Jean Simmons has died at the age of 80. She was a marvelous actress, one who began as a child star and had major roles in three classic films before she turned 20. Today we remember her primarily as the beautiful slave who bore the son of Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandal blockbuster, and perhaps as playing herself as the movie star who sends Felix Unger gaga in a memorable episode of “The Odd Couple.” We do not remember much more; her career never reached the heights predicted for it, primarily because she fell victim to sexual harassment by a powerful, unscrupulous man.
The man was Howard Hughes, the inventor, genius, aviator and movie mogul who was also a thorough cad. He bought Jean Simmons’s contract and brought her to Hollywood. As was his practice, he regarded her as both a talent and his personal chattel, and expected her to submit to him physically as well as professionally. The fact that she was married (to actor Stewart Granger) was irrelevant to Hughes, who was used to getting his way.
Simmons said no. Hughes was furious, and resolved to sabotage her career. He refused to lend her to director William Wyler, who wanted to star her in “Roman Holiday.” Wyler cast Audrey Hepburn instead, and the role earned her an Oscar and made her a bigger star than Simmons would ever be. When Simmons then refused to sign a seven-year contract with Hughes’s studio, RKO, he vowed to run out her commitment by assigning her to the worst films he could find, with the objective of ruining her career. He couldn’t quite pull it off; she escaped Hughes and RKO with her career more or less intact, but precious time had been wasted. Jean Simmons remained a second-tier star.
What Hughes did to her we now call sexual harassment, and it is illegal. Then it was simply what powerful men did, one of the most persistent impediments to women in the workplace, and often not even acknowledged as wrong. It was just as wrong then as it is now, however; laws don’t make an act right or wrong, they only help the unethical and the unscrupulous get the message. When you hear someone railing about the absurdity of sexual harassment rules in the workplace, or complaining about the seminar they have to attend, tell them about Jean Simmons, a woman who was never able to fully realize her gift because of one man’s lust and abuse of power.
Howard Hughes didn’t break any laws. He just wounded a good woman’s career, and robbed us of some great performances that never had the chance to be.
Unethical conduct can be as cruel as any crime.