JEAN MERILYN SIMMONS was born on January 31, 1929 to
Charles Simmons, a gymnastics instructor and former Olympic athlete, and
his wife, Winifred Ada (Loveland) Simmons. The youngest of four
children, Jean was a high-spirited child who grew up happily in a working class suburb of London, England and attended the
Orange Hill School for Girls in Golders Green.
after World War II broke out in 1939, Jean and her siblings (Edna, Harold
and Lorna) were evacuated to Somerset. In 1943, she returned
to London and enrolled, along with her sister Edna, in the Ada Foster
School of Dance. Two weeks after she arrived, film producer Val Guest
came to the school searching for a young girl to play Margaret Lockwood's
teenage daughter in his upcoming film GIVE US THE MOON (1943).
Despite her lack of experience, Jean won the role and impressed the
producer with her instinctive talent and ability to cry on command.
the next few years, with the help of dance mistress Ada Foster, Jean
secured bit parts in other British productions including MR. EMMANUEL and MEET SEXTON BLAKE
(both 1944). She didn't seriously consider acting as a profession
however, and instead, completed her teacher's license at age 16.
Nevertheless, her performance in THE WAY TO THE STARS (1945) caught the
attention of producer Gabriel Pascal (who had launched the film careers of
British leading ladies Vivien Leigh and
Deborah Kerr), and to Jean's surprise,
Pascal offered her a seven-year contract with the J. Arthur Rank
Studio. Still just 16 years old, Jean accepted. Shortly
thereafter, her father Charles died suddenly at age 57.
contract to Rank, Jean's first film appearance (as a harpist in CAESAR AND
CLEOPATRA (1946)), did little to further her career. But later that
year, director David Lean
chose Jean to play the young Estella in his film adaptation of Charles
Dickens' GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Featuring a top-notch cast, the film
earned rave reviews in Britain and two Academy Awards in the United
States, making Jean a noteworthy starlet almost overnight. After
seeing the success of the picture, and with a few words of encouragement
from Lean, Jean finally began
to take her film career seriously. She threw herself into acting lessons, and the
studio began to groom her for stardom with numerous publicity
appearances. Her next role, that of an Indian princess in Michael
Powell and Emeric Pressburger's BLACK
NARCISSUS (1947), was hardly challenging or flattering (she was
brown-faced with a ring in her nose and spoke no lines), but the
Technicolor drama was
a hit with critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and Jean couldn't help but benefit from its success.
the next year, Jean progressed from supporting player to leading lady,
receiving star billing and complimentary reviews for her performance in
UNCLE SILAS (1947). At the same time, 18-year-old Jean began to
deepen her acquaintance with fellow Rank contract player Stewart Granger,
on whom she had harbored a crush since they first met on the set of CAESAR
AND CLEOPATRA. The 34-year-old actor was already an established
leading man and had recently separated from his wife of nine years,
actress Elspeth March, with whom he had two children. (They
eventually divorced in 1948.) Although her
mother disapproved of the relationship, Jean began to seek Granger's
advice on the direction of her career.
Olivier approached Jean about playing the role of Ophelia in his
upcoming film adaptation of Shakespeare's HAMLET (1948), Granger advised
against the film, and Jean (who felt uncomfortable with the material) was
inclined to agree. Olivier
was not put off however and, perhaps noting Jean's striking resemblance to
his wife Vivien Leigh who had played
Ophelia on stage with him ten years earlier, the actor-director eventually won her over to
the role. The film became the third British film classic of Jean's career, and she was showered with praise for her immediate and
heartfelt performance. The laurels included an Academy Award
nomination as Best Supporting Actress, the Volpi Cup from the Venice Film
Festival as the year's Best Actress, and an appearance on the cover of Time
Magazine. In the two years that followed, Jean starred in six
less-remarkable films, including THE BLUE LAGOON (1949), ADAM AND EVELYNE
(1949) opposite Granger, and SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950), as well as a
failed stage debut opposite Granger in Tolstoy's "The Power of
Darkness" (1949). But despite the declining prestige of her
films, Jean's star continued to rise, and in 1950 she was voted Britain's
most popular movie star. (*1)
On the cover of the October 9,
1950 issue of LIFE Magazine.
In the fall of 1950, Jean visited the United
States to promote TRIO (1950), a collection of three Somerset Maugham
stories in which she appeared, and when Life Magazine chose the
film as its Motion Picture of the Week, Jean earned a spot on the
magazine's cover. A few weeks later, Jean returned to the United
States, this time with Gabriel Pascal who had arranged for Jean
to appear in his first American production, a film adaptation of George
Bernard Shaw's ANDROCLES AND THE LION, which was to be filmed at RKO.
Shortly after she arrived however, on December 20, 1950, 21-year-old Jean
eloped to Tucson, Arizona and married 37-year-old Stewart Granger (who had signed
with MGM and moved to Hollywood
the previous year). Upon her return to California, Jean suddenly
found her career at a standstill when ANDROCLES AND THE LION ran into
production problems and, unbeknownst to Jean, RKO
head Howard Hughes purchased the remaining six months of her Rank
contract. In July 1951, Simmons (advised by Granger) entered into
contentious contract negotiations with RKO,
but when Hughes claimed that an oral agreement with Rank precluded her
being loaned to any other studio, Simmons and Granger sued RKO.
The legal battle raged for over a year, during which time she completed
ANDROCLES AND THE LION (1952) and appeared opposite Robert
Mitchum in Otto
Preminger's noir thriller ANGEL FACE (1952). When the suit was
finally settled, RKO had a
three-year contract for Jean's services but was obligated to pay the
Grangers $250,000 in addition to their legal fees. Furthermore, Jean
won the right to work on loan to other studios -- and at a substantial
With husband Stewart Granger
in YOUNG BESS (1953), the third of their four films together.
The two films Jean made on loan to MGM
turned out to be among the best of her early Hollywood career. Under
George Curkor's direction,
she earned critical acclaim for her performance as Spencer
Tracy and Teresa Wright's
stage-struck daughter in THE ACTRESS (1953), a film that remains among her
personal favorites. Next, Simmons headlined an all-star British cast
in producer Sidney
Franklin's big-budget costume drama YOUNG BESS (1953) about the coming
of age of Queen Elizabeth I. Meanwhile, RKO
continued to misuse Jean's talents, and in 1953, Hughes sold the remainder
of her contract to 20th Century-Fox
who immediately rushed her into a series of widescreen costume dramas
in which she had little more to do than look pretty. Among these
films were THE ROBE (1953) with Richard
Burton, THE EGYPTIAN (1954) with Victor Mature and Edmund Purdom, and
DESIREE (1954) with Marlon Brando.
Although Jean's classic beauty and elegance did contribute significantly
to the appeal of these films, she thought little of the roles:
"That's what I call 'poker-up-the-ass' parts. You know, those
long-suffering, decorative ladies. I mean, they're very
free from her Fox obligations,
Jean and Granger traveled to England where they filmed FOOTSTEPS IN THE
FOG (1955), a little-known yet worthy Victorian thriller, for Columbia.
Next, in an effort to break out of her serious-costume-drama rut, Jean went
against her husband's advice and accepted the role of missionary Sarah
Brown in Samuel Goldwyn's
film adaptation of the popular Broadway musical GUYS AND DOLLS
(1955). Though Jean and Marlon
Brando were song-and-dance novices compared to co-stars Frank
Sinatra and Vivian Blaine, Goldwyn
decided not to dub their singing voices and the resulting effort received a
"not bad" critical response and good box office returns. Her
musical debut was followed by another break-out role in Fox's
HILDA CRANE (1956), in which she played a twice-divorced, liberated young
woman who causes turmoil when she returns to her hometown. Though
not as commercially successful as other films of the period (such as
PEYTON PLACE (1957)) which attempted to expose the virtuous reputation of
small-town America in the 1950s, HILDA CRANE (and the positive reviews
Jean's performance received) further aided Jean in her attempts to move
her career in a new direction.
1956, the Grangers became United States citizens, and the following
September, Jean gave birth to a daughter whom she named Tracy after her
friend and THE ACTRESS co-star Spencer
Tracy. The Grangers were also
joined in Hollywood by Stewart's two children, Jamie and Lindsay, whose
mother had become ill and was no longer able to care for them. In
1957, Jean and Stewart purchased an 8,000-acre ranch in Nogales, Arizona
where the couple set up house and Stewart pursued a keen interest in
raising cattle. Over the next three years, despite her residence in
Arizona, Jean forged ahead with her career, appearing in a series of
high-profile films for various studios, many of which were bolstered above
their modest potential by Jean's sincere performances. She made a crucial
contribution to Robert Wise's war-time drama UNTIL THEY SAIL (1957)
opposite Paul Newman, and gave one of the best performances of her career
in William Wyler's epic western THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) with
film career hit its peak in 1960 with the release of three major
films. She traveled to Spain to replace Sabine Bethmann as Kirk
Douglas' wife in the slave epic SPARTACUS (1960) which featured an
all-star cast and proved a runaway success at the box office. Then,
in Richard Brooks' ELMER GANTRY (1960), she played evangelist Sister
Sharon Falconner opposite Burt
Lancaster's Oscar-winning performance as
the title character, and was unjustly overlooked for an Oscar nomination
herself. Lastly, she traveled to England to appear with friends Cary
Grant, Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum in the drawing room comedy THE
GRASS IS GREENER (1960), giving perhaps the best comic performance of her
While in England shooting THE GRASS IS
GREENER in June 1960, Jean announced her intention to seek a divorce from
Granger, and the suit was filed three weeks later in Arizona. As
Granger himself commented to the press, "I don't mind Jean leaving
me. It's like a child breaking away from an over-protective
parent." (*4) When the divorce was granted,
Jean retained custody of Tracy and, on November 1, 1960, married
writer-director Richard Brooks who had directed her in ELMER GANTRY.
Following the birth (in July 1961) of a second daughter, Kate, named after
Katharine Hepburn, Jean took time off from her career to raise her
With Veronica Hamel, Catherine
Hicks and Lisa Hartman
in TV's "The Valley of the Dolls" (1981).
Three years later she returned to the big screen in
triumph in ALL THE WAY HOME (1963), but the offers of good roles did not
follow as Jean had expected. She continued to work through the end
of the 1960s, but her string of lackluster pictures and faltering career
depressed Jean and she began to develop an alcohol problem. In 1969,
Brooks wrote a film about an alcoholic wife searching for her own
identity, based in part on Jean's experiences. Directed by Brooks,
Jean starred in THE HAPPY ENDING (1969) and earned her first and only
Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her performance. The
Oscar nomination did little to bolster her career however, and Jean's few
film and television appearances during the 1970s only confirmed the
decline in her career.
With Barbara Stanwyck in TV's
"The Thorn Birds" (1983).
In 1974 as her marriage to Brooks began to
falter, Jean chose to move her career in a new direction, accepting the
role of Desiree Armfeldt in the
successful touring production of Stephen Sondheim's stage musical "A
Little Night Music." Jean toured with the show for a year
across the United States, and then in April 1975, joined the London
cast. Upon returning from England, in 1977, Jean divorced Brooks
after 17 years of marriage, but the two remained friends until Brooks'
death in 1992.
During the 1980s, Jean focused
her attention on television, appearing in a number of high-profile
miniseries and TV movies including Jacqueline Susann's "The Valley of
the Dolls" (1981) and "The Thorn Birds" (1983), a very
popular miniseries based on Colleen McCullough's best-selling novel.
Jean campaigned hard for the role of Fiona in "The Thorn Birds,"
and earned an Emmy award as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Special
for her performance. She also made two guest appearances on
"Murder, She Wrote" in 1984, and played Clarissa Dane in the
miniseries adaptation of John Jake's best-selling novel "North and
South" (1985) and its sequel, "North and South II" (1986).
In TV's "North and
In 1986 at the age of 57, Jean publicly confronted her
struggle with alcoholism and sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center in
Rancho Mirage, California. She then returned to television,
appearing in such TV movies as "Perry Mason: The Case of the Lost
Love" (1987) and "Inherit the Wind" (1988). Also in
1988, Jean returned to the big screen in two British films, YELLOW PAGES
(a disappointing detective comedy originally filmed in 1984 and released
in the U.S. as GOING UNDERCOVER) and THE DAWNING (a historical drama set
in Ireland and featuring Trevor Howard in his last screen role). In 1989
she was asked to play Miss Havisham in a British miniseries version of
"Great Expectations," the Dickens' novel whose 1946 film
adaptation had launched Jean on the road to movie stardom.
the 1990s, Jean continued to work in television, accepting roles that
interested her, mostly in TV movies. In 1991 she made a guest
appearance on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and returned to
the big screen again for a small role in HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT
(1995). In 1994 she was honored by the British Film Institute as a
BFI Fellow. After the turn of the new century, her television
performances were primarily vocal, and in 2000 she narrated PBS's
"American Masters" program on director George
Simmons lived in California until her death from lung cancer in January
- "A&E Biography: Jean Simmons - Picture Perfect"
(A&E Network Television, 2001).
- James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke, The
Swashbucklers (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976) 373-4.
- Jean Simmons. Quoted on "A&E Biography: Jean
Simmons - Picture Perfect"
(A&E Network Television, 2001).
- The Swashbucklers 393.