Thursday, April 22, 2010

Actress Files: Jean Simmons

Jean Simmons, The Happy Ending
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1969 Best Actress Oscar to Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)

Why I Waited: I'm not the hugest fan of Simmons, finding her somewhere between unmemorable and uninteresting even in a series of "big" movies like Black Narcissus, Hamlet, Guys and Dolls, Elmer Gantry, and Spartacus. I wasn't excited about being stuck with my cropped VHS copy, either, but Turner Classic Movies broadcast it in widescreen while I happened to be staying in a hotel. (Have I mentioned I don't get cable?)

The Performance: Simmons's performance arrives with a few sandbags: she has an absolutely dire co-star in John Forsythe, and her husband, writer-director Richard Brooks, has moved on from mounting glossy, bowdlerized versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth and decided instead to maccrame a belated and unconvincing tchotchke, positioned somewhere between A Man and a Woman and Diary of a Mad Housewife. This is ye olde domestic anhedonia, unhelpfully diced up out of narrative order, and Simmons needs narrative: she doesn't have enough mystery or agility to enliven, sustain, or even perfume a series of discontinuous impressions. At least she's more beautiful than she's ever been, in homey 60s fabrics and long, gently styled tresses that make her visually enticing even as we wait for some kind of character arc to fire itself up—hopefully one that isn't totally dampened by the clichés of ill-concealed alcoholism that start splaying themselves out in her early scenes. True, it's hard not to feel affection for a gal who swills secreted liquor out of a pink, pyramid-shaped perfume bottle, but she kills the buzz with gauzy impersonations of wounded knowingness and a series of lame aphorisms: men prefer cars to women because every year they're invited to trade in a car for a newer model, etc. The screenplay keeps serving Simmons badly, concocting a pre-Shirley Valentine jaunt to warmer climes where she can comb through her depression. She enjoys a brief tryst there with a young Italian lothario (Bobby Darin!) who, you'll never believe this, turns out to be a benign impostor.

But somewhere in the middle of these dog-eared scenes, a sense of conviction and surprising specificity starts seeping out of Simmons's performance, until you wind up believing the lion's share of it, even if you learn nothing from it and remain dubious about the vehicle. She holds the camera with her alternations between the gusto she brings to her wifely recriminations and suicide flashbacks and the underplayed, almost self-mocking ironic tone she wears through her Nassau vacation. I think the trick is that these attitudes aren't as disparate as they could have been: there's a fundamental lack of self-knowledge to Simmons's Mary, except insofar as she knows she's a constant, irritating adversary to her own happiness, and whether it's causing her to act out or fold in, the basic bedrock of the woman remains persuasively consistent. Simmons doesn't sell the bromides of the script as though they're pearls of wisdom, and she keeps underscoring the character's lack of profile and resolution, even when the score and the screenplay are nudging her toward some sort of callow epiphany: returns from the tropics, hugs from her alienated daughter, etc.

The insincere flamboyance of the filmmaking, and the nagging sense that Shirley Jones (as a call-girl buddy), Nanette Fabray (as a sassy housemaid-accomplice), and Teresa Wright (as Simmons's aggrieved mother) are rather openly gunning for Supporting Actress nominations, winds up reflecting positively on Simmons' gradual tamping down on her effects, and her nicely judged earnestness. Maybe she was just as sad as the character she was playing; she was certainly rumored to be just as drink-addicted. The moderate achievement of this performance may have less to do with resourceful craft than with bitter years' experience occupying certain moods, and with making some truths about herself available to the audience... and maybe it helps here, too, that whatever seems perpetually hard, cloudy, or anonymous about Jean Simmons inherently winds up tempering what might otherwise be a ghastly exercise in self-exploitation. She lacks the manic, estranging energy that Gena Rowlands brought to superficially similar parts in the same years, or even the vocal idiosyncrasies that make Carrie Snodgress so indelible in Diary of a Mad Housewife in a way that Simmons isn't, quite, in The Happy Ending. But I suspect it's a performance that would bear up under a second look, particularly insofar as it emerges surprisingly unscathed from a movie that seems built to date and deplete it. Not too much of a happy ending for Simmons: she stayed pretty scarce from the silver screen for the next four decades, before dying earlier this year, so whatever "clicked" in this performance and its AMPAS reception didn't open her up to new professional horizons, where she may or may not have flourished. But "click" it does, unevenly but impressively, in a 1969 roster full of odd-duck personality performances. I left The Happy Ending feeling like I'd spent two hours with a woman, not an actress pretending to be that woman, and in a project as slipshod and tricked-out as this one, that's an honorable feat.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 39 to Go

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Blogger Robert Hamer said...

Geez, you're on fire this month. Not that I'm complaining, of course. I love reading the latest from the internet's leading actressologist.

But with only thirty-nine performances to go, you actually have a shot a completing your Best Actress Project within a year, maybe sooner. Wouldn't that be something?

2:48 AM, April 22, 2010  
Blogger John T said...

OMG-I'm SO excited for you Nick, 39 to go! And I've seen nine of them, so I'm excited what you think in the world of Wood, Bergman, and Garland.

7:22 AM, April 22, 2010  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

I recently caught this on TCM, too; it plays much better in widescreen, of course. I was particularly struck by some of Conrad Hall's cinematography, especially the cigarette smoke haze after their big party.

I can see what you're saying about Simmons's hardness; it's that same basically inexpressive hardness that makes her best performance, in Otto Preminger's "Angel Face," so touching, and so chilling, one of the most convincing portraits of a sociopath in movies. And she's very charming in Cukor's "The Actress," even if she's miscast. Those two films, I think, secure her place.

Wish she hadn't married Richard Brooks, though; his screenplay for "The Happy Ending" is godawful. Simmons said he put some of their own fights at home into the script, verbatim. They certainly don't sound realistic in any way.

12:32 PM, April 22, 2010  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

I noticed that this was on YouTube but I haven't yet seen it. I've been kind of doing the opposite of you, shying away from seeing Best Actress nominees, since that category has seen my most prolific viewing. Somehow the prospect of actually seeing them all and not having any left to judge scares me. Although there's always the Golden Globe nominees, and Cannes, Berlin, and Venice Actress winners to trawl through :-)

I'm a bit surprised that Maggie McNamara didn't make your Great Losers list, in the same way that Carrie Snodgress didn't. I found both hilarious (largely due to their comic tone/timing). I'm sensing that maybe you didn't like The Moon is Blue. I really enjoyed it but I can see definite faults in the way it approaches the love triangle, and it's a lot more conservative than it thinks it is.

12:58 PM, April 22, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

She certainly is unmemorable because I saw Black Narcissus recently and I can't remember that face (in the photo you provided) in the movie. :p

I enjoyed the post but I have nothing to comment on it. I just want to say NEVER CHANGE THAT BANNER!! I love it. Not only wonderful ladies but great choice of pictures as well!

6:57 PM, April 22, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Robert and @John: Thanks, and I'm definitely hoping to see this one through to the end. I've actually seen a bit more already than I'm letting on, while I catch up with the write-ups.

@Dan: We must have seen the same broadcast, then. I agree that Hall's photography is often pretty special. I loved that shot o the post-party cigarette fog, too, and the damp, bleary city shots in the title sequence set the tone really well, until Simmons gets to mucking it up. Those two perfs you mention seem like the consensus picks as Simmons's best, give or take the people who are wild about her in Elmer Gantry, so I'll definitely have to track them down eventually.

@Cal: I'll have more to say on McNamara forthwith, but you're right, I wasn't crazy about the film.

@James: Hardly your fault. I don't remember the particulars, but she basically has the Rita Moreno role in The King and I, as the dancing exotic. (Glad you like the banner!)

5:28 PM, April 24, 2010  

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