Monday, January 25, 2010

So. Farewell Then, Jean Simmons

Jean Simmons, who died last Friday at the grand old age of eighty, was an actress from the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood (which we may date as from Gone With the Wind until Bonnie and Clyde – it’s as handy a metric as any).

Simmons wasn’t Grace Kelly or either Hepburn but she was in three of An Spailpín’s favourite movies – two cast iron classics, in one of which she has little to do inand one of which in which she was quite central, and the third one of the great guilty pleasures from the Hollywood biblical epics of the 1950s.

After making a name in English cinema, Jean Simmons crossed the Atlantic to play Richard Burton’s secondary love interest – after the LORD, of course – in The Robe, the first movie made in Cinemascope. If that means little now, image how little people will give a rooty-toot-toot about Avatar in fifty years’ time.

Burton was Oscar nominated for The Robe and is the best thing in it. Simmons just has to look around and match the young Burton for prettiness, but it’s chiefly the Burton’s incendiary performance that makes the movie worth watching. The role of Miriam the crippled girl is theologically fascinating for those who enjoy that sort of thing, but theology is pretty much a minority interest these days.

It’s possible that Simmons and Burton had an affair during the filming of The Robe. There are different stories about the details, the best of which is not suitable for the sort of family reading that is normally available in this space. But if you meet An Spailpín on the high stool some evening remind me and I’ll be more than happy to go raconteur about old Hollywood.

The biggest hit that featured Simmons was Spartacus, in which she played Mrs Spartacus. It’s a nothing part, and Simmons gets lost in the picture among such notorious scenery munchers as Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton and Laurence Oliver.

Jean Simmons’ greatest role is as schoolteacher Julie Maragon in The Big Country, one of the great Westerns of all time. The movie stars Gregory Peck as James McKay, a sea captain engaged to marry the heiress to a huge ranch in the west. But McKay discovers when he visits the ranch that his fiancée, Patricia Terrill, is something of a spoiled brat, her father is two bit dictator feuding with a neighbour the same way that Jock Ewing feuded with Digger Barnes in Dallas, and married life is not going to be simple.

Simmons’ character owns the farm that separates the feuding ranchers, and she has done her best to keep the peace over the years. McKay’s arrival is the spark that finally leads to the dispute’s final resolution.

The Big Country is a magnificent film, from its superb opening theme music on. Peck was the epitome of nobility, and the film is remarkable for Charlton Heston as Steve Leech, the only “baddie” Heston ever played. The real villain of the movie is played by Chuck Connors in a tour de force performance as a low down dirty rat of a man. Connors and Heston would share screen time again the Sci-Fi classic Soylent Green.

Great scenes abound in The Big Country. There’s a wonderfully filmed fight between Heston and Peck, where the camera pans back to put the fight in perspective against the huge sweeping plain of the surrounding land. Peck’s potential father-in-law, swine though he is in many ways, get one wonderful scene that shows how maybe he got to be in the position he is, and Peck and Simmons share a lovely scene where the perils of the sea and the perils of the big country are compared and contrasted.

Jean Simmons was also in such big movies of their day as Elmer Gantry and Guys and Dolls (opposite an hilariously miscast Marlon Brando) but it’s for The Robe, Spartacus and especially The Big Country that An Spailpín will remember her best. God have mercy on her.

Technorati Tags: ,, , , , ,