Remembering Jean Simmons

Like most film buffs, I was upset to hear about Jean Simmons’ passing over the weekend…but I felt incredibly lucky to have met her at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day Weekend in 2008. In his program notes for her tribute, Scott Foundas wrote, “It is one of the few serious shortcomings, don’t we all agree, of David Lean’s otherwise exemplary version of Great Expectations (1946) that Jean Simmons leaves the screen much too soon, to be replaced by Valerie Hobson as the grown-up version of the Estella character.

Martita Hunt and Jean Simmons in David Lean’s Great Expectations.

This is by no means intended as a slight to Ms. Hobson or Sir Lean, but merely to suggest that, after 30-odd minutes of aching her in her first major film role, we have already fallen as deeply under Ms. Simmons’ beguiling spell—the high forehead,…

…those piercing dark eyes, the sweetly teasing voice—as does fair Pip to Estella’s. ‘You can break his heart,’ the old maid Miss Havisham famous instructs to her impressionable charge, and it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that more than one young man emerged from that film wondering where he might sign up to have his heart broken by Jean Simmons.” Amen to that.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the actress before a full house on Sunday morning, following an hour of excerpts from such films as Great Expectations, Hamlet, Angel Face, The Actress, Guys and Dolls, Spartacus, Elmer Gantry, and The Happy Ending, which was written for her by her then-husband, Richard Brooks. The spry 79-year-old won over everyone she met with her easy laugh and unpretentious attitude.

She had happy experiences with virtually all of her leading men, ranging from Marlon Brando to Spencer Tracy, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have stories to share. Having just seen an amusing scene from The Grass is Greener, I asked about Cary Grant and his ability to make what he did seem effortless. She explained that he was Best Man when she married Stewart Granger, so she knew him socially for many years. When they worked together, however, she discovered an altogether different man who took his work—especially his comedy—quite seriously. (Incidentally, she refers to her first husband as Jimmy, because Stewart Granger was just a professional alias; his actual name, as you may know, was James Stewart.)

Simmons had no acting experience when she was cast in her first film, and the only coaching she ever received was from a woman Laurence Olivier hired to help her play Ophelia to his Hamlet—when she was still a teenager. She still marvels at how well he treated her.

Having just seen in her in a wide variety of roles, spanning nearly forty years, what struck me most about Jean Simmons was her genuineness onscreen; there is never a hint of artifice in her work. I have now come to believe that it’s a reflection of the woman herself.

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June 2024