Jean Simmons – Underestimated Star

Day 260 of Colourisation Project – January 22

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Jean Simmons, a leading lady of British and American cinema for over six decades passed away on this day, 22 January in 2010.

Twice nominated for Best Actress Academy Awards, she starred in over 70 movies including Great Expectations (1946) – one of the greatest British movies ever made, Black Narcissus (1947), Hamlet (1948), Angel Face (1952), Guys and Dolls (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), Spartacus (1960) and The Happy Ending (1969).

Jean Simmons

Publicity still 1955 ~ Jean Simmons ~ Colourised by Loredana Crupi

Simmons was only 18 when she played Ophelia to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, for which she won her first Oscar nomination. She made the covers of Time and LIFE magazines by the time she was 20…and that was before she even set foot in Hollywood.

A naturally gifted actress, her ethereal screen presence made her a major star alongside strong leading men including Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Stewart Granger, Charles Laughton, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum and Marlon Brando.

Guys and Dolls Director, Joe Mankiewicz called Simmons,

“the dream … a fantastically talented and enormously underestimated girl. In terms of talent, Jean Simmons is so many heads and shoulders above most of her contemporaries, one wonders why she didn’t become the great star she could have been.”

As Hollywood fate would have it, Simmons was 3rd choice after Grace Kelly and Deborah Kerr for lead role in Guys and Dolls. Both stars were unavailable at the time. Apparently, after seeing the rushes, a surprised Goldwyn reportedly said,  “I’m so happy that I couldn’t get Grace Kelly.”

Simmons was however William Wyler’s first choice for the role of Princess Ann in the 1953 film, Roman Holiday, but Simmons, hitherto under contract to the Rank Organisation in the UK, was shocked to discover that without any consultation, maverick film and business tycoon, Howard Hughes had purchased the remaining six months of her Rank Studio contract and he was not prepared to loan her out to Paramount to do the film.

To use her own words, she had at the age of 22 ‘been sold like a piece of meat’ to one of the richest and most powerful men in Hollywood.

It has been suggested that one reason she “didn’t become the great star she could have been,” was due to an unhealthy obsession on the part of Howard Hughes. Hughes a well known womaniser, had been warned off by Stewart Granger, Simmons’s husband at the time. Hughes in an act of spiteful revenge, put the brakes on Simmons’s career, refusing to release her to other studios.

Roman Holiday could well have been her career-defining role, one that would have jettisoned her onto the A-list of Hollywood stars, as it did for her replacement Audrey Hepburn, who went on to win the Best Actress Oscar for the role.

Hughes claimed that a verbal agreement with Rank precluded her from being loaned out to any other studio. Simmons took the matter straight to court and won the case after a lengthy battle. RKO was obligated to pay her $250,000 in addition to her legal fees and she was free to work on loan to other studios at a substantial salary.

According to Stewart Granger, Simmons called Audrey Hepburn after seeing her in Roman Holiday, to say, “I wanted to hate you, but I have to tell you I wouldn’t have been half as good.”

Such a golden opportunity never came her way again. Simmons had steady work in Hollywood but she refused to sign any further studio contracts. She had proved herself an actress of considerable talent. Undoubtedly a star; she conquered Hollywood her own way. But one can’t help wondering how big a star she might have been if Howard Hughes had been less controlling.

Jean Simmons died of lung cancer this day, January 22, 2010, nine days before her 81st birthday.

In 2003 when she was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE), as well as a Fellow of the British Film Institute for her outstanding contributions to film culture.


Today my treat for you is this lovely sequence from Guys and Dolls with Simmons and Brando performing a duet, Woman in Love.

They were originally supposed to lip-sync their songs but Samuel Goldwyn heard them during rehearsal and decided the untrained stars should do their own singing for authenticity rather than dub them with professional singers. A great decision!

What do you think?


“I thought acting was just a lark, meeting all those exciting movie stars, and getting £5 a day which was lovely because we needed the money. But I figured I’d just go off and get married and have children like my mother. It was working with David Lean that convinced me to go on.”   ~   Jean Simmons

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, Film, Hollywood, Photography, USA, Women, Women in Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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