Jean Simmons, 80

English actress was known for roles in the films 'Hamlet' and 'Elmer Gantry'

The actress, who played Ophelia opposite Laurence Olivier in "Hamlet" (1948) and a revivalist preacher in "Elmer Gantry" (1960), died at age 80.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jean Simmons, 80, a beguiling actress of quiet emotional power, notably as Ophelia opposite Laurence Olivier in "Hamlet" (1948) and a revivalist preacher in "Elmer Gantry" (1960), died Jan. 22 at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. She had lung cancer.

Ms. Simmons, an auburn-haired beauty, was still in her teens when she emerged as one of England's leading box office draws.

Her breakthrough came in a cluster of three remarkably different supporting roles. In 1946, she played the young, stuck-up Estella in David Lean's "Great Expectations," regarded as one of the best Charles Dickens adaptations ever made.

The next year, she was an Indian princess capable of a wordless seduction in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's "Black Narcissus." Then came her portrayal of the doomed Ophelia in "Hamlet," which brought her an Academy Award nomination for her supporting role.

Olivier, who directed and played the title role intuitively cast Ms. Simmons, despite her professed ignorance of Shakespeare. Time film critic James Agee called Ms. Simmons "the only person in the picture who gives every one of her lines the bloom of poetry and the immediacy of ordinary life."

The next phase of Ms. Simmons's career was desperately unhappy. Her contract with the Rank film studio, which had made her a star in England, had been sold to American producer Howard Hughes, whose eccentric, often controlling behavior caused her a great deal of anguish.

She was married at the time to British actor Stewart Granger, who was being promoted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios as a hunky action star. But over at Hughes's RKO studios, Ms. Simmons was wildly miscast in a series of lurid dramas and second-rate adventure and historical films such as "Androcles and the Lion" (1952), with Victor Mature, a satire about ancient Rome.

Hughes reportedly refused to lend her to another studio for the leading female role in "Roman Holiday" (1953), which made a star and Oscar-winner of Audrey Hepburn. Granger later wrote in his memoir that Ms. Simmons's relationship with Hughes deteriorated so badly that the producer cast her as a murderess in the drama "Angel Face" (1952), with Robert Mitchum, and reportedly ordered director Otto Preminger to be rough with her.

Preminger demanded repeated takes of Mitchum's character slapping Ms. Simmons, and the actress's face became redder and redder. Finally, according to Granger, Mitchum punched Preminger, asking how that take was, or "Would you like another, Otto?"

Ms. Simmons fulfilled her contract with Hughes, whom she had sued for release, and she went on to star in costume dramas of varying quality, including "The Robe" (1953), with Richard Burton, and "Desirée" (1954), in which she played the title character opposite Marlon Brando's Napoleon. Ms. Simmons called these "poker-up-the-behind parts," in which she was seldom more than decorative.

Playing a Salvation Army missionary, she reunited with gangster Brando in the musical "Guys and Dolls" (1955) in a cast that included Frank Sinatra. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Ms. Simmons, who had dance training as a young woman, was "wonderfully ideal" in an otherwise mediocre adaptation of the popular Broadway musical.

Over the next several years, she continued appearing in big-budget productions with major stars: a war widow romanced by Marine Paul Newman in "Until They Sail" (1957); a schoolteacher in the western "The Big Country" (1958), with Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston; and a former slave in "Spartacus" (1960), in which she found love with Kirk Douglas as the famed gladiator. She also was a temptress in the Cary Grant comedy "The Grass Is Greener" (1960).

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