Many consider the Academy Award-nominated Great Expectations the greatest film adaptation of a Charles Dickens’ novel. Needless to say, I disagree. (I much prefer the mostly forgotten and generally dismissed Nicholas Nickleby, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti in 1947.) Yet, even this naysayer must agree that Lean’s Great Expectations has much to offer, including Guy Green’s superb black-and-white cinematography and Finlay Currie’s flawless portrayal of fugitive Abel Magwitch. John Mills, on the other hand, was much too old to play Pip, while Valerie Hobson’s Estella should have gone to Margaret Lockwood or Merle Oberon or Vivien Leigh or Jean Simmons herself – ten years later. (Simmons plays the Young Estella in this version; in the 1991 TV remake, she was the elderly Miss Havisham.)
Elmer Gantry, in which a con man joins forces with a female fundamentalist Christian preacher, is long but interesting – though not as good as it could have been, thanks in part to Brooks’ bowdlerization of Sinclair Lewis’ scathing attack on evangelical fanaticism and corruption. (Actually, the film only covers a section of the book.) As the con man, Burt Lancaster’s acting mostly consists of flashing a blinding grin every few seconds, but young-and-sweet Shirley Jones is surprisingly good as a sex worker who doesn’t say no to an indecent proposal (even if she repents later on), and Jean Simmons is great as the (purified) Aimee Semple McPhersonish preacher.
Both Lancaster and Jones won Oscars. Simmons should have been at least nominated, but wasn’t. Generally, the “split vote” rationale, which attempts to explain why a dark horse wins at the Oscars, is utterly absurd; in this case, however, it makes sense. Simmons most probably didn’t get nominated because her votes were indeed split. After all, that same year she received raves for her performance as Kirk Douglas’ slave wife in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Today, they could have pushed her as a supporting player for Spartacus. Back in those days, that wasn’t usually done. As a result, Simmons had to compete against herself. The Academy’s preferential voting system took care of the rest.
The Happy Ending, about a disillusioned housewife who goes after her own life, is both weak and moralizing. Compounding matters, Simmons isn’t quite at her best. But since there was no Spartacus that year and relatively few significant roles for women in American films, she ended up getting an Academy Award nomination. She lost the Oscar to Maggie Smith for the British-made The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. John Forsythe, Shirley Jones (not as a sex worker) and Bobby Darin (as a sex worker) co-star.