The Darling of Film and Television Whose Career Spanned Decades
Taking a different path from her mother’s, she began carving her own pearl in 1944 to become one of the top British box office stars during WWII, and didn’t stop perfecting it until 2009. This is another installment of the Living like a Pearl series that celebrates women whose pearls lit up the world. Find the other stories here.
An acclaimed British actress and singer, she began lighting up the screen at 14 until her final role at 80 years old.
The youngest of four children, Jean Merilyn Simmons was born in Islington, London January 31, 1929. As a young girl during the onset of WWII, she began performing with her eldest sister on the village stage, singing popular songs to delighted onlookers.
She studied at the Aida Foster School of Dance, which would launch her early career. Catching the eye of a director, Jean was cast in the British comedy film ‘Give Us the Moon’ in 1944, followed by other small roles throughout 1945.
Jean earned stardom in Britain with her role in the 1946 film ‘Great Expectations’ as the teenage Estella, which gave her top reviews. Directed by influential English film director David Lean, it was the third-most-popular film at the British box office in 1947.
This success was a turning point for her, professionally and personally. It inspired her to pursue a film career more seriously instead of viewing acting “as just a lark” she was quoted as saying. It also enabled her to carve her own path instead of meeting traditional expectations of the time. Reflecting on her experience; “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.”
And on she went. Earning the distinction of being one of the “well-spoken young starlets” of the British entertainment Rank Organisation, Jean became an international hit and received the first of many Oscar nominations with her role as Ophelia in Laurence Olivier's ‘Hamlet’ in 1948.
It was her first adult role in the 1949 comedy ‘Adam and Evelyne’ that she met Stewart Granger, her co-star who would become her husband. With several other successful roles throughout 1950, Jean was voted the fourth-most popular star in Britain.
But 1950 also brought a turning point, and the beloved British Pearl moved to Hollywood with her husband Stewart, who himself had become a star. Her new home in America would bring Jean continuing acclaim, but also unexpected challenges.
Her contract in Britain was sold to RKO Pictures, which at the time was owned by none other Howard Hughes, with film producing one of his many achievements. He took a shining to Jean and made inappropriate advances, causing upset with her husband. Rejected, this situation led to Howard’s punishing treatment for several years under her contract with him, which included preventing Jean from taking the female lead role in ‘Roman Holiday’, given instead to Audrey Hepburn, making her a star.
A court case freed her from the contract in 1952, and moving on to other film studios, Jean earned success in many critically acclaimed films over the next twenty years.
The 1970s brought a change to her focus as she reached middle age, and her talents went to the theatre stage, television, and voice-overs which would delight audiences throughout her later career up until her last film in 2009.
Nominated for numerous Academy and Golden Globe Awards, Jean won distinguished awards early on in the 1950s, and later in her career in 1983 with an Emmy Award for her role as the family matriarch in the Miniseries ‘The Thorn Birds’.
Married and divorced twice with two daughters from each marriage, Jean died just shortly before her 81st birthday in January 2010. She left behind an enduring and lustrous pearl from a lifetime of dedication to her passion.