In The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, film historian David Shipman echoed the thought of many movie fans regarding today’s birthday honoree, who would have turned 89: “Jean Simmons [1929-2010] has always been taken for granted. As a child player in Britain she was expected to be one of the best child players and she was; she was expected to become a big international name and she did. In Hollywood for over 20 years she was given good roles because she was reliable, and she played them, or most of them, beautifully, and got good notices, and was liked. But she was never a cult figure, or one of those who adorn magazine covers, or someone the fan magazines write about all the time. It wasn’t or isn’t that she simply did or does her job – she’s much better than that; she’s not a competent actress, she’s a very good one – by Hollywood standards a great one, if you take the Hollywood standard to be those ladies who have won Oscars®. She wasn’t even nominated for a Best Actress Oscar® till 1969. She wasn’t nominated even for Elmer Gantry (1960) (and that year Elizabeth Taylor won). Maybe it doesn’t help to have been so good so young.” That she was so good – and game to try projects in varying genres – led to her being crowned the National Board of Review’s Best Actress of 1953 for three of her five titles that year, Young Bess, The Actress and The Robe, playing a neophyte Tudor royal, a bumptious, awestruck, aspiring thespian and an ancient Roman beauty who eventually has her eyes opened to Christian conversion.
They would be sufficient grounding for one of her four roles the following year, as the headstrong 18th-century Marseille maiden who first captivates – and maintains an emotional bond throughout the life of – the future emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (played improbably but quite effectively by Marlon Brando) in the Cinemascope spectacular Desirée (1954, directed by Henry Koster from a popular novel by Annemarie Selinko). Coltish, passionate, ultimately pragmatic, and beautifully gowned throughout by Oscar®-nominated costume designers Rene Hubert and Charles LeMaire, she radiates her own star quality amongst the production’s lavish trappings and liberty-taking historical accuracy. Critics dismissed the film, but audiences responded to the romantic and geopolitical intrigues of the tale in sufficient quantity to make the movie a box-office success. Brando, reluctant to play the part and doing so only to fulfill a contractual obligation, nonetheless found his co-star a saving grace, remembering her as “winning, charming, beautiful and experienced, and we had fun together;” they would re-experience their fun partnership the following year as his wily gambler Sky Masterson wooed her reticent Salvation Army missionary Sarah Brown – including song and dance interludes – in Guys and Dolls (1955). Flash forward 15 years – with another anti-Roman rebellion (Spartacus, 1960), religious zealot (Elmer Gantry) and various intelligent and moving portrayals of independent, lovelorn or bereft adult women (1958’s The Big Country and Home Before Dark, 1963’s All the Way Home, 1965’s Room at the Top) on her resumé – to find another fully-formed, close-to-the-bone character study that drew heavily from her own life and became a tough-going yet therapeutic venture: The Happy Ending (1969), written for her and directed by Richard Brooks, then married to her since their Elmer Gantry collaboration. Her nerve-edged performance as a dismayed middle-aged, alcoholic Denver housewife who bravely tries to break away from her unfulfilling life earned that deserved Oscar® nomination, playing, as Letterboxd describes it, “a woman who believes that ultimate reality exists above and beyond the routine procedures of conscious, routine, everyday life. She feels cheated by an older generation that taught her to settle for nothing less than storybook finales, people who are disillusioned and restless and don’t know why, people for whom life holds no easy answers.” Flanked by a superb cast including John Forsythe, Shirley Jones, Lloyd Bridges, Teresa Wright, Bobby Darin, Tina Louise, Dick Shawn and Nanette Fabray, Simmons is by turns brittle, touching, destructive and spellbinding, as the film asks, in the haunting Oscar®-nominated Michel Legrand/Alan and Marilyn Bergman song, What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? It revealed the flesh-and-blood mature woman waiting to emerge for audiences that admired her during those brilliant years on the rise; in short, her fearless skill was expected.
Get early- and late-career glimpses of that compelling talent on the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays of Desirée (offered here: http://www4.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/17535/DESIREE-1954/) and The Happy Ending (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/30727/THE-HAPPY-ENDING-1969/). Expect another daring Jean Simmons performance on TT this Spring.