Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jean Simmons: 1929-2010

Jean Simmons, who made her most lasting mark in Otto Preminger's film noir Angel Face, died yesterday of lung cancer at the age of 80. Although she possessed both beauty and talent, Simmons never really had the career that she deserved. Directors never seemed to know what to do with someone so beautiful, so for most of her career she was essentially eye candy, the gorgeous young brunette with a crisp English accent adorning the arms of men like Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, and Richard Burton. Her best role, however, was something very different.

In the early fifties, after she'd established herself in British productions like David Lean's excellent adaptation of Great Expectations, Simmons came to the States hoping to break into the Hollywood star system. Her contract had been sold to Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire who tried his hand at making movies in the forties and fifties and nearly destroyed the studio RKO in the process. Now, Hughes mostly saw the film business as a way to indulge his batshit crazy obsessions and stalk young women, so I'm forever irritated when I hear him referred to as a ladies man. He wasn't a ladies man, he was a rich bully. The career of Jean Simmons is a stark testament to Hughes's method of "wooing" women. When Simmons--who was newly married at the time--refused to sleep with him, Hughes told her he'd destroy her career. He refused to let her work on the blockbuster Roman Holiday (in the role that made Audrey Hepburn a star), and he tried to assign her to roles that he thought would hurt her image.

We're lucky that Hughes was such an idiot when it came to movies that he thought Angel Face--in which Simmons plays a crazy femme fatale who sets out to either possess or destroy a hapless Robert Mitchum--was a bad role for the young actress. Director Otto Preminger, never the nicest guy himself, was only too happy to verbally torture the young actress at the behest of Hughes (he only backed off when Mitchum demanded he leave Simmons alone, a gesture for which the actress was always grateful).

Despite the circumstances, however, the resultant film was a masterpiece. In its way, Angel Face is a perfect encapsulation of the entire genre. It is both one of the darkest of noirs and one of the most entertaining. At its center is the pitch-perfect performance by Simmons as the spoiled, insane rich girl who at first tries to buy a man and then, when she realizes she can't have him, sets out to destroy him. I wonder where she got her inspiration for that role.

Simmons was a trouper, and in her other roles you can see the beauty and grace that led many to believe she'd one day have a big career in pictures. That career never quite materialized, but she leaves behind many very good films, and one curious masterpiece.

No comments: