Simmons, Jean

Simmons, Jean
(1929– )
   Born in London on January 31, 1929, Jean Simmons was educated at the Aida Foster Stage School in North London. While still in her teens she began working in the movies. She was outstanding as the haughty young Estella in David Lean’s film of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1946). Moreover, she gained wide attention when Laurence Olivier, who was later to costar with her in STANLEY KUBRICK’s SPARTACUS, cast her as Ophelia in the 1948 version of Hamlet he directed and starred in. For that role, she won the best actress prize at the Venice Film Festival. Simmons married actor Stewart Granger in 1950 and went with him to Hollywood. She was under contract to Howard Hughes at RKO, where she only received one meaty role, that of the deranged girl in Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), who is responsible for the deaths of her parents and her lover. After she left Hughes and RKO, some big films followed: The Robe (1953), a Roman spectacle, in which she played an early Christian; Joseph Mankiewicz’s musical Guys and Dolls (1955), as a member of the Salvation Army; and William Wyler’s epic Western The Big Country (1958), opposite Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. Simmons divorced Granger in 1960 and married director Richard Brooks, for whom she played an evangelist in Brooks’s film of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1960), with Burt Lancaster. Then came Spartacus (1960), her second costume drama about ancient Rome. Stanley Kubrick had replaced Anthony Mann as director of the film by the time she came on the picture.
   KIRK DOUGLAS, who was both star and executive producer of the picture, had originally decided against hiring Simmons to play the slave girl Varinia. His plan was to have British actors play the Roman patricians and Americans play the slaves, so that the upper-class accents of the British would contrast with the more pedestrian voices of the Americans. He therefore rejected Simmons because of her rather prim English accent. Douglas chose instead the littleknown Sabina Bethmann, who possessed more beauty than she did acting ability. When Douglas dismissed Anthony Mann, in favor of Kubrick, the latter fired Bethmann almost immediately, explaining that the role called for an actress of Jean Simmons’s caliber. Consequently, Kubrick insisted that Douglas make an exception to his rule of British actors not playing slaves, and Douglas acceded to his demand to cast Simmons. That was not the last of Kubrick’s differences with Douglas.
   Indeed, they had several disagreements about what Kubrick terms DALTON TRUMBO’s “pretty dumb script, which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus,” the leader of a slave revolt against the Roman Empire. Kubrick explains in James Howard’s book that he achieved only limited success in making the film visually interesting, as a way of counteracting Trumbo’s pedestrian dialogue. Douglas was prepared to admit that Kubrick was adept at developing visual concepts. He pointed out that, when Jean Simmons meets Spartacus for the first time in the movie in the slaves’ quarters, “Stanley came up with the idea of losing the dialogue, just using music. It worked much better. ”
   In that scene, Spartacus and the new recruits are rewarded for devoting themselves to the training program at the gladiatorial school by having a woman sent to their cells for the night. Kubrick deleted Trumbo’s dialogue between Spartacus and Varinia as she enters his cell; instead, she materializes in the semidarkness like some celestial apparition. Spartacus’s innate sensitivity and respect for her prevents him from taking advantage of her; and she soon departs. Varinia next appears in the sequence in which Batiatus (PETER USTINOV), who runs the school where slaves are turned into gladiators, entertains General Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his protégé Glabrus (JOHN DALL), while Varinia is serving his guests wine. Glabrus grabs Varinia by the ankle as she fills his cup and the slave girl dumps the remainder of the pitcher’s contents on his head. Here is an independent spirit chafing under the constraints of servitude; she will prove a kindred spirit for Spartacus. Crassus, too, is drawn to her:“I like her; she has spirit. I will buy her. ” Pauline Kael writes of Simmons in this scene that “she has never been more beautiful, and the emotions that appear on her humor-filled face are blessedly sane. ”
   Later on, Marcellus, the chief trainer, directs Spartacus’s attention through the barred window to Varinia, riding in a cart as part of Crassus’s entourage, on her way to Rome. “Take a look at her,” Marcellus gloats; “she has been sold. ” When the stricken Spartacus asks where she is going, the slave trainer swats him across the face with a whip: “No talking in the kitchen, slave!”
   Fed up with the sadistic treatment meted out to himself and the other slaves, Spartacus goes berserk and throttles Marcellus, thereby touching off a jailbreak that soon turns into a massive slave revolt under Spartacus’s leadership. As Spartacus and his men make forays over the countryside, gathering ever greater numbers of slaves to their cause, they come upon a group of slaves waiting to join them, among whom is Varinia. She has run away from Batiatus, who was taking her to Rome. “He was too fat to catch up with me,” she laughs. “No one will ever sell you again,” says Spartacus, overjoyed at their reunion. He sweeps her onto a horse and they gallop off into an incandescent sunset—a fine example of Kubrick’s mastery of color and widescreen. In this instance, the dazzling sunset becomes a symbol of the freedom which Spartacus and Varinia have recently won.
   General Crassus, who commands the Roman armies, is bent on destroying the slaves’ revolutionary fervor. On the eve of the clash between the forces of Crassus and Spartacus, the slave leader walks among his men to enliven their spirits. Spartacus comes upon Varinia, who has been pregnant for some time. “He hits me with his fist sometimes,” she says of her child with maternal pride. “He wants to see his mother,” Spartacus returns. Then, thinking of the dim future, he adds, “No matter how often we beat the Romans they always have yet another army. We’ve started something that has no ending. I pray for a son who will be born free. ”
   Spartacus and his army are faced with a display of Roman might—phalanxes of Roman soldiers in perfect military formation. Crassus’s troops completely demolish Spartacus’s slave army; and the prisoners, including Spartacus, are to be crucified. Crassus sequesters Varinia and her newly born son in his villa; he informs her with considerable bravado that she and the child now belong to him. Varinia responds with utter disdain,“You are afraid of him. That’s why you want his wife, to soothe your fear by having something that he had. When you’re afraid, nothing can help you. We shall win. ”
   The Roman senator Gracchus (CHARLES LAUGHTON), who has been Crassus’s sworn enemy in the senate all along, enlists the aid of Batiatus in saving Varinia and the child from Crassus out of sheer spite for the Roman general. He arranges for safe conduct passes to allow Varinia and the baby out of Rome, and secures articles of freedom for them as well. While Batiatus is presenting their papers to the guard at the city gate,Varinia walks with her baby to the foot of Spartacus’s cross nearby and looks up at him. “This is your son,” she says. “He is free. ” Spartacus looks down and knows that his hope that his son would be born free has been fulfilled. She continues, “He’ll remember you, Spartacus, because I’ll tell him who his father was and what he dreamed of. ”Then she gets into the cart and Batiatus drives down the avenue lined with crosses which leads them beyond the gates of Rome.
   Pauline Kael, who wrote favorably of Spartacus, dismissed Bosley Crowther, critic for the New York Times at the time, by saying that Crowther “can always be counted on to miss the point. ” “A great deal more is made of Miss Simmons’s postwar predicament than of the crucifixion of six thousand slaves,” he had written in his notice. On the contrary, Kael emphasizes that the movie has gone to great pains to make it clear that the survival of Spartacus’s only son as a free man will serve as an inspiration that will overshadow the defeat of the slave revolt. Hence it is the fate of Spartacus’s son and not merely “Miss Simmons’s postwar predicament” that matters at the end of the film.
   Simmons made some significant films in the 1960s; she was nominated for an Academy Award for Happy Ending (1969), as a woman reflecting on 15 years of an unhappy marriage. It was directed by Richard Brooks, whom she divorced in 1977. She temporarily retired from films when she toured for two years in A Little Night Music, the Stephen Sondheim musical play. Afterward she returned to the screen, but mostly worked in TV, including a miniseries derived from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1978). She played in another adaptation of Great Expectations (1989), this time as the mad Miss Havisham, for British television. In the 1990s, her only appearance on the big screen was in How to Make an American Quilt (1995), a nostalgic look at the lives of some older women.
   ■ Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999) pp. 63–72;
   ■ Kael, Pauline, 5001 Nights at the Movies (New York: Henry Holt, 1991), p. 699.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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