Remembering Jean Simmons

by Leonard Maltin
January 27, 2010 1:59 AM
6 Comments
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Like most film buffs, I was upset to hear about Jean Simmons’ passing over the weekend…but I felt incredibly lucky to have met her at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day Weekend in 2008. In his program notes for her tribute, Scott Foundas wrote, “It is one of the few serious shortcomings, don’t we all agree, of David Lean’s otherwise exemplary version of Great Expectations (1946) that Jean Simmons leaves the screen much too soon, to be replaced by Valerie Hobson as the grown-up version of the Estella character.







Martita Hunt and Jean Simmons in David Lean's Great Expectations.



This is by no means intended as a slight to Ms. Hobson or Sir Lean, but merely to suggest that, after 30-odd minutes of aching her in her first major film role, we have already fallen as deeply under Ms. Simmons’ beguiling spell—the high forehead,...

...those piercing dark eyes, the sweetly teasing voice—as does fair Pip to Estella’s. ‘You can break his heart,’ the old maid Miss Havisham famous instructs to her impressionable charge, and it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that more than one young man emerged from that film wondering where he might sign up to have his heart broken by Jean Simmons.” Amen to that.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the actress before a full house on Sunday morning, following an hour of excerpts from such films as Great Expectations, Hamlet, Angel Face, The Actress, Guys and Dolls, Spartacus, Elmer Gantry, and The Happy Ending, which was written for her by her then-husband, Richard Brooks. The spry 79-year-old won over everyone she met with her easy laugh and unpretentious attitude.

She had happy experiences with virtually all of her leading men, ranging from Marlon Brando to Spencer Tracy, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have stories to share. Having just seen an amusing scene from The Grass is Greener, I asked about Cary Grant and his ability to make what he did seem effortless. She explained that he was Best Man when she married Stewart Granger, so she knew him socially for many years. When they worked together, however, she discovered an altogether different man who took his work—especially his comedy—quite seriously. (Incidentally, she refers to her first husband as Jimmy, because Stewart Granger was just a professional alias; his actual name, as you may know, was James Stewart.)

Simmons had no acting experience when she was cast in her first film, and the only coaching she ever received was from a woman Laurence Olivier hired to help her play Ophelia to his Hamlet—when she was still a teenager. She still marvels at how well he treated her.

Having just seen in her in a wide variety of roles, spanning nearly forty years, what struck me most about Jean Simmons was her genuineness onscreen; there is never a hint of artifice in her work. I have now come to believe that it’s a reflection of the woman herself.

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6 Comments

  • Merv | April 28, 2010 11:34 AMReply

    A lovely tribute to a wonderful actress.

    "Pamela Franklin and Jean Simmons were both dark-haired and diminutive in stature -- and British-born. But their acting towered over many of their contemporaries, on both sides of the Atlantic.

    They both had this rare gift of drawing deep into the "well" of the talent reservoirs, to impart their craft with such aplomb. They evinced so much credibility, the acting was never forced and/or affected. It was always "just right", when it came to the characters they portrayed. The wonderfully expressive eyes and subtle facial expressions, the timing and pacing were faultless. Speech and physical expressions were delicately nuanced, coupled with the inflected vocal cadences, shifting seamlessly from one state of emotion - and mood - to another, made for compelling viewing and enduring admiration".

  • Bob Radzak | February 5, 2010 4:55 AMReply

    I am in absolute agreement with Mr. Maltin's praise of Ms. Simmons. Her legions of admirers also agree.
    Her considerable dramatic gifts and astonishing beauty always mesmerize those who experience her passion, intelligence and celebrated versatility to her every character creation.
    Jean Simmons has been and continues to be the absolutely radiant !

    Sinderely,
    Bob Radzak

  • christian Simmons | January 29, 2010 8:21 AMReply

    Iloved and admirired her in everything she did.
    What a beautiful desirable "DESIREE" she was to Brandos Napoleon.
    I know, from herself, that this was NOT one of her favorite films.
    BUT...........did any woman look better in films?? Or could move you more??
    OH YES.........Jean in all the next films she played in.

    Mi Amore, I miss you for as long as I live.... Te adoro...
    Ich liebe dich!!

  • Tracy | January 28, 2010 5:37 AMReply

    Dear Leonard,
    Thank you so much for sharing your memories and that beautiful photo. I am looking forward to the Jean Simmons tribute on Turner Classic Movies this Friday night, especially for "The Happy Ending", which seems to be otherwise unavailable to the public.

  • Mark Whelan | January 28, 2010 1:05 AMReply

    Let's not forget her wonderful voice work! Her flawless voiceover for Sophie in "Howl's Moving Castle" helped establish a new standard by which dubbed films should be judged.

  • Roberta Lean | January 27, 2010 6:27 AMReply

    Isn't it true, tha with most of us, who are actors, as much as we study and create the character, from wherever it comes, and whatever it is, that there is always a germ of our own personna?I never knew Jean Simmons, but I wish I had met her..for only one moment..

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