Never to be Forgotten

RIP Jean Simmons. This was kind of a shock — she never seemed actually old. Maybe because she played Cleopatra early on, and age cannot wither her. At a more suitable time I must collect together my friend Lawrie’s amusing tales from the production of CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, not a great film but a great source of anecdotes on the absurdity of the film business and the personalities involved.

For now, here’s Jean at somewhere near her most beautiful, lit by Jack Cardiff in BLACK NARCISSUS.

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25 Responses to “Never to be Forgotten”

  1. RIP indeed. Glorious actress. I’m biased about anything to do with Black Narcissus, but my first encounter with her acting was in Great Expectations – she was wonderfully arrogant as Estella.

  2. And it’s a shame she has to grow up to be Valerie Hobson in that. Even Vivian Leigh couldn’t play a grown-up Jean without paling by comparison.

  3. For me, she’s always Angel Face, where she plays the most gorgeous sympathetic femme fatale. It’s rare that an actress in that period got to play such a complex role and even rare the way Jean played her. We like her even if we aren’t invited to sympathise with her and even if she isn’t explained we can sort of understand why she’s on a homicidal-suicidal self-destructive mission.

  4. Despite the movie being invented by Howard Hughes to punish her, and despite not enjoying Otto Preminger much, I think she rose to the challenge and enjoyed being Bad. What she didn’t like were all the boring respectable wife roles, which she referred to as “poker-up-the-arse parts.”

  5. ANGEL FACE is getting its due – more and more people recognize it as one of the major films of ’52, along with Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN and Hawks’s THE BIG SKY.

    A real classy lady. Vivid in each film
    mentioned so far; I’ll cite her ‘immovable object’ in ELMER GANTRY, opposite Burt Lancaster’s ‘irresistible force.’ And she’s great in the now-underrated GUYS AND DOLLS.

    Her final lead role was actually pretty recent: the English-language dub of Miyazaki’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE. (Frequently opposite the American cinema’s ambassador of class: Lauren Bacall.) When I saw the film in 2005, I kept thinking, well I knew Mrs. Bogart was going to be in it, but as for the heroine…I *know that voice*, but who could it be? Surprised and delighted it was Simmons.

  6. Not a shock but my heart is broken nonetheles. I wanted to interview her for my UK/LA piece a few years back but was informed she was in fragile health.

    Mankiewicz fell in love with her during Guys and Dolls (no wonder) and they had a brief affair.

    Years ago when the Helard-Examiner was closing Richard Brooks came by to screen us his great Deadline USA. He told me that he blamed himself for losing her and had never gotten over it.

    That’s obvious from the last film he made with her — the very underrated The Happy Ending.

  7. There’s a good trivia question to be had out of all the interesting actors who have provided their services to Miyazaki dubs. It was great to hear Suzanne Pleshette in Spirited Away.

    The Lusty Men — ah, that’s a movie that deserves even more praise than it already gets. For a short while, Hughes at RKO allowed some great work to get done.

  8. I heard on the radio this morning that Ms. Simmons had died. Her name and face loom larger than a great many other of the actresses of her time, she performed in some of the most memorable films ever, the aforementioned GREAT EXPECTATIONS and BLACK NARCISSUS, she was Varinia, Kirk’s wife in SPARTACUS, and yes, she leaves quite an impression in ANGEL FACE, especially at the end. I’ve yet to see her as Ophelia in Olivier’s HAMLET, wasn’t there something going on with her being in the film at the time it was made, a tug-of-war or scheduling conflict? And while I do like Hobson, who was lovely in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and well-cast opposite Conrad Veidt in P&P’s THE SPY IN BLACK and CONTRABAND, it stretches plausibility to think that spitfire Jean could grow up to become wan, somber Val. Simmons came across as a woman who took her vocation seriously, not so much a movie star but a true actress. A shame that if you were to mention her name today too many people attach the face of a certain fire-spitting face-painted buffoon to it.

  9. The Cuban night-club scene in Guys and Dolls is amazing…that film got bad reviews because Mankiewicz was criticized for casting non-singers like Brando and Jean Simmons in the film but they are the best part of the film, one of the hippest, coolest couples in film history. Brando is especially striking in this film, very laidback and looking like he’s enjoying himself despite claiming later on to detest acting, maybe Jean Simmons brought that lightness based on what’s on screen that is. It may be overlong but it’s one of the best Broadway adaptations, I think.

    The Actress is one of the great masterpieces of the 50s(my favourite decade for American cinema) and along with such films as Sylvia Scarlett, A Double Life, A Star is Born Cukor’s masterpiece.

    The reason The Lusty Men is so great is that it was a film made without a complete script, essentially made up as it went along by Ray and Mitchum, who got along swimmingly. Hughes stayed far, far away. He intereferred very little, save maybe the titling(though I like the title, as long as people respect that the word ”lusty” need not associate itself with what we take it). They had a wonderful cast with Susan Hayward(in her best role), Arthur Kennedy and Arthur Hunnicutt and the result is a film that feels more like what we associate with an American independent film of the 60s and 70s than a Hollywood film. Angel Face was also a film that Hughes left well alone once Preminger came aboard. Don’t know about The Big Sky.

    The most ridiculous stunt Hughes pulled was with On Dangerous Ground where he totally wrecked the film’s structure(and not the ending as most people assume).

  10. Very sad indeed. She was the kind of actress who couldn’t help crafting moments you couldn’t forget — like the sexy dance she does in Black Narcissus or virtually anything from her fierce turn in Angel Face.

  11. Simmons may not have been known as a singer but she certainly doesn’t lack for vocal power in that Guys & Dolls scene. And Brando does one of his most enjoyable things: watching his fellow player with affectionate amusement: you can see him do this with the inimitable Thora Hird in that pieceashit The Night Comers, and with his mini-me in The Island of Dr Moreau.

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    This is all very sad. I will also mention her role as the older version of Heather Sears in LIFE AT THE TOP who now comprehends that her marriage was based on nothing at all as well as her appearance as a Star Fleet Commander in an episode of STAR TREK: THE NEW GENERATION towards the end of her career that revealed she could play older roles, something the industry never chose to follow up on.

    As to Jean into Valerie in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, I’d like to mention that if the wartime and post-war Hobson had continued the type of vivacity exhibited in THE SPY IN BLACK and CONTRABAND, then the transition could have worked. Unfortunately, by then she had developed into the icy type of English Rose of post-war British cinema and never had the opportunity to play the type of role that Jean did in ANGEL FACE.

  13. I guess that a tribute to her talent lies in the fact that it is hard to think of just one role to sum up her career: she was so good everywhere.

    I’m a bit shocked to learn that “Guys and Dolls” was originally dissed! It’s a film I fell in love with for the first time I saw it on TV. Simmons is great and who cares if Brando isn’t Lauritz Melchior: he’s Sky Masterson to me!

  14. Speaking as someone who saw the show with the original cast back in 1951 (I was four and remember every nanosecond) I can say that Mankiewicz’s rendition is superb. Oliver Smith stylized sets are the most beautiful of their kind until New York New York and Brando is perfect.

  15. I saw Jean Simmons play Desiree in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Schubert. Don’t remember much about the voice, I’m ‘fraid, but I loved the character she created.

    It’s mostly Varinia in SPARTACUS I’m thinking of, but a couple of Simmons performances less-than-wonderful movies keep surfacing in my memory. Simmons being “scared out of her skin” in THE GRASS IS GREENER, ‘frinstance, or her determination in Leroy’s HOME AFTER DARK.

    As for David E watching the original production of GUYS AND DOLLS when he was 4 … no wonder present day Ehrenstein has such a acute sense of “where the streptococci loik” …

  16. I might find that sequence a bit schmaltzy in a film… but it makes a very sweet tribute to Jean.

  17. david wingrove Says:

    Lovely clip from THE HAPPY ENDING! I’ve never seen the film, but have heard Barbra sing the song. Even in a schmaltzy montage, Jean Simmons is exquisite. Like a sexier Audrey Hepburn, minus the pretentions to sainthood.

  18. The Happy Ending has one of the greatest endings ever. Jean asks her hubby, John Forsythe “if you had to do it all over agin would you have married me?” and at that precise second the film runs out of the projector and the lights go up. No “The End.” No closing credits.

  19. Wow! That’s so neat I’m going to allow them that schmaltzy montage. Fully justified.

  20. Not only Howl’s Moving Castle but Simmons also appears briefly (or at least voices) the venerable Council leader in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, heading a rather confused enquiry into the chaos erupting around them in a scene which helps to push a lot of expostion across to the viewer in one big lump.

    It seems strange that Jean Simmons should have been chosen, and I’d love to know if it was intended as a nice tribute to her by filmmakers understanding the baggage of what she might bring to the film (unlikely I suppose, though the casting is generally more adult audience-oriented) or whether it was just an jobbing-actor audition that she did and was hired for?

    Perhaps there is something to be said for animated films giving older actors some of their last roles, since I presume it places less strain on their health than having to be on top form for the camera – for example wasn’t one of James Stewart’s last roles that American Tail sequel?

  21. It was.

    I do kind of miss the days when voice artists were chosen just for their voices, rather than their fame. An interesting case is Antz, where it turns out that, reduced to a voice, Gene Hackman loses most of what’s great about him.

    But it is lovely when any medium at least gives work to actors we haven’t seen for a while, as with Terry-Thomas in the Disney Robin Hood. I also appreciated the way the Star Trek spin-offs and Babylon 5 would use people like Andy Robinson, Louise Fletcher and Stephen Furst who should really be seriously busy in better things.

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