Magazine | March 8, 2010, Issue

The Late Lady

Jean Simmons

Chop off another piece of my childhood. Jean Simmons died January 22, a week before her 81st birthday.

Actually her movies bridged my childhood and my girlhood and went on into my prime, making her death more psychologically significant than those of other actresses I remember. She was the first one who was not old enough to be my mother, so I developed a typical pubescent crush on her that, over time, tamped down and settled into a continuing interest and admiration, until my feelings about her gradually became part of me and the way I look at things in general.

British-born, her first movie was the 1946 Great Expectations,in which she played the young Estella. When she was 18, Laurence Olivier cast her as Ophelia in his Hamlet,and in 1949 at the age of 20 she starred in the now-forgotten first version of The Blue Lagoon, a blockbuster of its time, after which her career took off. American audiences know her best as the Salvation Army sergeant in Guys and Dolls and as the evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry. She made a few contemporary vehicles, but she was in her element in period-costume dramas, portraying appealing beauties of antiquity in The Egyptian,The Robe,Spartacus;the Renaissance in Young Bess (the early life of Queen Elizabeth I); and the First Empire in Désirée (Napoleon’s first love and Sweden’s first Bernadotte queen).

A hazel-eyed brunette, she looked like a well-nourished Audrey Hepburn. She had a quality about her that inspired antiquated words. Not surprisingly, grandmothers called her “wholesome,” but so did movie reviewers and Hollywood radio commentators. She wasn’t cute, she was “winsome.” She wasn’t naughty, she was “hoyden.” She wasn’t eager, she was “dewy-eyed.” She didn’t merely stir memories, she brought back “halcyon days.” And despite evidence clearly to the contrary — especially in Empire décolletage — she was not bosomy in the requisite 1950s way: She was “buxom.”

It was precisely her air of rustic innocence and uncloying sweetness that made one of her movies so unbearable that I had to stop watching it. For some reason I had missed its theater run and had to catch it on TV. Called Black Narcissus,it’s set in some Hindu land, I forget which, and concerns a Anglican convent in which all hell is literally about to break loose because one of the nuns is a sexually frustrated time bomb. Jean Simmons plays the “native girl,” all clichéd-out in cheap splendiferous excess: see-through harem pants, garish colors, a ring on every finger, a bell on every toe, slathered bronze-tone makeup, and a repertoire of two movements: sinuous writhing and jiggly. It was a carnival sideshow; it was exactly what a lout circa 1910 wanted to see when he went to the “mo’om pitchers.” Hot stuff.

#page#Suddenly furious, I grabbed the remote, thrust it at the screen in the en garde position, and gave it a fatal click. I still don’t know how it ends. Suppose she sacrificed herself to save a nun? The whole convent? Suppose she became a nun herself? Any of these plot resolutions could only change her to a native girl with a heart of gold, which would put her back to square one. I didn’t care how it ended because the damage was already irretrievably done: the sleazy, casting-office spectacle of the good girl forced to look like a bad girl, the lady told to be a tramp.

I got furious again when I realized how close I came to missing the news of Jean Simmons’s death altogether. I didn’t hear it, I just happened to see it — on the crawl, while the screen was full of “celebrity” news featuring current womanly role models. Morbid, tattooed Angelina Jolie, who could scare Edgar Allan Poe to death. Some wraith with bleached hair like dry straw singing a song called “My Life Would Suck Without You.” A side-by-side of the Octomom showing off her new figure and her old stretch marks. The comedienne who uses so many obscenities that her bleeps run together. And Courtney Love, who, in case she didn’t look slutty enough to begin with, wore runned stockings and dangled a cigarette from her lips during a performance.

They feel entirely comfortable being interviewed because there are no women on the set to make them feel self-conscious or out of place. With very few exceptions, the present crop of womanly interviewers, to say nothing of other womanly guests, displays enough cleavage, thigh, and spike heels to fill the street corners of the world. They don’t use the F-word — yet — but they have no compunction about using “freakin’” and “frickin’,” which are but euphemisms of a euphemism. Do you want a hint with that? In Bel Kaufman’s novelUp the Down Staircase,a teacher criticized for her spotty presentation of U.S. naval history replies, “Try saying ‘frigate’ in a high-school classroom, just try it.”

Like men, today’s womanly role models have an entirely new way of talking about women. When was the last time you heard anyone of either sex describe a woman as “pretty”? If she’s been murdered, Nancy Grace will call her “beautiful,” but “pretty” is somehow too close to “winsome” to be admitted to the lexicon; even the once-ubiquitous and tactful “attractive” is out. There are only two kinds of women now and they need not be described because their new names say it all: “hottie” and “cougar.”

No wonder Arlen Specter came in for such merciless mockery for telling Michele Bachmann to “act like a lady.” His is a voice in the wilderness if ever there was one. Womanhood has fallen upon hard times. Its ultimate erotic symbol is now the stripper swinging on her pole, but she is not womanly, she is not adult, and she is not even female. She’s a kid on the playground practicing being the fireman he wants to be when he grows up.

Hail and farewell, dear Miss Simmons, now you shall know the joy of being winsome throughout eternity.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Mortgage Morality

‘Political writers,” David Hume once wrote, “have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controls of the constitution, every ...
Politics & Policy

EUbris

It’s a cliché to use the word “hubris” in an article involving Greece, but when that article is about the single European currency, what else will do? From its very beginning, ...
Politics & Policy

An Iranian’s Life

When Khomeini created his Islamic dictatorship in Iran, he also created an Iranian diaspora: Some 3 million Iranians now live abroad, in various countries, on various continents. Many of them ...

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Gender Gaps

The famous Title IX provision in the 1972 civil-rights legislation sounds quite sensible: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, ...
Politics & Policy

Cold Hearts

Movie criticism, like most human affairs, suffers during extreme weather. Before Washington, D.C., was buried beneath successive blizzards, I was planning to review The Wolfman, and distinctly looking forward to ...
City Desk

City of Many Worlds

  Lexington Avenue begins at 21st Street, and runs pretty flat until Murray Hill in the 30s, where National Review lives. But in between is a stretch of short 19th-century buildings ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

John Dewey, Liberal Fascist? Your article “John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America” (Tiffany Jones Miller, December 31) astutely identifies its subject’s rejection of the Founders’ natural-rights tradition — seeing ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The stimulus did create at least one job in the private sector, soon to be filled by Evan Bayh. ‐ A year ago, Rick Santelli, CNBC business-news reporter, asked from ...
The Bent Pin

The Late Lady

Chop off another piece of my childhood. Jean Simmons died January 22, a week before her 81st birthday. Actually her movies bridged my childhood and my girlhood and went on into ...
The Long View

Bethesda Mental-Health Clinic

  Doctor’s Notes Tuesday 1/19 Convened our first group session. Technically, we’re calling it “Dealing with Setbacks in Home and Career,” but I’ve decided to let the discussion encompass a wide range of ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

DAY AND NIGHT A fondness for twilight and for dawn, touches everyone. Both are connection; but not like the hazy horizon of summer dusk across the lake – where only God can discern where water ends and sky ...
Happy Warrior

Zamboni Baloney

Zamboni makes the ice-resurfacing carts that are a familiar sight at any hockey game, and also at any number of Winter Olympics — Turin, Salt Lake, Nagano, and way back ...

Most Popular

U.S.

Men Literally Died for That Flag, You Idiots

The American flag’s place in our culture is beginning to look less unassailable. The symbol itself is under attack, as we’ve seen with Nike dumping a shoe design featuring an early American flag, Megan Rapinoe defending her national-anthem protests (she says she will never sing the song again), and ... Read More
Books

The Plot against Kavanaugh

Justice on Trial, by Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino (Regnery,  256 pp., $28.99) The nomination and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was the political event of 2018, though not for the reasons anyone expected. All High Court confirmations these days are fraught with emotion and tumult ... Read More
Politics & Policy

He Just Can’t Help Himself

By Saturday, the long-simmering fight between Nancy Pelosi and her allies on one side and the “squad” associated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the other had risen to an angrier and more destructive level at the Netroots Nation conference. Representative Ayanna Pressley, an African-American Massachusetts ... Read More
White House

On Gratitude and Immigration

Like both Rich and David, I consider it flatly inappropriate for the president of the United States to be telling Americans -- rhetorically or otherwise -- to “go back where you came from.” In consequence, you will find no defense of the president from me, either. What Trump tweeted over the weekend was ... Read More
Education

Gender Dissenter Gets Fired

Allan M. Josephson is a distinguished psychiatrist who, since 2003, has transformed the division of child and adolescent psychiatry and psychology at the University of Louisville from a struggling department to a nationally acclaimed program. In the fall of 2017 he appeared on a panel at the Heritage Foundation ... Read More
U.S.

The ‘Squad’ Gives a Gift to Donald Trump

On Sunday, Donald Trump gave the Democrats a gift -- comments that indicate he thinks native-born congresswomen he detests should “go back” to the countries of their ancestors. On Monday, the four congresswomen handed Trump a gift in return, managing to respond to the president’s insults in some of the most ... Read More
PC Culture

A Herd Has No Mind

sup { vertical-align: super; font-size: smaller; } Funny thing about my new book: I had begun shopping around the proposal for writing it long before my brief period of employment with that other magazine and the subsequent witless chimp-brained media freakout and Caffeine-Free Diet Maoist struggle ... Read More