When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
The Gaze of Jean Simmons

I was an adolescent — and the day was cold and sunny — when I went to a Saturday matinee of Richard Brooks’ THE HAPPY ENDING.

That day and that movie came back to me as I read that Jean Simmons died.

I haven’t seen it since (the film might not have aged well) but the closing shot of Simmons, articulating the movie’s subject with one silent tilt of the head, has never been erased from my memory.  Those few frames cemented my respect for her and my adoration of her gifts to cinema.

It’s hard to quantify and categorize her place in movie history because her art and career are more divergent than convergent.  An “Actress Whose Talent Exceeded the Parts She Played” was the headline on the obituary page in the NYT.

She followed her Ophelia to Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948 by originating the Brooke Shields role in the first film version of THE BLUE LAGOON in 1949.  Imported to Hollywood Simmons gained an American accent, belted songs even though she couldn’t sing, paraded in togas in numerous Biblical epics, and was manipulated and harassed by Howard Hughes and Otto Preminger in her most perplexing and rule-breaking film:  ANGEL FACE.  Simmons embodied characters created by iconic American authors such as Damon Runyon, Sinclair Lewis and James Agee.  The year after playing the fussbudget Fräulein Rottenmeier in a TV version of HEIDI, she was an alcoholic housewife in mid-meltdown for her husband Richard Brooks’ THE HAPPY ENDING.  But despite this range of characters, her qualities as an artist were distinctly identifiable.

Humphrey Bogart went on record as saying “typecasting is what creates stars.”  Simmons the Star was anything but typecast; yet in retrospect her body of work seems unified and distinct.  This totality of experience is because she was a consummate cinema actress — the intonations of her speech patterns sculpted screen time and space; her presence bisected the frame into the direction of her gaze and the side she ignored. 

This is why even her weak films (and there were plenty of them as Aljean Harmetz and Pauline Kael have pointed out) are watchable.  The 1956 CinemaScope drama HILDA CRANE — despite its strong writing, scoring and cinematography credentials — crumbled after the first twenty minutes into a chick-in-a-quandary soap opera, yet whenever Simmons was in frame, you wondered what she was thinking, focused on what she observed, anticipated what physical direction she would take.  With her eyes and body she brought lucidity and definition to every screen moment.  In better material such as Robert Wise’s UNTIL THEY SAIL (a favorite of mine), she had top billing as one of four New Zealand sisters during WW2.  (Simmons was the romantic; Joan Fontaine the spinsterish big sister; Piper Laurie the younger party girl; Sandra Dee the adolescent.)  When not carrying a scene, she could blend and integrate beautifully; yet there would always be an intriguing interiority in her physical presence that film captured best through her gaze.

Those articulate, passionate eyes are closed now.  Forever.  They’ve earned their rest.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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