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Jean Simmons Picks Up Her Career Where It Started Four Decades Ago—with Great Expectations

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There are long engagements and there are long engagements. Forty-three years ago British actress Martita Hunt took up the veils of the bitter Miss Havisham, Charles Dickens’s abandoned bride who grows old in her wedding gown, in director David Lean’s classic film Great Expectations. At poor Miss Havisham’s side was her haughty young ward, Estella, played by an unknown 17-year-old actress named Jean Simmons. The film brought the British beauty her first brush with fame and gave her the encouragement she needed to make acting her career.

In a new three-part production of Great Expectations for television, Miss Havisham still waits amid cobwebs for her intended, but this time the lined face beneath the moldering bridal veil belongs to her former ward, Simmons. “I was just very surprised they chose me,” says the actress, now 60. “I knew it was being made, and I was already in my mind casting other actresses in the role—like Glenda Jackson or Vanessa Redgrave.” When she was approached, in fact, Simmons’s first reaction was apprehension. “I thought I could never equal Martita Hunt’s performance,” she says. “There was only one Martita Hunt, you know. But then I thought, ‘Yeah, why not? I’ll do it my way.’ ”

Simmons, who lives alone in Santa Monica, still feels a familiar dread about her new Great Expectations, which will premiere on July 9 on the Disney channel. “I get very depressed when I watch my work,” she says. “I always see what I could have done better. I watched myself on Murder, She Wrote the other night, and it was a terrible mistake. It was a two-parter, and I didn’t watch the second part.” She likewise declined to watch the rushes during filming of the new Expectations, a career-long practice she learned, in a way, from Laurence Olivier. “When I was doing Hamlet with Larry, I walked in one day to watch the dailies and started to giggle,” she recalls. “He threw me out.” While making Elmer Gantry for director Richard Brooks, whom she later married, she broke her habit and agreed to watch one scene he was particularly proud of. “I couldn’t work for three days afterward,” she says.

Such self-consciousness did not keep Simmons from turning in memorable performances in more than 50 films: She co-starred with Paul Newman in Until They Sail and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls, and she won Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for her Ophelia in Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet and for Best Actress for The Happy Ending in 1969. But Simmons still has a soft spot in her heart for the movie that launched her. “Working with David Lean was just wonderful,” she says. “And I was in great awe of Martha. The film still holds up today.”

Unlike Miss Havisham, Simmons has been married twice—to Stewart Granger, a tumultuous pairing that lasted 10 years and produced one daughter, Tracy, 32, then for 18 years to Brooks, with whom she had a second daughter, Kate, 27. Simmons won an Emmy in 1982 for a supporting role in the TV miniseries The Thorn Birds.

In passing her 43-year-old mantle to Kim Thomson, who plays the haughty Estella this time around, Simmons refrained from handing on any advice. “I would not have presumed to give her direction,” she says. “I think she’s terrific. We got on like a house on fire.” Quite literally. During the climactic sequence, in which her bedroom burns, “my cobwebs apparently caught on fire,” she says. “I didn’t know at the time, but then everyone started patting me down and saying, ‘Are you all right?’ Of course, I was.” The change of role from teen to old maid also left her spirits undampened. “Hopefully, I’ve accepted aging,” Simmons says. “I’m still here, which is better than not being here.” She even volunteers the information that no latex was needed to make her look older. “Just a little bit of makeup, but not that much,” she says. “What you see is what you get.” Then, laughing merrily, the new old Miss Havisham adds, “She looks god-awful!”

—Tim Allis, Suzanne Adelson in Los Angeles