Jean Simmons – who, along with Liz Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, was one of a trio of major mid-century movie stars – died last Friday.
Discovered at fourteen in a small-town dance class, by twenty, Jean Simmons was already ubiquitous in American life. That year, in 1949, she appeared on the covers of both Time and Life, and won an Oscar for her role as Ophelia, in Hamlet. She would go on to star in Spartacus, The Happy Ending, and Guys and Dolls.
She’s probably most famous, though, for the role she never played: that of Howard Hughes’ mistress. In the early 1950’s, Hughes bought Simmons’ contract and propositioned her. When she refused, he swore to “put her in three lousy productions and ruin her career.” He refused to lend her out, and denied her the role in Roman Holiday that would later win an Oscar for Audrey Hepburn.
The incident hurt Simmons’ career, but earned her a reputation as a different kind of movie star, one that women aspired to be like not just for her looks, but for her resolve.
That impression only grew as her career did. Simmons was cast in role after role as the, as the New York Times put it, “demure helpmate” of a leading man – notably, as Kirk Douglas’ slave-girl lover in Spartacus. But in picture after picture, Simmons’ performances came off as quietly dominating.
She earned an image of modest stardom, one that made her a favorite of people who saw her as closer-to-life than other stars of the era.
She could star without preening, and was willing to do it – something film critic Pauline Kael noted in her review of 1958’s Home Before Dark: “Jean Simmons gives a reserved, beautifully modulated performance that is so much better than the material that at times her exquisite reading of the rather mediocre lines seems a more tragic waste than her character’s wrecked life.”