Saturday, January 23, 2010


Jean Simmons (1929-2010)

Jean Simmons' long career, which has sadly ended at the age of 80, had such a wide array of varied and great performances, it always has puzzled me why the British-born actress didn't have a larger reputation. Maybe there is a price to be paid for being so prolific for so long and for being so damn good.

Simmons started her film career young back in the 1940s. Her first film was 1944 and by 1946 she already had landed the role of the young Estrella in David Lean's Great Expectations and followed that up the following year with the role of Kanchi in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus. For her work as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's 1948 Hamlet, she received the first of her two Oscar nominations.

She did get her shot at a lot of biblical-era costume dramas, including 1953's The Robe with Richard Burton. Simmons got a chance to do a musical turn as well in the role of Sgt. Sarah Brown opposite Marlon Brando in 1955's Guys and Dolls. 1960 brought her three great roles that couldn't be more different. There was Varinia, the woman loyal to Spartacus. The role that she truly got robbed of an Oscar nomination for was Sister Sharon Falconer, a tent circuit evangelist who begins to believe a bit much in herself beyond the con in Elmer Gantry opposite Burt Lancaster. Finally, there was the frothy fun as the gossipy, fourth wheel watching and spurring on the action in a love triangle between Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum in The Grass Is Greener.

In the mid-'60s, she began appearing on television more, though one film, which I haven't seen, 1969's The Happy Ending, did earn her another Oscar nomination. The remainder of her career was a mix of TV movies and miniseries, feature films and guest shots on TV series. She even appeared on The Odd Couple and received and Emmy nomination for an appearance on Murder, She Wrote. She won an Emmy for her role in the miniseries The Thorn Birds. The last notable feature film she appeared in was 1995's How to Make an American Quilt. R.I.P. Ms. Simmons.

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To my way of thnking, Jean Simmons the most underrated (and underutilized) film actress of her generation - Pauline Kael called her "the most quietly commanding actress Hollywood ever trashed." Elmer Gantry was her crowning achievement, but she could just as easilly have been nominated for her gimlet-eyed murderess in Preminger's Angel Face, or shellshocked asylum outpatient in Home Before Dark. She had so few opportunities to really shine - if she hadn't been wasted in so many dull roles in so many dull films, she'd be considered as one of our greatest actresses.
I can't believe I forgot to mention Angel Face, but I was fighting fatigue to get this post up and literally slept for five hours as soon as I finished. Glad you remembered to mention it and knew the Kael quote.
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