Jean Simmons, the beautiful actress who was nominated for Oscars for her work in Hamlet (1948) and The Happy Ending (1969), died on Jan. 22 at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. The London-born actress would have turned 81 on Jan. 31.
Simmons’ film debut took place in the 1944 British comedy Give Us the Moon, in which she played star Margaret Lockwood’s younger sister. A couple of years later, she was the snotty teenage Estella, the companion to the reclusive Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt), in David Lean’s Academy Award-nominated version of Great Expectations (1946). And the following year, she was an uppity Indian girl with a jewel in her nose in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic Black Narcissus (1947).
Stardom came with Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning 1948 adaptation of Hamlet (right), for which Simmons, as Ophelia, earned a best supporting actress Academy Award nomination and a best actress award at the Venice Film Festival. That same year, she and Donald Houston were teenagers stranded on an island in The Blue Lagoon, later remade with Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins.
Howard Hughes bought Simmons’ contract in 1950, and she settled in Hollywood with husband Stewart Granger. She later said she hated her movies for Hughes, though film noir Angel Face (1952) – in which she plays a psychopath in (mad) love with Robert Mitchum – has some ardent fans. After several duds, she sued Hughes’ RKO for release, later working for MGM, Fox, and other studios.
In 1953, she gave an affecting performance as the young Ruth Gordon (Oscar winner for Rosemary’s Baby) in The Actress, directed by George Cukor, and co-starring Spencer Tracy, Teresa Wright, and Anthony Perkins. That same year, she was a very pretty Elizabeth I in Young Bess, playing opposite Granger and Deborah Kerr.
Though never a major star, Simmons was the leading lady in several important – though not necessarily good – movies of the ’50s and ’60s, among them The Robe (1953), the first CinemaScope production and a gigantic box office hit; Désirée (1954), a poor characterization in a poor but highly successful film, with Marlon Brando as Napoleon; Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s panned (but successful) musical Guys and Dolls (1955), singing off-key opposite an equally tone-deaf Brando; and Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian (1955), another much-derided commercial hit.
Also, Robert Wise’s Until They Sail (1957), with Paul Newman and Joan Fontaine; Mervyn LeRoy’s Home Before Dark (1958), with Dan O’Herlihy and Rhonda Fleming; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), excellent as slave hero Kirk Douglas’ wife who is lusted after by bisexual villain Laurence Olivier (above); and Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry (1960), another excellent performance as a version of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson who is befriended by con artist Burt Lancaster.
Additionally, Simmons co-starred with Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s The Big Country (1958), with Rock Hudson and Dorothy McGuire in This Land Is Mine (1959), with Robert Preston in All the Way Home (1963), with Laurence Harvey in Life at the Top (1965), with James Garner in Mister Buddwing (1966), with Dean Martin in the Western Rough Night in Jericho (1967), and with Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Reynolds, and Jason Robards in Divorce American Style.
Simmons and Granger were divorced in 1960. 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.
From the early 1970s, Simmons was mostly seen on television and on stage. She won an Emmy for the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds and, coming full circle, was cast as Miss Havisham in a 1991 version of Great Expectations (above, lower photo; upper photo, Simmons and Martita Hunt in the 1946 version).
In the mid-1990s, she could also be seen on the big screen in How to Make an American Quilt (1995), with Winona Ryder and Anne Bancroft. Simmons and fellow cast members received a best ensemble SAG Award nomination.
Jean Simmons’ last film was David Rocksavage’s 2009 drama Shadows in the Sun, with James Wilby.