21 years passed between Jean Simmons’s first Oscar nomination which she received for playing the ill-fated Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and her second one in which she played a depressive, suicidal, alcoholic housewife who escapes her life to find some happiness in The Happy Ending, written and directed by her then-husband Richard Brooks. Nobody really ever complains that Jean Simmons is an actress who didn’t receive enough love from the Academy – two nominations seem to be a very fair reward for her overall career, even though her work as Sister Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry would have made a very deserving third nomination.
I don’t know if Richard Brooks wrote the part of Mary Wilson especially with his wife in mind – the role itself is the rather stereotypical depressed housewife, with alcohol, attempted suicide and a trip to the Bahamas to spice things up, and it’s not hard to imagine a lot of other actresses in this part. Jean Simmons faces the dilemma that in a lot of her performances she displays an impressive variety of emotions and leaves no doubts about her talents as an actress but she rarely becomes as fascinating as other actresses in this role might have been. Jean Simmons is probably mostly referred to as the actress who resembles either Vivien Leigh or Audrey Hepburn but she does not possess the screen presence, pure beauty, charm or unforgettable charisma of either of those. Her appearance on the screen is always rather pale and quiet which worked very well in Hamlet where her performance perfectly captured the tragedy of her character or in Elmer Gantry in which she played a woman who overcame those obstacles by her believe in God. And it thankfully also worked very beautifully in The Happy Ending since this part basically required her to use her own lack of screen presence to play a woman who suffers from her own lack of happiness, from depression and regrets – a ghost of a woman that could not have truly been portrayed by an actress with too much dominance on the screen. The result is a strong and memorable performance that, again, maybe could have been more satisfying with an actress who possesses a stronger talent for carrying a movie that jumps back and forth between flashbacks and presence and who also could have made the journey of self-discovery more captivating but Jean Simmons was still a perfectly fine choice to play Mary Wilson and delivered some extremely heartbreaking but also intense moments and this way made an overall very deserving comeback at the Oscars this year.
Mary Wilson might be a rather stereotypical character but she is also a great challenge – Jean Simmons needed to find the right balance to play a woman who lost affection for her own family and her own life at the beginning and who makes a believable transformation to a new life at the end while delivering various dramatic moments in the middle. The Happy Ending is also a rather slow movie which desperately needed a leading lady who could overcome the obstacles of the often too contrived script and some less interesting moments and turn the story of Mary Wilson into a gripping and powerful tale – and Jean Simmons succeeded in all those tasks and made her Mary a very alive and energetic character despite her dissatisfaction and depressions. This way, her escape to the Bahamas is much more endearing than it could have been and the various flashbacks which show Mary in a hospital or dunk at a police station much more heartbreaking.
Right at the beginning, both Jean Simmons and The Happy Ending are off to a rather bad start – maybe her husband didn’t want to tell Jean Simmons that she didn’t look like a twenty year old girl anymore and so also cast her as the young Mary in college, long braids on her head, but these scenes are so ridiculous to look at that it takes some time to fully appreciate the domestic drama that follows. But Jean Simmons very soon uses her own personality which is always an intriguing combination of charming naivety and hardened bitterness to shows that Mary Wilson’s life did not follow the rules she knows from her favorite movies – the old black&white-classics she loves to watch always end with a happy couple and we all know that they will live happily ever after. So why does she feel so sad, so lonely, so helpless?
While Jean Simmons establishes her character very early, The Happy Ending takes some time before the troubles in the Wilson’s marriage become clear. The movie takes many rather confusing steps and presents Mary as some sort of enigma who goes to dark bars in the city and later meets her mother to get some money. Through flashbacks and other scenes it becomes clearer that Mary is having problems with alcohol and suffers from depression. In most of her scenes, Jean Simmons did the wise choice to avoid presenting Mary as a character who wears a constant mask – she shows that Mary is not suffering from her problems all the time, she is not like Virginia Woolf in The Hours who cannot even say one sentence without making her problems visible. Mary Wilson is a woman who recognizes her own problems and tries to escape them by escaping her family. In this sense, Jean Simmons chose a very wise characterization – she does not overstate her sadness but also does not play her arc of new self-discovery with any girlish excitement. There is a constant calmness in Jean Simmons’s acting in those present-day scenes while she keeps her more dramatic acting for the flashbacks which show Mary’s downfall. Her moments in the hospital are extremely moving but the most heartbreaking moment in The Happy Ending comes when Mary is at a police station and has to walk a straight line, something she is unable to do because of her heavy drinking. Jean Simmons plays this scene with total honesty and since she has already before explored the unhappiness of Mary so beautifully, this scene is even more saddening than it already is.
Jean Simmons also works very with all her co-stars. Even though she is clearly the central character with the showiest arc, she also seemed to understand that her role is also the quiet pole in The Happy Ending around which all the other characters circle. She leaves the saddened reaction shots to Teresa Wright, the cheery spirit to Shirley Jones and the constant worries to John Forsythe and that way allowed her own character to become a very independent creation. With John Forsythe, she mostly excels in their fighting scene – when she finally lets out all her restrained emotions during an argument in their bedroom, Jean Simmons become much more alive than usually on the screen since she so often lets her own calmness overtake her characters. And with Shirley Jones, she believably develops a beautiful friendship in just a few moments but never turns Mary into an admirer of Jones’s Flo who refused to get married so far and instead preferred to lead a life of being a mistress to married men instead. During the scenes on the Bahamas, Jean Simmons also avoids to fall into the clichés that the script throws upon her – the story of a lonely woman who goes on vacation alone only to end up with a former friend who has the exact right personality to get her out of her emotional hole is as old as it is unconvincing but Jean Simmons does not overdo any of her scenes here and does not turn Mary around 180 degrees – she may show Mary’s downfall with all the extremes that accompany it, from breaking down in a dressing room to hiding liquor in a perfume bottle, but she does not do the same with Mary’s escape. There is no large amount of hope in Jean Simmons’s acting in those scenes, she plays them with a lot of subtlety and never suggests that everything will turn out for the better. When she finally moves out of her house and starts to take lessons at the university, it is not the freedom that Mary desperately wanted but rather a first step for her to see if this different life will be better for her. With this, Jean Simmons achieves much more satisfying and touching results as she refuses to give the audience a happy ending in The Happy Ending.
Overall, Jean Simmons delivers a very touching performance in a challenging role that took good use of her own characteristic screen presence and charisma. She showed the few ups and many downs in Mary Wilson’s life and while most of her performance seems to follow a standard formula for depressive characters, she still mixed it with various refreshing and unusual acting choices from which The Happy Ending benefited greatly. For all of this, she receives