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Jean Simmons (1929-2010)

Jean Simmons
Jean Simmons


Jean Simmons was a talented and versatile actress who began her long career in the post Second World War period in a number of top quality British films and who later made a highly successful career in Hollywood. She appeared with a variety of leading men such as Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster and was nominated twice for Academy Awards.

Biography

She was born Jean Merilyn Simmons on Jan. 31, 1929, the youngest of four children, and reared in the North London suburb of Cricklewood. Her father was former Olympic gymnast, Charles Simmons, a physical education teacher.

Jean's first performances were during the Second World War, when the family was evacuated to Winscombe in Somerset, and she and her sister would sing duets for the local residents.

As a young girl, Jean showed a talent for dancing and she studied dance and drama at the Aida Foster Theatre School in north London. Her ability and beauty stood out, and as a 14 year old, in 1944, she was chosen to appear on screen in the comedy movie 'Give Us the Moon', starring Margaret Lockwood.

Movie Actress

She appeared in small roles in several British films such as ' Mr. Emmanuel' in 1944 and 'Kiss the Bride Goodbye' and 'Caesar and Cleopatra' in 1945 before getting a more substantial role in 1946 as Estella in 'Great Expectations', directed by David Lean. The film got her noticed and changed her attitude to her new profession, starting to take it more seriously.

Jean's career continued to prosper and she appeared in a number of highly regarded movies such as 'Black Narcissus' in 1946 with Deborah Kerr, and 'Hamlet' in 1948, playing Ophelia to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. Although she had never seen or even read a Shakespeare play before, Jean gave an unforgettable performance and received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for the part. She was now a fully fledged movie star and although Olivier suggested that she should study acting at the Bristol Old Vic Company, the move was vetoed by her studio, the Rank Organisation.

Stewart Granger

In 1949 Jean starred in 'Adam and Evelyne'. Her co-star was also her lover, the swashbuckling British actor, Stewart Granger, whom she had met in 1945 when the two were working on 'Caesar and Cleopatra'. Granger had been married before and was 16 years older than Jean. The two got married in 1950 in Tucson, Arizona, after being flown out by Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire who had recently purchased the RKO Hollywood studios. Jean was about to receive the Hollywood treatment.

Hollywood

Granger signed with MGM in 1950 and he and Jean moved to Hollywood where Jean discovered, to her amazement, that Rank had sold her contract to RKO, the studio owned by Howard Hughes. She, herself, described it as being "sold like a piece of meat."

Hughes was a capricious tyrant who was well known for seducing and then discarding film actresses. He made it clear that his interest in Jean was a personal one and he was firmly put in his place by Stewart Granger. Hughes was a man who carried grudges and when Jean refused to extend her contract with RKO, he blocked her chance of appearing in 'Roman Holiday' in 1951, in the role that would win an Oscar for Audrey Hepburn.

Jean eventually completed her contractual obligations to Hughes which included the classic noir 'Angel Face' in 1952 with Robert Mitchum in which she played a homicidal psychopath. When she refused to sign a second contract with RKO, the vindictive Hughes made it clear that anyone in Hollywood who hired her would be sued. Jean and her husband, Stewart Granger took Hughes to court in 1952 and won their case, freeing her from the influence of Hughes.

Hollywood Independence

After Jean broke free from Hughes, she signed a non-exclusive contract with 20th Century-Fox and her Hollywood career blossomed. After playing opposite Granger in 'Young Bess' in 1953, she had a meaty role opposite Richard Burton in 'The Robe', the first CinemaScope feature film.

In 1955 she co-starred with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in 'Guys and Dolls'. In the movie she used her own singing voice and showed a deft comic timing. Now comfortably settled in Hollywood, she and Granger became US citizens in 1956.

Her career continued to flourish as she appeared in successful movies such as 'The Big Country' in 1958, and 'Elmer Gantry' and 'Spartacus' in 1960.

She and Granger divorced in 1960 and she almost immediately married director Richard Brooks. After this she appeared on screen less frequently. Her next movie was 'All the Way Home' in 1963 after which she appeared in some below par features such as 'Life at the Top' in 1965 and 'Divorce American Style' in 1967. Her final role as a leading actress was in 'The Happy Ending' in 1969, written and directed by Brooks, and for which she received her second Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actress.

Career Decline

As Jean's movie career slowed down she appeared more and more on television and the stage. She performed for three years in Stephen Sondheim's 'A Little Night Music' first touring America in 1974, then in London where it played for 406 performances from April, 1975.

She first appeared on television in the series 'Theatre of Stars' in 1966 and she continued making regular appearances for the rest of her career in TV movies and mini-series. She had a big success in the series 'The Thorn Birds' in 1983 and for two years from 1985 she played Clarissa Main in the series 'North and South'. Other television performances of note were 'Great Expectations' in 1991, playing Miss Havisham, and from 1994 for four years she narrated the documentary series, 'Mysteries of the Bible'.

She made occasional returns to the big screen as in 'The Dawning' in 1988 and she had an important role in an all star cast in 'How To Make an American Quilt' in 1995.

Personal

Jean was married twice. Her first husband was British actor, Stewart Granger, whom she married in 1950 when she was 20. The couple had one child, called Tracy after Jean's close friend, Spencer Tracy. She and Granger divorced in 1960.

Her second husband was director Richard Brooks whom she married in 1960. They had one child, a daughter, Kate (after Katharine Hepburn) and divorced in 1976.

Jean battled an alcohol addiction for many years, going public about it in 1986. In 2003 she became the patron of the UK drugs and human rights charity, Release. In the same year she was made an OBE for her services to film.

For the last years of her life Jean lived in Santa Monica, California with her dog and two cats. She died from lung cancer on 22 January 2010, at the age of 80. Her ashes were interred at Highgate Cemetery in London.

Jean Simmons Academy Awards

No Wins:
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress ... Hamlet (1948)
Best Actress ... The Happy Ending (1969)



Jean Simmons Filmography

1940
1941
1942
1943
1944
Give Us the Moon
Mr. Emmanuel
Sports Day (Short)
1945
Kiss the Bride Goodbye
Meet Sexton Blake
The Way to the Stars
Caesar and Cleopatra
1946
Great Expectations
1947
Hungry Hill
Black Narcissus
Uncle Silas
The Woman in the Hall
1948
Hamlet
1949
The Blue Lagoon
Adam and Evelyne
1950
So Long at the Fair
Trio
Cage of Gold
The Clouded Yellow
1951
1952
Angel Face
Androcles and the Lion
1953
Young Bess
Affair with a Stranger
The Robe
The Actress
1954
Beautiful But Dangerous
The Egyptian
A Bullet Is Waiting
Désirée
1955
Footsteps in the Fog
Guys and Dolls
1956
Hilda Crane
1957
This Could Be the Night
Until They Sail
1958
The Big Country
Home Before Dark
1959
This Earth Is Mine
1960
Elmer Gantry
Spartacus
The Grass Is Greener
1961
1962
1963
All the Way Home
1964
1965
Life at the Top
1966
Mister Buddwing
1967
Divorce American Style
Rough Night in Jericho
1968
1969
The Happy Ending