatre.” “She’s got it all here,” he adds, pounding his heart. “Nothing can stop her because she’s just a natural-born acting miracle. It was the most amazing experience to watch her playing her scenes with Katina Paxinou. You might have expected the child to be nervous, but not a bit of it.”
No Miss Havisham herself, Simmons was married twice: to actor Stewart Granger and then to director Richard Brooks. She is survived by her daughters Tracy Granger and Kate Brooks, named after her close friends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Jean Simmons revisited her first big screen success in a 1989 TV version of the Dickens classic where she finally did get the chance to play the ghostly Miss Havisham. She was wonderful in the part but I will always remember her as Miss Havisham’s manipulated protégée: