Old Hollywood lost another one yesterday. :(
Jean Simmons remembered: tributes to the demure, doe-eyed British beauty of film
Actress Jean Simmons, who has died aged 80, seemed destined for stardom from the moment she was plucked at 14 from a London dance troupe to make her first film.
by Olga Craig
Published: 10:45PM GMT 23 Jan 2010
With her demure, doe-eyed beauty and sultry allure, Simmons - who died of lung cancer - made her debut on the silver screen in the 1944 film, Give Us the Moon.
But bizarrely the teenage Simmons, who won wave reviews for her part as Margaret Lockwood's sister, had altogether loftier ambitions in the world of academia. Though she was to go on to conquer Hollywood - playing Ophelia to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, singing alongside Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls and co-starring with Gregory Peck, Paul Newman and Kirk Douglas - she was, initially, reluctant to become an actor, believing that her true talent was for teaching.
Val Guest, the movie director who discovered her when he chanced upon her dance troupe practising routines in a back street theatre, begged her to drop her ambitions to study. But Simmons insisted she wanted to give teaching a go, turning her back on the movie world.
Though she qualified as a teacher the lure of movie screen stardom proved just too tantalising. She accepted parts in several major British films - Caesar and Cleopatra, Black Narcissus and Great Expectations - but it was her role in Hamlet, for which she won an Oscar nomination, that took Hollywood by storm. Overnight a star was born. She appeared several times on the cover of the prestigious Time magazine and became the sweetheart of the American press. Finally won over by the movie world, she ditched her second name Merilyn in 1950, packed her suitcases, bought a one way ticket and sailed across the Atlantic where she became one of tinsel town's most popular and sought after actors.
Though hugely talented - she won an Emmy Award for her role in the 1980s mini series The Thorn Birds, a Golden Globe and a second Oscar nomination - Simmons' appeal was her tantalising mix of the wanton seductress and the vulnerable ingenue.
As writer and film historian Alan K Rode said when her agent announced she had died on Friday at her Santa Monica home after a long illness: ''Jean's jaw-dropping beauty often obscured a formidable acting talent.''
Paying tribute to Ms Simmons actor Edward Fox said: ''She was one of my pin ups when I was young. She was simply gorgeous, a real str, a true English girl and a very fine actress. She was particularly wonderful in Great Expectations. She might not always have got the more heavyweight roles she wanted, as the studios controlled everythng and they hired people for their eyelashes back then. But she made her mark alongside some of the finest actors of her generation.''
Actor and screenwriter Julian Fellowes described Ms Simmons as being "among the last of that tier of movie stars who left Britain for Hollywood in the Fifties.'' She belonged, he said, to that "gentler generation of players, those who were well bred. Personally I mourn their passing. She was up there among the greats along with Audrey Hepburn and Deborah Kerr. I fear there ilk has not been replaced.''
Terry O'Neill, the celebrity photographer, pictured Ms Simmons many time in the heyday of her career. ''She was a stunning beautiful young woman and a lovely, lovely, gentle lady,'' he said. "The camera absolutely adored her and she had tremendous patience. The thing that always stuck in my mind about Jean was her dignity. She belonged to that illustrious band of British actresses who were utter stars and were so very ladylike. Her death will bring great sadness to her many fans.''
When legendary film maker David Lean cast her as the mischievous but aloof young Estella, companion to the reclusive Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, a nation of schoolboys quivered with anticipation when she shyly proffered her cheek to a wide-eyed Pip, primly telling him: ''You may kiss me if you like.'' Similarly, when she appeared naked from the back as the sultry slave girl in Spartacus, a generation of male movie-goers swooned.
Simmons had a second reason for moving to America however. On the set of Caesar and Cleopatra she had met and fallen in love with fellow British actor Stewart Granger. The pair eloped to Tuscon, Arizona where the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes (who in later life revealed he had always been in love with Simmons) arranged their secret marriage.
Wily Hughes, all too keenly aware that Simmons would never have feelings for him, had an ulterior motive. If he could not have Simmons herself, he would instead keep steely control of her movie career. He would ruin her reputation he told her if she tried to work for anyone else. As Simmons herself was to admit: ''When I returned from the honeymoon I learned that Hughes owned me. He had bought me from J Arthur Rank (the British producer) like a piece of meat.''
It was one battle the notorious Hughes was not to win. Simmons, for all her seeming fragility, possessed a backbone of steel and a tenacity to match. She was determined to win her independence. She made only four films for him before successfully suing the billionaire mogul for the right to make more prestigious pictures with other studios. The result was Young Bess, in which she played Queen Elizabeth 1, The Robe, The Actress, The Egyptian and the big box office success Desiree in 1954 in which she played the title role opposite Brando's Napoleon. In The Robe she played opposite Richard Burton which won rave reviews. Simmons was scathing about the part however, complaining that all it required of her was ''to look pretty and dignified.'' In a memorable Time magazine article she described it as ''a poker up the arse part.''
In 1955 she teamed up again with Brandon in Guys and Dolls, the Samuel Goldwyn-produced musical, in which she played Sarah Brown, a Salvation Army-style reformer conned into a weekend fling in Havana by gambler Sky Masterson.
Her enormous work lode, however, took a heavy toll on her marriage. Though she and Granger had a daughter Tracy, they divorced in 1960. The newly single Simmons continued to complain that she was overlooked for meaty roles, finally getting her opportunity to prove her mettle as the psychopathic Angel Face, alongside Robert Mitchum, and with Gregory Peck in The Big Country.
By 1960 Simmons was at the peak of her career, starring in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, The Grass is Greener and Elmer Gantry. The latter was directed by Richard Brooks, who became her second husband.
The 1967 Dean Martin film, Rough Night in Jericho, brought Simmons fresh acclaim for her performance as the hard-nosed businesswoman, and she secured her second Oscar nomination for the role of alienated housewife Mary Wilson in The Happy Ending. Simmons career dipped in the next two decades. She found refuge in a number of television movies and mini series before admitting in the Eighties that she was an alcoholic.
After treatment she made a triumphant comeback in 1995, starring alongside Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn and Anne Bancroft in How to Make an American Quilt. In the 2003 New Year Honours List Simmons was awarded an OBE. She and Brooks had a daughter Kate, although that marriage, too, ended in divorce in 1977.
She continued to do voice over work into her Seventies until she was diagnosed with lung cancer. In recent years she had become something of a recluse. ''In her final years she spent a lot of time in her Hollywood home watching her old movies over and over,'' one friend said yesterday. ''It didn't depress her, seeing herself on screen as the great beauty she once was. It gave her enormous pleasure. Just as she gave cinema-goers enormous pleasure throughout her entire career.''