Monday, January 25, 2010

RIP - Jean Simmons

Legendary Hollywood actress Jean Simmons passed away over the weekend. She was 80 years old.

The British expat and star of such films as Guys & Dolls, Elmer Gantry and Spartacus was one of the leading stars in film in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, even as many believe that Hollywood never fully took advantage of her incredible talent.

She first rose to prominence in Britain when she played Estella in David Lean's 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations. Her performance in that film brought her to the attention of both Laurence Olivier and the directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They both wanted her for their next films, and worked out a way to share her services, allowing Simmons to appear in both Black Narcissus and Olivier's legendary film version of Hamlet as Ophelia. Her interpretation of Ophelia brought her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

Her amazing success of course brought her to Hollywood, and she was soon under contract to Howard Hughes, who wanted her services for altogether seedier reasons. Simmons, who was married to actor Stewart Granger at the time, would not come across, and Hughes retaliated by refusing to loan her out for William Wyler's Roman Holiday, for which she was first choice. After refusing to re-sign with Hughes' RKO Studios, Simmons would be further punished, when he resolved to put her in nothing but lousy films until her contract expired. she never signed with another studio.

While she worked steadily in films throughout the early and mid 1950s, and frequently received accolades for her stellar work, choice roles for women were difficult to get in those times. She appeared in a number of high-profile films such as The Robe, and she was in the classic Guys & Dolls, opposite Marlon Brando.

It wasn't until 1960's Spartacus that she had a role that allowed he to be more than simply support for the leading man. However, her subtle, heartfelt work was somewhat lost among the all-star cast of show-stealers.

1960 was an especially good year for Simmons, both personally and professionally. She also co-starred in another classic film, Elmer Gantry, opposite Burt Lancaster. The film was directed by Richard Brooks, with whom Simmons fell in love. Her marriage to Granger, already under strain, ended in light of her love affair with Brooks. She and Brooks son wed, and stayed together for 17 years.

The sixties ended well for Simmons, with her winning the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of a housewife running away from a failing marriage in The Happy Ending. But, like many actresses of her generation, the 1970s did not go so well, as she entered middle age and found roles harder to attain. She returned to the stage and found success on television, notably in The Thorn Birds, for which she won an Emmy.

The 1980s began badly, with a stint in rehab for alcoholism, but she was public about her troubles, hoping to help other women come forward with their addictions and seek help. She continued to work, almost exclusively in television. Ms. Simmons is survived by her two daughters and a grandson.

No comments: