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Obituary: Jean Simmons

Jean Simmons in a 1991 Miss Marple mystery
Jean Simmons had enduring beauty

With her beguiling round-eyed beauty and demure British manners, Jean Simmons - who has died aged 80 - crossed the Atlantic in 1950 to become one of Hollywood's most popular leading ladies.

Born in London in 1929, Jean Merilyn Simmons began her career at the age of 14 when, despite her lack of experience, she was plucked from her dance class to play Margaret Lockwood's sister in the 1944 film, Give Us the Moon.

With no intention of becoming an actress, Simmons completed her teacher training two years later but, nevertheless, began to make her name in some major British films.

Under contract to the Rank Organisation, she appeared in Caesar and Cleopatra, Black Narcissus and, most effectively, Great Expectations.

As the aloof but mischievous young Estella, she informed young Pip that "you may kiss me if you like" and a nation of schoolboys trembled in anticipation.

While still a teenager, Simmons' performance as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's 1948 version of Hamlet earned her an Oscar nomination, an appearance on the cover of Time Magazine and a lot of attention in Hollywood.

Jean Simmons as a child star
Jean Simmons began as a child star

She had already met British film star Stewart Granger on the set of Caesar and Cleopatra, and fallen in love. She followed him to California in 1950, and the couple eloped to Tucson, Arizona.

They had a daughter, Tracy, and starred together in several films, including Young Bess (1953). Their wedding had been arranged by the reclusive tycoon Howard Hughes who, Granger later recalled, was also in love with Jean.

The obsessive Hughes tried to use his power and influence to control the actress, threatening to ruin her career unless she worked for him.

Despite her vulnerable appearance on screen, Simmons was determined to protect her independence and resisted the great mogul, making only four pictures for him.

Versatile actress

Her efforts to control her own work paid off, and Simmons went on to enjoy a decade of huge success, including an appearance with Richard Burton in the popular costume drama, The Robe.

But Simmons felt she was required only to look dignified and pretty, and later called her role "a poker-up-the-ass part".

With husband, Stewart Granger and friend, Frank Sinatra
With husband, Stewart Granger and friend, Frank Sinatra

She got the chance to prove more mettle as the psychopathic Angel Face, alongside Robert Mitchum, and with Gregory Peck in The Big Country.

She played Desiree to Marlon Brando's Napoleon, and appeared alongside him again in Guys and Dolls. She even held her own singing alongside Frank Sinatra in the same film, for which she won a Golden Globe award.

By 1960, Simmons was at the peak of her career, the star of Kubrick's Spartacus, The Grass is Greener and Elmer Gantry. The last was directed by Richard Brooks, who became Simmons' husband after her divorce from Granger in 1961.


The 1967 Dean Martin film, Rough Night in Jericho, brought Simmons fresh acclaim for her performance as a hard-nosed businesswoman, and she secured her second Oscar nomination three years later for the role of alienated housewife Mary Wilson in The Happy Ending.

The following two decades proved less fruitful for the actress, and she found refuge in a number of television movies and mini-series.

With Cary Grant at the 1958 Oscars ceremony
With Cary Grant at the 1958 Oscars ceremony

As well as appearing in North and South, Simmons won an Emmy for her role in the 1983 epic The Thorn Birds, but she had long been depressed by the paucity of good parts coming her way and, in 1986, eventually sought treatment for alcohol addiction.

She made a triumphant comeback to film in 1995, starring alongside Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn and Anne Bancroft in How to Make an American Quilt, and was awarded an OBE in the 2003 New Year Honours List.

Jean Simmons continued to do voiceover work into her seventies. She lived in Santa Monica, just below the Hollywood Hills that she had, half a century earlier, taken by storm.

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