"I think she's very pretty," says poor young Pip of the slightly older Estella. "I think she's very proud." Extraordinarily pretty and proudly defiant: that was the indelible first impression the 17-year-old Jean Simmons made on moviegoers in David Lean's Great Expectations in 1946, at the beginning of a long, full career that lasted from her early teens to her death on Jan. 22 in Santa Monica, Calif. She earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, in the 1969 The Happy Ending, to go with the Supporting Actress Oscar nomination she had received for playing Ophelia to Olivier's Hamlet in her teens.
Born Jan. 31, 1929, in London her schoolteacher father Charles had competed as a gymnast for England in the 1912 Olympics Jean Merilyn Simmons was blessed from youth with a beauty the camera simply had to capture. The striking quality in Simmons was the waywardness of her beauty: a triangular face dominated by large eyes and high cheekbones leading to a small, voluptuous mouth that could be sullen or amused. Her attitude promised a challenge to any man who would seek to love or tame her. That's clear in Great Expectations, where she calls Pip a "coarse little monster" at one moment and says, "You may kiss me if you like" the next. She steals Pip's heart, and breaks it, with the same cool smile.
A version of this story previously appeared on TIME.com on Jan. 24, 2010.
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