We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
2. Spartacus, 1960
He wanted Hur.
More than anything, Kirk Douglas yearned to play Ben Hur. But director William Wyler had another actor in mind for Hollywood’s most coveted role. Adding insult to injury, Wyler offered Douglas the mustache-twirling role of Hur’s enemy, the villainous Messala. His pride wounded, Kirk Douglas refused to play a supporting role — not even to Charlton Heston, Hollywood’s supernova star.
Years later, Douglas confessed: “That was what spurred me to do it [Spartacus], in a childish way—the ‘I’ll-show-them’ sort of thing.”
Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovich Demsky, an impoverished Jewish kid who remained angry and resentful of authority his entire career.
There are movie stars who who are movie stars because of the longevity of their careers, the high quality of their work, the charisma they project. I recognize the greatness of, say, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford without feeling any particular affection for these actresses. Their craft, their tenacity, and their ability to survive and thrive in Hollywood—a town of smiling cannibals—evokes my deepest admiration.
And then there are stars who have touched me in a way that is so profoundly personal that, when they pass away, I actually feel as if I have lost a central portion of myself.
I was just a child when I first saw Jean Simmons in David Lean’s superb Great Expectations, (1946). As Young Estella, Simmons is coolly cruel and lovingly destructive to the orphan Pip. Simmons perfectly embodied Miss Havisham’s monstrous creation. I loved and hated Estella/Simmons.
Simmons was just fifteen-years old when she appeared as Estella. As Pip observes, she is very proud, very pretty and very insulting.
After seeing Great Expectations, I made it my business to watch every movie in which Jean Simmons appeared. It was the beginning of my love affair with Hollywood stars. Or rather their shadows. As I soon learned as a screenwriter, Hollywood stars are just like you and me—only richer and crazier.
Angel Face (1952), paired a grown up Simmons with tough guy Robert Mitchum. Once again, Simmons plays a beautiful monster, a woman with serious daddy issues. It might be Simmons greatest performance. Even as she weaves her web of destruction, we glimpse a vulnerability that is heart-breaking. This was Simmons greatest asset, her ability to project warmth and yearning through that aloof mask of symmetrical beauty.
Here’s a clip from Angel Face. The entire film is posted on youtube. Watch and listen. Simmons has a beautiful speaking voice, crisp and clear as a diamond.
In The Actress (1953) Simmons portrays a small town girl who yearns to move to New York to be an actress. Simmons is in pigtails and pinafores, light years away from the calculating femme fatale of Angel Face, and she perfectly embodies a dreamy young girl who yearns to escape her dreary life. It’s a fresh and lively performance that was a mirror of my desire to escape Brooklyn and go to Hollywood.
In Elmer Gantry (1960) Simmons plays Sister Sharon Falconer, an evangelical preacher who travels through rural America. This is, perhaps, my favorite Simmons movie. Her religious convictions run deep and true, yet when she falls in love with the fast talking Elmer Gantry, Burt Lancaster, a charming huckster, her faith is sorely tested. Simmons is no saint, and she doesn’t play it as such. Instead she endows Sister Sharon with a steely innocence that, eventually, leads to Gantry’s moral awakening. It’s a subtle, restrained performance, a great performance that should have been nominated for an Oscar.
in this clip from Elmer Gantry, Jean Simmons makes her appearance at about the four minute mark.
As Varinia, the beautiful slave girl in Spartacus (1960), Simmons loves Kirk Douglas with such depth that in the end, when she holds up her infant child for the crucified Spartacus to behold, I actually fell apart in the movie theater. Thick tears rolled down my cheeks, and I understood, perhaps for the first time, the emotional power of movies.
Here’s the last scene from Spartacus. Watch and weep. The score, by the great Alex North, is one of the finest ever composed.
I’ve always thought of my wife Karen, as my very own Jean Simmons; the same regal bearing, penetrating eyes, ink black hair, tiny waist, and a cool, ferocious intelligence that masks a universe of deeply felt emotions.
Born in England, Simmons became an American citizen. She was married and divorced twice, to actor Stewart Granger (1950-1960) and director Richard Brooks (1960-1977). Both men were quite a bit older than Simmons and both were, ah, quite controlling. She had two daughters, one from each marriage. Simmons was an alcoholic and spent time in rehab.
In 1965, on the set of Life at the Top, Simmons was interviewed by photo journalist Eve Arnold. At age 36, Simmons was in a reflective mood, acutely aware that she was approaching that point in her career where starring roles dried up for aging beauties:
I cannot help but constantly think about that age thing. At thirty you start thinking about being forty, and pushing age. I hope to get over it soon, and then get on with it. I don’t know what it is, but in this country, it is as though it is a crime to grow old. As though everybody isn’t doing it. Or maybe it is just this business.
Jean Simmons passed away from lung cancer, age 80, on Friday January 22, in Santa Monica, surrounded by family.
Thank you for all your hard and beautiful work.
Rest in Peace.
For more articulate and touching Jean Simmons memorials please visit:
John Nolte at Big Hollywood.
Dan Callahan at Slant Magazine.