Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Jean Simmons

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jean Simmons

by Tony Dayoub

A striking British beauty with a melodic voice, Jean Simmons classic performance style made her a shoo-in for roles with a theatrical quality. So it is ironic that though she had some brief stage and dance experience, she never had the opportunity to study extensively in the theater. She was discovered just after starting dance school in her teens. And when no less than Laurence Olivier invited her to study with the Bristol Old Vic theater company, she had to refuse because the Rank Organisation had her under contract.

This did not preclude her from giving us a memorable exotic dance sequence as the sexually precocious Kanchi in Black Narcissus (1947) or undertaking the pivotal role of Ophelia opposite Olivier in his Hamlet film adaptation a year later, a performance for which she would receive an Oscar nomination. In fact, roles that originated on the stage were an easy fit for her, as she would prove opposite Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra in 1955's Guys and Dolls based on Frank Loesser's Broadway musical.

Indeed, she could be counted on for any role that called for a touch of theatricality, whether it be in Biblical epics like, The Robe (1953) and its sequel, in William Wyler's western The Big Country (1958), as the slave girl Varinia opposite Kirk Douglas in the sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus (1960), or as the religious zealot Sister Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry (1960), directed by her future husband Richard Brooks (she had been married once before to actor Stewart Granger).

As the Method came into vogue, Simmons moved away from films to TV where she would parlay her style into scene-stealing turns in The Thorn Birds (1983), North and South (1985), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1991), and the Dark Shadows remake (1991).

She died yesterday, just 9 days shy of her 81st birthday.

Recommended Films - Black Narcissus, Hamlet, Guys and Dolls, The Big Country, Elmer Gantry,Spartacus


Ed Howard said...

I'll always remember her, of course for that dance in Black Narcissus, and her sullen, near-silent performance throughout that film in general. Even more than that, she made an impression as the ultimate femme fatale in Preminger's Angel Face, where the intensity in those dark eyes of her conveyed the madness and attraction of her deadly character.

Tony Dayoub said...

Yeah, Ed, isn't that dance something?

ANGEL FACE is a picture I've yet to see. Preminger is one of my blind spots. Thanks for suggesting it.

Ed Howard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Howard said...

Preminger's noirs are a great place to start, including Angel Face. He's one of my favorites, but that film has such amazing central performances, including Simmons, that it'd probably be worth seeing no matter who made it. She has real ferocity and raw energy in that film.