Jean Simmons and Claire Bloom were born within two years of each other to families living in London just a few miles apart.
Both would sign contracts with J Arthur Rank. Both would audition to play Ophelia to Laurence Olivier’s on-screen Hamlet – Jean would get the role. Both would go on to become movie stars. And both would fall for that arch-Casanova, Richard Burton.
Jean is born in 1929 and becomes one of J Arthur Rank’s “well-spoken young starlets”. Her big break comes when David Lean casts her as Estella in Great Expectations (1946). It’s this experience that leads her to pursue an acting career more seriously:
I thought acting was just a lark, meeting all those exciting movie stars, and getting £5 a day which was lovely because we needed the money. But 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.
The next year, she’s the subject of a pitched battle between Laurence Olivier, who wants her to play Ophelia in Hamlet, and Michael Powell, who wants her for Kanchi in Black Narcissus. Michael Powell recalls:
Over Jean Simmons there was war between Larry and me, as I have already said. Messages flew to and fro between the opposing camps:
“Dear Larry, anybody can play Ophelia. I can play Ophelia. How about Bobby Helpmann? Love Micky.”
“Dear Micky, how you could imagine that a typical English teenager, straight from the vicarage, can play a piece of Indian tail, beats me. I enclose a book of erotic Indian pictures to help your casting director. Love Larry.”
“Dear Larry. Thanks for the book. I do my own casting, but it will come in handy for the make-up department. Micky.”
“Dear Micky. Viv has read Black Narcissus. She wants to know if you are serious about Jean playing Kanchi?”
“Perfectly serious. Micky.”
“Dear Micky. Arthur Rank suggests that our two production managers get together over Jean Simmons. Do you agree? Larry.”
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Love Micky.”
In this way did the two plum parts of the year fall into Jean Simmons’s luscious lap. She was lovely in both of them. I don’t think that she was ever quite so good again.
In 1950, Jean Simmons marries Stewart Granger, with whom she has fallen in love on the set of Caesar and Cleopatra, but she’s been spotted already by Howard Hughes, a notorious lothario. His company, RKO, buys her contract and he lays siege to her romantically and professionally. In his autobiography, Sparks Fly Upward, Stewart Granger describes a phone conversation in which Hughes propositioned Jean. On hearing Hughes say, “When are you going to get away from that goddamned husband of yours? I want to talk to you alone, honey,” he grabbed the phone and shouted, “Mr Howard Bloody Hughes, you’ll be sorry if you don’t leave my wife alone!” For over a year, she doesn’t work – she gets off lightly compared with Jane Greer, who just a few years earlier suffered a similar but more protracted fate at Hughes’ hands.
At a 1952/53 New Year’s Eve party, Jean is kissed by Richard Burton. And, according to Tom Rubython (And God Created Burton), one thing leads to another… The Burtons are house guests staying in a cottage in the grounds of the Grangers’ sumptouous Beverley Hills mansion. Richard waits until Sybil is asleep, then creeps out to the woodshed. Silently, one by one, he moves the logs so as to squeeze through a flap at the back of the shed that provides a way to the main house, where the Grangers sleep in separate bedrooms.
Stewart is completely unaware of what ensues. Richard slinks to Jean’s bedroom, pushes open the door, sweeps her into an embrace and makes love to her on a big sheepskin rug before creeping back to his still sleeping wife. And it’s not a one-off. The clandestine nocturnal encounters go on for months — yet neither Richard’s nor Jean’s spouse ever suspects a thing.
Claire is born in 1931 and, age 10 and at the height of the Blitz, is sent to Florida to stay with her uncle. She returns two years later, having made her radio debut. She follows it up on stage age 15 and within just two years she’s playing Ophelia opposite Paul Schofield and Robert Helpmann at Stratford-upon-Avon. A year later she makes her West End debut in The Lady’s Not For Burning opposite the up-and-coming Richard Burton. “I thought how beautiful he was with those green eyes.”
In 1950 she’s contacted by Charlie Chaplin, who is looking for an English actress who is “small, dark and very young”. Claire, as it turns out, bears an uncanny resemblance to his wife, Oona. She flies to New York, with her mother as a chaperone, for an audition. Four months later, she’s offered the part of Theresa, a young, suicide-bent ballerina saved from despair by an aging music-hall clown (Chaplin).
Her autobiography gives a fascinating insight into Chaplin’s working methods:
When we did begin, all that meticulous rehearsing paid off – we played beautifully together. He was happy with me and I was thrilled. But then came the true test when we moved from the simple dialogues to the scene where Theresa discovers (hysterically) that she can walk again. As a young actress I had difficulty in weeping and I dreaded the scene. I knew that the tears wouldn’t come when needed. The morning of the shooting, at the height of my panic, I was summoned to Chaplin’s dressing room. He said he wanted to go over the scene purely for the moves and the words. “I want no emotion. Save that for the floor.” I obeyed. Suddenly Chaplin was furious with me, as though I’d shattered a second mirror. “But, Mr Chaplin,” I weakly protested, “I thought that was what you wanted – just a technical run-through of the scene.” This remark drove Chaplin into a greater fury. “There is no such thing as technical acting, only bad acting!” I started to weep, and was steered by him onto the floor, where the crew, notified beforehand of his plan, were ready to begin filming immediately. We shot the scene in one take.
It’s 1954 and Claire is once again on stage with Richard Burton. She’s playing Ophelia to his Hamlet at the Old Vic. William Squire, one of her co-actors, recalls in an interview shortly after Richard’s death:
Richard was mad about her and wanted her, but I told him, “It’s no good, Rich, she won’t have you. She won’t have anybody.” He said, “I bet I’ll have her.” I said, “You won’t, you know.” He asked, “What do you bet?” This was a matter of his honour now. A challenge! So I said, “A pint.” … It didn’t take Claire long to become attracted to Richard without him doing anything. She was sitting with me in the stalls watching him rehearse on stage, and she said to me, “He is really rather marvellous, isn’t he?” I knew then I’d soon be owing Rich a pint.
And Richard does indeed win his bet and take Claire’s virginity:
We made love quietly in my room with my mother sleeping upstairs. Richard left me in the early morning to go back home, and I went to sleep happy and childishly thrilled that I was a “woman” at last.
Claire gives Richard the key to her house, and he often sneaks into her bedroom. Before sunrise, he goes back to his wife, Sybil, telling her he’s been out drinking all night with friends. And that’s not all. According to Richard, “We’d make love in our dressing rooms between the matinee and the evening performance”.
In his later years, Burton told his biographer, Michael Munn, “’I only ever loved two women before Elizabeth (Taylor), Sybil was one, Claire Bloom the other.”
Jean Simmons and Claire Bloom on screen
You’ve read the stories and looked at the pictures.
Now deepen your appreciation with a glimpse of both actresses on screen. Jean Simmons is wonderfully sensual as Kanchi and vulnerable as Ophelia. Claire Bloom shows her versatility, equally at home with stylized melodrama and gritty realism.
Jean will go on to become one of Hollywood’s most popular leading ladies. But despite a dazzling start to her career, she will rarely find roles to match the talent so many colleagues and critics recognized in her. She will divorce Stewart Granger in 1960 and marry Richard Brooks, an American screenwriter, film director, novelist and occasional film producer.
Claire will become a movie star with regular appearances on TV as well as developing a serious career on the stage. She will marry three times: to Rod Steiger, to Hillard Elkins and to Philip Roth.
In 1963 on the set of Anthony and Cleopatra, Richard will meet and fall in love with Elizabeth Taylor, another north London girl, and embark on one of the 20th century’s great romantic entanglements. But that’s another story.
Want to know more?
There’s plenty on all three characters in Wikipedia and IMDb. If you want to go beyond those sources and various online obituaries, it’s worth getting hold of:
- Claire Bloom’s autobiographical Limelight and After: The Education of an Actress
- Michael Mann’s biography, Richard Burton – Prince of Players
- Michael Powell’s A Life in Movies.