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CRITIC AT LARGE

Jean Simmons Blooms In 'December Flower'

February 19, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The career had begun in 1944 when she was 14, playing Margaret Lockwood's sister in a film called "Give Us the Moon."

Jean Simmons was still in her teens and under contract to J. Arthur Rank as one of the beautiful starlets he liked to call his British roses (a number that later included Julie Christie) when Laurence Olivier cast her as Ophelia to his Hamlet in 1948.

She'd never acted on stage, and while she had done "Caesar and Cleopatra," "Great Expectations" and "Black Narcissus," she had no confidence that she was ready for Shakespeare, opposite England's premier acting star.

But Olivier liked what he had seen. He sent her to an acting coach, Molly Touraine, to learn the part, auditioned her to be absolutely sure she could do it, then persuaded Rank to let him borrow her.

It was an experience that could have gone either way: to the kind of failure that was to haunt Jean Seberg all her days after "Saint Joan," or, as it happened, to stunning reviews, an Academy Award nomination and a fine, long career there and here, which continues.

Jean Simmons appears Friday night in an original drama called "December Flower" on the "Great Performances" series on PBS (KCET Channel 28, 9 p.m.). She plays a young widow who, seeking a warm human connection, goes to visit an ancient, bedridden aunt she has never seen.

The aunt is played by the glorious Mona Washbourne, a frail 84-year-old portraying an even frailer 85-year-old. Washbourne was Tom Courtenay's mother in "Billy Liar" and Glenda Jackson's "lion aunt" in "Stevie." She and Simmons are, as they say, a right pair.

The old lady is being hastened to an early death on a diet of sedatives and gruel. Nothing criminal, we understand; it's just that for her rotten son (Bryan Forbes) and his icy wife, Mother's effective life is over, and the sooner it's all done, the tidier. The house can be put on the market, and won't that be a nice little packet.

Simmons has other notions--getting rid of a surly housekeeper and taking charge. The Judy Allen script is both sweet and angry, and the revitalizing of Aunt Em is wonderful to watch. The message is that there are crimes of benign neglect that may not be actionable but perhaps should be, and that the quality of a life, any life, ought to be fought for to the last trump.

Simmons has lived in the U.S. since 1950. "I woke up one morning and found that Rank had sold me to Howard Hughes." Hughes, she says, was very pleasant to her, but the films were rather dreadful and she eventually fought her way out of the contract and over to Fox.

She has two daughters--Tracy, by Stewart Granger, and Kate, who is about to be married, by Richard Brooks. For the last eight years, Simmons has lived in a warmly comfortable house on a quiet curving street above Santa Monica Canyon, in company with a seigneurial black-and-white stray cat named Xerox, who has delivered no copies, to the best of anyone's knowledge.

Above the mantelpiece is an oil portrait done when she was 17 by Sir Matthew Smith, an artist better known, she says, for his buxom nudes. "He obviously didn't see that in me." He did see in her a dark, mature melancholy. "It wasn't right at the time, but I grew into it." She sighs. "Grew beyond it. I keep thinking things were five or 10 years ago. I discover they were, ahem, much longer ago than that."

She insists that she is "lazy, lazy, lazy" and has never been greatly fired with worldly ambition. Now she works as much as she wants to: "The Thorn Birds," for which she won an Emmy in 1983, and a forthcoming Perry Mason special. The "December Flower" production, a leisurely month's shoot in England, was a particular pleasure. The director was Stephen Frears, who did the current and highly regarded "My Beautiful Laundrette."

"You do makeup at 7. At 8 they serve you all sorts of fattening things, then at 9 the assistant director says, 'D'you think we might do a spot of rehearsal?' You work your fanny off all day, at 6 they pull the plug. They figure that people do have lives after shooting, and should be able to enjoy them. How civilized. None of that shooting of close-ups at midnight, when you feel just like it."

She would like to do something on stage again. She has had two quick-dying non-successes but did a three-year tour, including nine months in London, in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." There is talk of something in San Diego.

By now she has earned the luxury of choice, of saying yes to "December Flower" and no to whatever seems dispiriting.

"We've all paid our dues," Jean Simmons says. "We've done the best we can, and here we are."

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