Nationality: British/American. Born: Jean Merilyn Simmons in London, England, 31 January 1929; became U.S. citizen, 1956. Education: Attended the Orange Hill School for Girls; Aida Foster School of Dancing. Family: Married 1) the actor Stewart Granger, 1950 (divorced 1960), daughter: Tracy; 2) the director Richard
Give Us the Moon (Guest) (as Heidi); Mr. Emmanuel (French); Kiss the Bride Goodbye (Stein) (as Molly Dodd); Meet Sexton Blake (Harlow) (as Eva Watkins)
Sports Day ( The Colonel's Cup ) (Short); The Way to the Stars ( Johnny in the Clouds ) (Asquith) (as singer)
Caesar and Cleopatra (Pascal) (as handmaiden/harpist); Great Expectations (Lean) (as young Estella)
Hungry Hill (Hurst) (as Jane Brodrick); Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger) (as Kanchi); Uncle Silas ( The Inheritance ) (Frank) (as Caroline Ruthyn); The Woman in the Hall (Jack Lee) (as Jay Blake)
Hamlet (Olivier) (as Ophelia)
Adam and Evalyn ( Adam and Evelyne ) (French) (as Evalyn Wallace); The Blue Lagoon (Launder) (as Emmeline Foster)
"Sanatorium" ep. of Trio (French) (as Eve Bishop); Cage of Gold (Dearden) (as Judith Moray); So Long at the Fair (Darnborough and Fisher) (as Vicky Barton); The Clouded Yellow (Thomas) (as Sophie Malraux)
Androcles and the Lion (Erskine) (as Lavinia); Angel Face (Preminger); Affair with a Stranger (Rowland) (as Carolyn Parker); The Actress (Cukor) (as Ruth Gordon Jones); The Robe (Koster) (as Diana); Young Bess (Sidney) (title role)
She Couldn't Say No (Lloyd Bacon) (as Corby Lane); The Egyptian (Curtiz) (as Merit); Desiree (Koster) (title role); A Bullet Is Waiting (Farrow) (as Cally Canham)
Guys and Dolls (Mankiewicz) (as Sarah Browne); Footsteps in the Fog (Lubin) (as Lily Watkins)
Hilda Crane (Dunne) (title role)
This Could Be the Night (Wise) (as Anne Leeds); Until They Sail (Wise) (as Barbara Leslie Forbes)
Home before Dark (LeRoy) (as Charlotte Bronn); The Big Country (Wyler) (as Julie Maragon)
This Earth Is Mine (Henry King) (as Elizabeth Rambeau)
Spartacus (Kubrick) (as Varinia); Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks) (as Sister Sharon Falconer); The Grass Is Greener (Donen) (as Hattie Durant)
All the Way Home (Segal) (as Mary Follet)
Life at the Top (Kotcheff) (as Susan Lampton)
Mister Buddwing ( Woman without a Face ) (Delbert Mann) (as the blond)
Divorce American Style (Yorkin) (as Nancy Downes); Rough Night in Jericho (Laven) (as Molly Lang)
Heidi (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Fräulein Rottenmeier)
The Happy Ending (Richard Brooks) (as Mary Wilson)
Say Hello to Yesterday (Rakoff) (as Woman)
Mr. Sycamore (Kohner) (as Estelle Benbow)
Dominique (Anderson) (title role)
A Small Killing (Steven Hilliard Stern—for TV); Golden Gate (Wendkos—for TV); Valley of the Dolls (Grauman—for TV) (as Helen Lawson)
December Flower (Frears—for TV)
Midas Valley (Trikonis—for TV)
Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost Love (Satlof—for TV) (as Laura Kilgallen)
Going Undercover (Clarke) (as Maxine De La Hunt); The Dawning (Knights—released in U.S. in 1993) (as Aunt Mary); Inherit the Wind (David Greene—for TV) (as Lucy Brady); A Friendship in Vienna (Arthur Allan Seidelman—for TV) (as narrator)
The Laker Girls (Bruce Seth Green—for TV) (as Connie Harrison); People Like Us (Billy Hale—for TV) (as Peach); Sensibility and Sense (David Hugh Jones—for TV)
They Do It with Mirrors (Norman Stone—for TV) (as Carrie-Louise Serrocold)
One More Mountain (Lowry—for TV) (as Sarah Keyes)
Daisies in December (Haber—for TV) (as Katherine Palmer); How to Make an American Quilt (Moorhouse) (as Em); Daisies in December (Haber—for TV) (as Katherine Palmer)
Her Own Rules (Bobby Roth)
Current Biography 1952 , New York, 1952.
Marrill, Alvin H., "Jean Simmons," in Films in Review (New York), February 1972.
McVay, Doug, "On 16mm: In Praise of Jean Simmons," in Focus on Film , August 1979.
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In an early screen appearance—a cameo in The Way to the Stars in which she briefly sang "Let him go, let him tarry" at a troop show—Jean Simmons made an instant and indelible impression. The fascination of that appearance—a song of adult sexuality performed quite unselfconsciously by a very young girl—lay in the way it collapsed any such opposition. The ambiguity was brilliantly used by David Lean in Simmons's young Estella of Great Expectations : indeed, the film never quite recovers from the shock of Jean Simmons growing up to be Valerie Hobson.
Typically, the British cinema of the late 1940s, divided among plodding "good taste," elephantine comedy, and determinedly risqué and much be-cleaveged period melodrama, was quite incapable of developing this extraordinary talent, or even of understanding its nature. Powell and Pressburger grasped something of the persona's possibilities, but her role in Black Narcissus (Sabu's Indian seductress) was small and underdeveloped. Otherwise, predictably, the "innocent" side of the persona was played at the expense of the sexual; even so, her presence was registered as sufficiently provocative (especially in one so young and "sweet") for strenuous efforts to be necessary to chastise and subdue it in The Clouded Yellow . Yet the presence survived it all; it even survived Hamlet , in which her Ophelia, despite (or perhaps because of) her inexperience in Shakespeare, despite the encumbrance of an absurd blond wig, and Olivier's turgid direction, was one of the more bearable performances.
It was Preminger in Angel Face who first realized fully the complexity of her potential, much to the consternation of the British critics. Here the innocent/sexual tension is fully developed in a characterization that manages to be touching, vulnerable, sensitive, selfish, manipulative, pathological, and horrific all at the same time; the devastating effect of the ending derives as much from the accumulated energies and frustrations conveyed by Simmons's performance as from Preminger's casual and poker-faced abruptness. Perfectly complementing this was her work in The Actress , where the unerring instinct and feminine sympathy of Cukor helped her to realize most captivatingly the persona's positive connotations, its eagerness, energy, and exuberance. These two films, with Elmer Gantry , mark the peak of Simmons's achievement.
Ultimately, Simmons's Hollywood career has proved scarcely more satisfying than her British one. The problem has lain partly in the persona itself and its resistance to age: its fascination, suggestiveness, and ambiguity are necessarily contingent upon youthfulness, and as the girl became a woman the persona had to be restructured. Her relationship (marital and professional) with Richard Brooks produced one more rounded and complex realization of Simmons's potentiality, her Sister Sharon in Elmer Gantry . Here the innocent/knowing ambiguity reaches a definitive formulation, the film playing on Sharon's genuineness/fraudulence, integrity/self-deception. The other Brooks collaboration, The Happy Ending , suffers from the director's heavy-handed approach to social significance: the film looks as if he had just read an introductory guide to feminism.
Mired in television dreck such as the soapy Angel Falls and the recycled Dark Shadows , Jean Simmons remains a gallant trouper who, unlike many contemporaries, gives fully realized performances even as a guest on Murder, She Wrote . For adoring fans, a big-screen return in the A-picture ensemble of How to Make an American Quilt was cause for celebration. Pinpointing what went wrong with her film career is a graver pastime. Rumors still abound that disgruntled eccentric Howard Hughes set out to wreck her American career when he ran RKO. Whether that charge can ever be proven does not explain why she so often settled for comfortable leading lady status ( Spartacus , The Big Country , The Robe , The Egyptian ) when she should have been toplining her own star vehicles. In 1958 she gave heart and soul to the quasi-feminist soap opera, Home before Dark by audaciously conveying a woman belittled into a breakdown for not measuring up to the 1950s ideals of physical beauty and womanliness. Unleashing a tour de force in this little-seen movie, Simmons lends her radiance also to more popular melodramas such as This Earth Is Mine , Until They Sail , and the now-campy Hilda Crane . Is there a more apropos symbol of fifties's domestic directives than Simmons's used-goods Hilda eyeing two gorgeous marital prospects while snuggled in a mink that has seen better days? Pausing to praise her comedic éclat in Divorce American Style and The Grass Is Greener and marveling at her grasp of heart-ravaged grief in All the Way Home , aficionados can only shake their heads at her descent into television's Laker Girls . Sort of The Star that Got Away, Simmons's iridescent work brings a tinge of regret about the wasted potential of an indisputably great actress and an unrealized movie superstar.
—Robin Wood, updated by Robert J. Pardi