“Who’s that pretty lady, mommy?” I remember asking when I first saw Jean Simmons in The Robe, a religious film that was one of the few I was permitted to watch growing up Catholic. (I had already seen The Sound of Music six times.)
Simmons, I found out, was a British actress who played Ophelia to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, and would have starred in A Roman Holiday had not Howard Hughes, who was obsessed with Jean, locked her in a studio contract. Audrey Hepburn is thought to have imitated Simmons for her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role in that 1953 film.
Simmons shone in films like Young Bess, Guys and Dolls and Elmer Gantry, and worked with all the greats, including pot smokers Dalton Trumbo and Robert Mitchum. She was married to British actor Stewart Granger, who describes his longtime drinking problem in his autobiography Sparks Fly Upward, where he also related that Jean admired Mitchum for his laid-back style, and wished Granger could have been more like him. Granger and Simmons ultimately divorced, in no small part due to his alcohol problem. Some reports say she too struggled with alcoholism and was treated at the Betty Ford Center in 1986. It is also thought she had been treated successfully for breast cancer years before.
Lady Simmons, who became a US citizen and was knighted by her native country during her lifetime, was a surprising signatory to a 2005 petition to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair asking him to refrain from upgrading cannabis from a class C drug to a class B. Sting and former Spandau Ballet star Gary Kemp also signed the petition, circulated by www.release.org.uk, more famous recently for their “Nice People Take Drugs” campaign.
I wrote Simmons several letters asking if she would tell me whether her decision to sign the petition had anything to do with her experience with Mitchum, or her own experience, but I never got up the courage to send them. I hadn’t heard that Simmons died on January 22 until I saw the Academy Awards yearly tribute to their fallen comrades. Her work, and her actions, will now have to speak for themselves.
Ellen Komp is an activist and writer who manages the website VeryImportantPotheads.com.