A great beauty of British cinema and a great talent of world cinema, Jean Simmons was a leading lady turned grand dame, equally good in British art (Kanchi in Powell and Pressberger’s Black Narcissus and Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet) and American commerce (Guys and Dolls and The Big Country, where she proves to be more desirable to Gregory Peck than baby doll Carroll Baker). She died on Friday. I learned of it from David Hudson’s report and round-up on The Auteur’s Daily (Hudson remains the man with his finger on the virtual pulse of film writing on the web). With her entire career to choose from, I choose to remember her from the first act of David Lean’s version of Great Expectations, as the arrogant young beauty who is given permission to break Pip’s heart by the waxwork Miss Haversham.
I remember being utterly entranced by her beauty and her confidence onscreen, and the perfection with which she incarnated a teenager being taught to be a temptress and not quite understanding even as she went through the motions. And when Pip grew up into John Mills, I could barely contain my disappointment that Valerie Hobson had none of the fire promised by Simmons, and lacked her mix of strength and softness. I can see how Pip fell in love with the young Estella, no matter how imperious and cruel she might be. Ms. Hobson never convinced me.
I wrote about Great Expectations for Turner Classic Movies. Here’s an excerpt that features Ms. Simmons (you can read the complete piece here):
The most visually evocative scenes in the film… take place in Miss Haversham’s shadowy mansion. Summoned by the mysterious matron to her shuttered manor, he enters a gothic haunted house that time forgot and finds an eccentric, possibly mad dowager in a rotting wedding dress, holding court in musty throne room dominated by a decomposing wedding cake, a reminder of the day she was jilted at the altar. Haversham has sent for Pip to become a playmate for her ward Estella (Jean Simmons), an impertinent young beauty with whom Pip immediately fall in love. Apparently, young Wager also fell in love with teenage Simmons (how could a thirteen-year-old boy with stars in his eyes not?) and even played the hero in real life. According to Simmons, her dress caught on fire from a candle she was carrying through a scene up a flight of dark stairs. “Everybody stood aghast, but Anthony came and tore it off me and put it out. This boy was the one who saved me.”