The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Jan 252010
 

Three great—and gorgeous—actresses of the Silent (born 1925-1942), all born in 1929: Audrey HepburnGrace Kelly, and Jean Simmons. Now the last of them has passed away. (Grace Kelly, while certainly as gorgeous, OK, maybe wasn’t as great an actress as the other two, but come on: Her career pretty much ended upon her enthronement at age 26.)

Interesting how the serial parade of marriages and divorces of this cohort of actresses (typically starting, as with these three women, with older G.I. (born 1901-1924) manly men) presaged the later divorce revolution of their entire generation. What was OK only in Hollywood in the 1950s became OK in Peoria by the 1970s. Ditto for the alcoholism and drug abuse. And cigarettes, though this addiction spread through the generation a lot earlier. Note that Simmons died of lung cancer.

Not surprisingly, many of their films dealt thematically with people trying to break out of repressive social, religious, and (especially) family environments. Some of these were comedies, like “Roman Holiday.” Many were a lot darker, like “Two for the Road” or “A Nun’s Story” (Hepburn) or “The Happy Ending” or “Home After Dark” (Simmons). There are probably others. I’m not the film critic.

They all knew how to play (as this article notes) “the demure helpmates” of strong leading men. They were outstanding for their decency, humanity, and attention to emotional subtlety and nuance of manners. Here they really outshone their Lost and G.I. elders. Wonderful quote here by one reviewer of “Home After Dark”: “Jean Simmons gives a reserved, beautifully modulated performance that is so much better than the material that at times her exquisite reading of the rather mediocre lines seems a more tragic waste than her character’s wrecked life.” Not often we hear that about Generation X (born 1961-1981) actresses coping with Boomer (born 1943-1960) and Silent Generation scripts!

And of course they came of age at a time when the veil of modesty wrapped over anything erotic was considerably more opaque than it is today. Though who is to say that this did not actually intensify the longing and the desire? There is a great line in a People story on Simmons in 1987: “For men of a certain age, the memory of seeing Simmons naked from the back in the 1960’s ‘Spartacus’ ranks high among their early carnal thrills.”

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  • jenx67

    I wonder which is harder – for the Silents to lose their icons or for the Gen X children of Silents to see the Silents pass. RIP Jean Simmons. It always tripped me up when my father talked about you. Our Gene Simmons – so much less urbane. *KISS*

  • Mttdrn83

    Let's not forget the iconic actresses of the G.I. Generation: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Ava Gardner, Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth