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Jean Simmons, 1929 – 2010

The Auteurs Daily

Jean Simmons

"Jean Simmons, a radiant British actress who as a teenager appeared opposite Laurence Olivier in Hamlet and emerged a star whose career flourished in the 1950s and 1960s in such films as Guys and Dolls, Elmer Gantry and Spartacus, has died," reports Valerie J Nelson for the Los Angeles Times. "She was 80.... Plucked from a dance class by a talent scout at the age of 14, she had already made several movies before gaining attention for her portrayal of the young Estella in David Lean's film adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations.... Among her films, she favored 1953's The Actress, which she said she 'just loved' for the 'sheer heaven' of working with Spencer Tracy."

"Simmons left Britain for Hollywood in 1950, accompanied by the actor Stewart Granger, her future husband," writes David Harrison in the Telegraph. "They were befriended by Howard Hughes, the reclusive tycoon, who flew them to Tucson, Arizona, for a surprise wedding. 'When I returned from the honeymoon,' Simmons told a reporter in 1964, 'I learned that Hughes owned me - he had bought me from (the British producer) J Arthur Rank like a piece of meat.'"

"Simmons and Granger were divorced in 1960," writes Gregory Darnell in the Alternative Film Guide. "She married Richard Brooks shortly thereafter, during which time she developed a serious alcohol problem. Brooks directed her once again in the 1969 drama The Happy Ending, in which Simmons plays a middle-aged housewife who takes off on her own. Though not one of her best films or performances, Academy members gave her a surprising best actress nomination. The couple were divorced in 1977."

Robert Cashill: "It was great to see her in 1995's How to Make an American Quilt after a film hiatus and to hear her voice again in the English-language version of Howl's Moving Castle."

David Cairns remembers her "at somewhere near her most beautiful, lit by Jack Cardiff in Black Narcissus."

Catherine Grant gathers "links to online and freely accessible scholarly and critical studies of some of the many films she starred in across her career."

The Washington Post has a photo gallery and the BBC posts a video report, just over two minutes of clips from her films and interviews.

Updates: "She is often spoken of as a demure English rose," writes the Observer's Philip French, "and she crossed the Atlantic at a time when British actresses were not required to adopt American accents. But the early roles that established her reputation were dangerously troubled figures in postwar British classics... In his review of Hamlet, America's greatest film critic of the time, 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.'"

"'Simmons is one of the most quietly commanding actresses Hollywood has ever trashed,' the critic Pauline Kael wrote when reviewing her performance as the half-genuine, half-fraudulent revivalist preacher who succumbs to Burt Lancaster's con man in Elmer Gantry (1960)." Aljean Harmetz in the New York Times: "Indeed, she rarely found roles to match the talent so many colleagues and critics recognized in her, despite a dazzling start to her career."

Richard Brody on Guys and Dolls: "Her performance of 'If I Were a Bell' is the sexiest musical number Hollywood put on screen; not because it shows flesh or curves or slinky vamps but because it captures the sound of a woman's tremulous voice anticipating pleasure in a moment of abandon."

"Brando was easy to outshine musically though she was also easily his acting equal or superior," adds Bob Westal, "but here she shows she would have had to chops to almost hold her own musically with with costar Frank Sinatra, if only the script had called for it. What she lacks in polish, she more than makes up for in sheer commitment."

More from Edward Copeland and Olga Craig (Telegraph).

Updates, 1/24: Otto Preminger's Angel Face (1952) is "a major study of criminal apathy that is predicated on the unknowability of Simmons's lovely but guarded face," writes Dan Callahan in Slant. "As Diane Tremayne, a restless, empty bad seed with Bettie Page bangs and a devil of an Electra complex, Simmons embodies a kind of negative impulse blindly groping around in a noir void; she often sits at the piano and languidly plays, her shiny black eyes inward and cold. Simmons loathed Preminger; he treated her badly on the set, and that might go some way toward explaining the distance of Diane's anger. But nothing can really explain the originality of Simmons's work here."

Sean Axmaker on Great Expectations: "I remember being utterly entranced by her beauty and her confidence onscreen, and the perfection with which she incarnated a teenager being taught to be a temptress and not quite understanding even as she went through the motions. And when Pip grew up into John Mills, I could barely contain my disappointment that Valerie Hobson had none of the fire promised by Simmons, and lacked her mix of strength and softness. I can see how Pip fell in love with the young Estella, no matter how imperious and cruel she might be."

"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."

David Thomson, writing in the Guardian, is another Angel Face fan: "The brilliant picture was directed by Otto Preminger and photographed by the great veteran Harry Stradling. Thus it contains - and she sustains - some of the most luminous close-ups ever given to a femme fatale. How far she understood the picture is unclear. One can only say that it is a rare tribute to unrequited love."

More from Phil Nugent: "The role gave her the chance to practically play The Big Sleep's Vivian and Carmen Sternwood at the same time, but given that the movie was directed by Otto Preminger, it is not hard to understand how she might not have looked back fondly on the experience." And he tells one of those Hollywood stories about the making of Angel Face that remind you that, back then, the whole lot of them believed they were always on.

Time's Richard Corliss: "British directors had exoticized Simmons's beauty; the Americans mostly domesticated it."

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Very elegant lady and a good actress.

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