Magazine | March 8, 2010, Issue

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 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.

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