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Images from Berlin, September 24, 2010





memo from europe


2010 archives




Saturday, October 16, 2010, 7:16 P.M., CET: "The liberal project began to fail when it began to lie." - Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1991. 


My reflections on the outcome of the Geert Wilders trial.



Saturday, October 16, 2010, 3:16 A.M., CET: The New York Times, almost a year after the Fort Hood massacre: "the gunman and his motive remain an enigma."  Here's what I wrote at the time. 

Friday, October 15, 2010, 6:12 P.M. CET:  Hurrah!  Maybe it's 10 minutes to midnight instead of five minutes to midnight: Wilders found not guilty on all counts. UPDATE, 7:42 P.M.: Leon de Winter provides a more precise explanation of what, exactly, happened today:

Here's a piece I wrote after attending an Islam debate in Oslo on Wednesday night.  And here's the text of the talk I was supposed to give in Rome last week.


Wedneday, October 13, 2010, 2:40 A.M. CET: Johan Norberg on the utter madness of the Swedish elite, as illustrated by its revulsion over the Swedish Academy's recognition of a writer who is that appalling, unacceptable thing - a talented non-Stalinist!


I was supposed to take part in a very special event last Thursday in Rome called "For the Truth, for Israel," but missed my plane.  At least I managed to write a piece connected with the event for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.  Here it is in English; here, in Italian translation, along with pro-Israel pieces by the wonderful Phyllis Chesler and others. 



Tuesday, October 12, 2010, 4:44 P.M. CET: A couple of recent pieces by me about two clueless articles on Islam and about the Geert Wilders trial in the Netherlands.


Here's a riveting video of a debate in which Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Douglas Murray argue against the proposition that Islam is a religion of peace, and a terrific look by Michael Moynihan at the politics of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Today, after reading Jamie Kirchick's unsettling coverage of the gay-rights march in Belgrade, and looking at the pictures he took during his gutsy sojourn into the midst of that hatefest, I found myself banging out this bit of silliness in an attempt to deal with the horror through humor:


10. Table manners of neo-Nazi thugs are definitely improving 

9. Children in prison now allowed to phone home every week

8. Sales of “Kill the Jews” t-shirts down 15% from last year

7. Air conditioning in torture chambers

6. They love Justin Bieber!

5. Giant posters of Stalin replaced by giant posters of Lenin

4. This year, for once, Serbia’s Eurovision entry was not a paean to genocide

3. Gays now beaten only to a semi-pulp

2. “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” finally dropped off bestseller list

1. Co-ed mass graves

Saturday, October 2, 2010, 7:55 P.M., CET:
At Pajamas Media, Rita Karlsen on a curious action by a major Norwegian publisher. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010, 11:47 A.M., CET:
My postmortem on the Swedish election.


Monday, September 20, 2010, 1:44 P.M., CET: New pieces by me on Camille Paglia, the Swedish elections, and the continuing failure of many people in the West to grasp what we're up against.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010, 12:58 P.M. CET:
 An updated version of my Koran-burning piece for HRS has now been posted at City Journal. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010, 6:53 P.M. CET:  Sorry for the long silence.  It's been a busy time, both personally and professionally.  Since I last posted here, both my better half and I have lost the persons, other than each other, who were our closest confidants: respectively, his mother, Elisabeth, and my aunt Ruth. 

I've been in the habit of memorializing my dead on this blog, but I don't have the heart for it now.

Anyway, I've resumed writing for Human Rights Service, with pieces on the Ground Zero mosque and that would-be Koran-burner in Gainesville, Florida.

Here's something that will be an interesting test for the Obama Administration.  This is exactly the sort of person who should be granted asylum in a free country.  If he's turned down, my already low esteem for the President will hit bottom.  (Hat tip: Fred Litwin's Gay and Right blog.)

I was pleased to learn that Mayor Bloomberg, at the 9/11 memorial ceremony in New York yesterday, quoted from a poem by my old friend Dana Gioia, but that 's about all I was pleased by.  It seemed telling, somehow, that Bloomberg, in his brief remarks, managed to mispronounce both Dana's and Willa Cather's names: are he and his people so halfhearted about all this 9/11 stuff that it didn't even occur to any of them to make an effort to find out how to pronounce these people's names correctly?  (Of course, it's depressing that a mayor of New York is apparently unfamiliar with the names of one of the great American novelists and one of the most important living American poets, but that's another matter entirely.)  

Tuesday, June 15, 2010, 7:12 P.M. CET:  Here in Norway I've been officially singled out as an Islamophobe; my reaction here

Saturday, May 29, 2010, 7:45 P.M. CET: Two strong pieces in English at the HRS site.  Rita Karlsen shows how the official Norwegian statistics bureau, with the help of the editors of the newsweekly Ny Tid, is continuing its familiar practice of playing games with statistics in an apparent effort to persuade the innumerate public that immgration and integration are going better than they actually are.  (For some reason, if you read the piece in Internet Explorer, the line of text following each of the two tables is missing; read it in Firefox and the problem mysteriously disappears.)


And Hege Storhaug makes use of affecting family stories to recall Norway's own progress over recent generations toward greater individual liberty - a liberty that is profoundly threatened by Islamic collectivism. 



Thursday, May 27, 2010, 11:12 P.M. CET: Since I last posted here, I've been in the U.S. again, about which I wrote (in Norwegian) here.  There have also been several pieces well worth reading at Human Rights Service's international pages, including Alex Knepper on his experience with media attitudes toward Islam and a three-parter (beginning here) by leading Quebec anti-jihadists Marc Lebuis and Étienne Harvey on everyone's favorite Islamist in sheep's clothing, Tariq Ramadan.



Thursday, April 29, 2010, 4:09 P.M. CET: Here's me (in Norwegian, sorry) on the Oslo Freedom Forum, an extraordinary gathering of heroes, and its decadent enemies in Norway's far-left media establishment.  And here's a terrific piece by Peter Whittle about the refusal of leftist politicians to acknowledge or address Islam's extraordinarily dangerous dogma on homosexuality. 


Saturday, April 24, 2010, 3:42 P.M., CET: Quote of the day: “It’s an absurdity to think that eating hormone-containing chicken can change the sexual orientation of a person.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010, 2:17 P.M., CET: Just received in the mail: New Threats to Freedom: Thirty Great Writers on Cultural Trends that Are Undermining Our Liberties, edited by Adam Bellow and with contributions by Anne Applebaum, Bruce Bawer, Peter Berkowitz, Max Borders, Richard Epstein, Jessica Gavora, Michael Goodwin, Daniel Hannan, Alexander Harrington, Mark Helprin, Christopher Hitchens, James Kirchick, Greg Lukianoff, Barry Lynn, David Mamet, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Tara McKelvey, Mark Mitchell, Michael Moynihan, Chris Norwood, Glenn Reynolds, Naomi Riley, Christine Rosen, Ron Rosenbaum, Stephen Schwartz, Lee Siegel, Christina Sommers, Shelby Steele, and Dennis Whittle.

Meanwhile, new at the international pages of the Human Rights Service website: German political scientist Clemens Heni reports on the increasingly vicious anti-Semitism in the mainstream German press, and Philip Wendahl examines anti-Semitism in Malmö -- and the refusal of civic leaders to face up to this chilling reality. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010, 5:29 P.M. CET: For those who have still only been exposed to the mainstream media hogwash about Tariq Ramadan, read this excellent trilogy of pieces by David Solway, the thrust of which is corroborated here by Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi.  There's also a hell of a lot about Ramadan in Surrender, by the by.  He's become something of a litmus test for the Western media: see how any given media organ reports on him, and you'll get a pretty good idea of how far they've meandered down the primrose path toward total appeasement of Islam. 


During his current tour of North America, Ramadan has received almost consistently friendly, if not idolatrous, media treatment, but in Montreal, I am delighted to report, the très formidable Marc Lebuis is responding to Ramadan's visit there with a press conference which will take place today beginning at 2 p.m. EST - that is, about two and a half hours from now. The speakers: Tarek Fateh, author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State; Salim Mansur, author of Islam's Predicament: Perspectives of a Dissident Muslim; Naser Khader, founder of Muslim Democrats of Denmark; and Zuhdi Jasser, President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.  Links to live streaming videos of this promising event - in both English and French - can be found at Marc's excellent website, Point de Bascule (Tipping Point). 


Thursday, April 15, 2010, 3:14 P.M. CET: On Tuesday I got back from four weeks on the West Coast of the U.S., my longest stay in my native country since since I moved to Europe in 1998.  My trip back included an extremely brief layover at O'Hare, where I picked up a copy of the Chicago Tribune.  Which is how I happened to read this shameful piece of pseudo-journalism about Tariq Ramadan, who had spoken the previous Saturday under the auspices of CAIR's Windy City branch.  Written by one Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, the Tribune article is basically a puff piece which presents Ramadan, in the usual fashion, as a moderate Muslim bridge-builder. 


Yes, Ahmed-Ullah includes perfunctory mentions of (unnamed) critics who dispute that Ramadan is a "moderate Muslim" and of his family ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (which Ahmed-Ullah generously describes as "a political group in Egypt with a violent past").  But she makes no reference to the mountains of evidence that Ramadan is an out-and-out Islamist and a chronic practitioner of taqiyya (i.e., making friendly-sounding noises when speaking to audiences in the language of the infidel, but preaching contempt for the infidel when lecturing in Arabic).  Nor does she share with her readers the fact that Ramadan was recently dismissed from a chair at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and from his position as an "integration advisor" for that city when it emerged that, while holding those positions in the Netherlands, he was also hosting a series on Iranian state television.  Ahmed-Ullah whitewashes CAIR in similar fashion.  Tribune readers who did not know better would come away from Ahmed-Ullah's article with the clear impression that both Ramadan and CAIR - proven enemies of Western freedom, sexual equality, and secular government - are benign bridge-builders and champions of American values. 


In short: yet another example of the breathtaking media duplicity on the subject of Islam that I document exhaustively in Surrender. 


* * *

While in the U.S. I filed three pieces for Human Rights Service, which (sorry) are only in Norwegian: letters from San Francisco and L.A. and a report on my conversation in Monterey with Shelby Steele. 


Monday, March 15, 2010, 11:03 P.M. CET: The other day I learned that an acquaintance here in Oslo, aged sixty-something, had died of complications following a slip on the ice in which he hit his head.  This news came while I was still recovering from a fall on the ice in which I broke one or two ribs.  Both of these mishaps took place on sidewalks in downtown Oslo. 


Ever since I first moved here ten years ago I knew that one day I would end up with a major injury resulting from a fall on the ice.  I spent most of my life in New York, which also can get a lot of snow in the winter, but the difference is that in New York and other American cities people are out shoveling sidewalks as soon as, and often even before, the snow has stopped falling, so that however cold it is and however much the snow piles up, the sidewalks are generally clear, walkable, and safe.  In Oslo, by contrast, even the most heavily trafficked downtown sidewalks can spend weeks at a time covered in ice, as smooth and slippery as skating rink.  A few weeks ago, in Skien, my husband saw an elderly woman slip on an icy sidewalk in the very middle of town and slide several yards down a major street into oncoming traffic.  She could easily have been run over, but was lucky enough to survive.  I don't know if she broke anything. 


Such incidents are far from uncommon in Norway.  And yet, year after year, even the sidewalks in front of major hotels, department stores, and public buildings remain icy for week after week, with nobody, apparently, seeing it as his or her responsibility to make them safe.  My theory has long been that the explanation for this is a kind of stubborn Viking toughness, an attitude that "Hey, we're Norwegians, we're not scared of a little ice."  Whatever the case, the public thoroughfares in this country are more dangerous than they need to be for long periods every winter, with the result that people suffer serious injuries and even, in some cases, die unnecessarily.  It's about time people wake up and change their behavior. 


Saturday, March 13, 2010, 2:57 P.M. CET: In order to compete more effectively with Islam for adherents, Christians in Africa have been ramping up the persecution of gays.  In Malawi, for example, gay people are being arrested and risk long jail terms.  Today comes the news that Norway's ordinarily spineless Minister of the Environment and International Development, Erik Solheim, while on a visit to Malawi, actually dared to mention the gay issue to some of that country's leaders.  This apparently caused outrage in Malawi, which, as it happens, is "one of the most important collaborative partners for Norwegian aid" -- in order words, one of the top recipients of tax money from Norwegians, including gay Norwegians. 


One might hope that Norway would put a halt to these handouts immediately pending the release of Malawians who have been imprisoned for being gay.  But no, of course not.  Solheim was quick to revert to form: "I think we should be careful about making threats.  If we do, we punish the poor and deny children schooling, because we disagree with the authorities about homosexuality."  Aftenposten adds that Solheim "fears...hard fronts on the gay issue."  In an increasingly Islamized Europe, this has become a familiar enough posture on the part of supposedly liberal-minded European leaders (Solheim belongs to the Socialist Left Party): they're all too willing to sacrifice the rights, the security, and even the lives of gay people in order to preserve what they think of as friendly relationships of the sort that their multicultural ideologies compel them to maintain -- never mind that their "collaborative partners" are moral monsters.  .


As an example of the kind of muddled thinking that typifies Solheim and his ilk, here's a direct quotation from him, courtesy of Aftenposten: "We must avoid the formation of an idea that there there is a European [view] and an African view.  There are different views of this in Europe and Africa."  What a masterpiece of pure self-contradiction!  One couldn't improve on that sentence as an embodiment of the absurdity at the heart of the multicultural mentality.


* * *


At Human Rights Service's international pages, here's a piece by me about recent attacks on HRS and here's a terrific analysis by Henryk Broder of the appeasement mentality as it manifests itself in today's Germany.


Monday, March 1, 2010, 3:45 P.M. CET: Some recent must-reads at Human Rights Service's international pages: a piece about the man named "role model of the year" by Norway's Ministry of Children, Equality, and Social Equality, who, it turns out, supports the criminalization of homosexuality; an illuminating look at Pakistan's systematic abuse of Ahmadi Muslims, whose offense is practicing a humane, modern Islam; and reflections on the current debates about the proposed hijab ban in Norwegian schools.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010, 3:16 P.M. CET: In his London Times column last Sunday, Andrew Sullivan recalled a turning point of gay American history that the academic Queer Studies crowd tend to drop down the memory hole and that the mainstream media are, for the most part, ignorant of: "Gay conservatism first found its footing in the US in the late 1980s and early 1990s — with the publication of Bruce Bawer’s A Place at the Table and my own Virtually Normal.

I might add that the establishment of gay conservatism was only part of a larger development that those books helped initiate.  For those books' main accomplishment was that they spoke to gays from across the political spectrum who lived more or less ordinary lives and who felt that the radical gay left - with its wholesale rejection of mainstream institutions and of democratic capitalism - simply did not speak for them.  Our books told those gay people: You aren't alone.  As a result, more and more of them worked up the nerve to come of the closet - thereby pulling back the curtain on the real gay America and dispelling the stereotypes and caricatures of the past. 


Nothing has been the same since.  Today, more and more gay American teenagers live in a world where they are truly angst-free about their orientation, where they can come out to their families, teachers, and friends and experience nothing but acceptance, and where they can plan careers and find love and quite simply proceed with their lives with no more or less emotional trauma than their straight siblings.  It's a world that not long ago was, to many of us, unimaginable.



Tuesday, February 23, 2010, 4:44 P.M. CET: Attention, francophones: Marc Lebuis, who blogs at Point de Bascule, has posted a link to a radio interview I did with Benoit Dutrizac when I was in Canada last September.  I spoke in English, but it's dubbed into French.


Monday, February 22, 2010, 7:38 P.M., CET: My review essay on John Cheever appears in the Winter issue of the Hudson Review, which just arrived in my mail today.  (Not online.) 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010, 12:15 P.M. CET: Today's Aftenposten contains an account of my spouse's and my experiences with a less than gay-friendly bus driver and hotel clerk as recounted earlier on this blog.  The article omits the names of the bus firm (TimEkspressen) and the Skien hotel (Dag Bondeheim hotell og kaffistova), as well as the link to the You Tube video documenting part of our exchange with the charming hotel clerk.  (Dere som kan norsk blir spesielt oppmuntret til å se på videoen.)

On Friday I interviewed Geert Wilders in The Hague; video here.  (Innledning på norsk her.

Friday, January 29, 2010, 12:19 A.M. CET: Well, and now Salinger has shuffled off this mortal coil.  Here's my take on his career, originally published in September 1986 and reprinted in my 1988 book Diminishing Fictions. 


Thursday, January 28, 2010, 3:02 P.M. CET: And now Louis Auchincloss, one of the great American writers of our time, is dead at 92.  My review of his Collected Stories, quoted in the Times obituary, is here; I also wrote about him here.  Five years ago I was honored to be asked to introduce him at the 92nd Street Y.  He was a remarkable artist and a true gentleman.  If you haven't read him, do so. 

Also dead is Howard Zinn, who perhaps did more than anyone else to damage popular conceptions of American history.  The only good reason to read him is to see what kind of propaganda passes for legimitate American history in countless college courses both in the U.S. and abroad.

Sunday, January 24, 2010, 3:35 A.M. CET:  I fell in love with Jean Simmons - who died on Friday - when I was thirteen.  I have loved her ever since.  I know exactly when I first became aware of her: it was April 7, 1970, the day the Academy Awards for 1969 were presented.  I was in my parents' living room in Queens, and a few hours before the Oscar telecast, I picked up that week's TV Guide from the coffee table, opened to that evening's listings, and saw a tiny picture of her in one of those boxes that TV Guide reserved for special broadcasts.  She was one of the nominees for Best Actress, for her performance in a movie called The Happy Ending.  She was beautiful, but there was something beyond her beauty that struck me, and that evening I rooted for her to win, not even having seen her film.  She lost to Maggie Smith, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. 

Not long afterwards I went to see The Happy Ending.  She was wonderful.  It was the year of Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Goodbye, Columbus, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and in a way The Happy Ending, written and directed by Simmons's then husband, Richard Brooks, was a typical movie of the era.  While casting a sardonic eye on suburban life, capitalism, and middle-class marriage, it depicted divorce, rather glibly, as an act of self-fulfillment for women deadened by the failure of their lives to measure up to youthful expectations.  Yet at the same time, it was a wistful tribute to romance and to an earlier era when romance's stock in Holywood had been higher than it was in 1970.  Playing Mary Wilson, a middle-aged Denver housewife who sneaks drinks during the day because the romance has gone out of her marriage, Simmons was transcendent, concluding a bitter late-night argument with her husband (John Forsythe) - who has shriveled from a knight in shining armor into a slick business exec from Central Casting - by telling him that she's going to go turn on the TV and watch Casablanca, starring Bogart, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid.  To which he counters: “Dead!  Dead!  Dead!”  “Dead and buried,” she spits back, “they’re more alive than we are!” 

Even then, old-movie fan that I was, I recognized, on some level anyway, that pictures like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy represented a dramatic revolution in cinematic style and taste and values from the era that had produced, well, Casablanca.  Some aspects of that revolution were positive.  But in many ways, oh, what a falling off was there!  What I didn't yet grasp was that Jean Simmons was arguably the ultimate personification of everything good that that revolution set out to destroy.  She embodied gentility, civilization, decency - yet at the same time she had a breathtaking range, shining in bedroom farce, Shakespearean tragedy, heart-tugging romance, and musical comedy.  In all her performances she exuded an extraordinary delicacy of feeling, a remarkable ability to bring together sensitivity and humor, tenderness and human dignity.  Human dignity: the dignity of the human heart, of human feeling, of human relationships.  When one thinks of her work, those are the kinds of words that keep coming to mind - and they aren't necessarily the first words you think of when you think of, for example, Easy Rider or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

Some of her films are available these days on DVD, and a handful show up regularly on cable.  But many of the most memorable of them - a surprising number, in fact - almost seem to have vanished into the mists of time.  I was lucky.  When I was in my teens, they turned up regularly on New York TV, and I watched them again and again, often staying up until dawn's early light to do so.  It was in this way that I got to see her multiple times in The Actress (1953), an absolutely enchanting, unpretentious film, exquisitely directed in black and white by George Cukor, that was based on Ruth Gordon’s autobiographical play Years Ago.  As a stagestruck teenager in Quincy, Mass., whose working-class parents (Spencer Tracy, Teresa Wright) can’t make heads or tails of their shy, unworldly daughter's sudden fierce determination to become a star, Jean Simmons made her character's combination of grit, naïveté, and over-the-top self-dramatization at once touching and funny; the scenes between her and Tracy are especially priceless for their emotional nuance. 

Then there was Home before Dark (1958), for which she won a Golden Globe nomination for her searing performance as a woman who, released after a stay in a mental hospital, returns home to her husband, whom she had suspected - irrationally, she has been led to believe - of being involved with her sister.  Aljean Harmetz, in Simmons's New York Times obituary, quotes Pauline Kael's verdict: “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.”  I think I saw Affair with a Stranger (1953), which objectively speaking was a very lightweight story about a young playwright (Victor Mature) whose sudden success tempts him to stray from his adoring wife (Simmons), at least twenty times, just because I loved watching her.  It must be a quarter century since I last saw it.  And it's probably just about as long since I last saw All the Way Home (1963), based on James Agee’s autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, in which Simmons played a young woman in early 20th-century Knoxville, Tennessee, who loses her adored, high-spirited husband (Robert Preston) in an automobile accident, is plunged into the very depths of sorrow, and must struggle to find her way back to life, love, hope, and responsibility for her small son.  Her mesmerizing, magnificently controlled portrait of a woman in anguish is nothing less than heartbreaking.  She should've won an Oscar, but wasn't even nominated.  (Patricia Neal won for Hud.)

During those years when New York TV was crammed with old movies, I also got to see the extraordinary work Simmons had done in now-classic films when she was still a girl in England.  (She was born in London.)  At only 16, she had already been capable of giving - to borrow Kael's words - a beautifully modulated performance, in this case as the young Estella in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946).  The movie’s one major weakness is that Simmons grows up into Valerie Hobson, who, though a fine and attractive actress, causes the magical romantic tension between Estella and Pip to evaporate instantly the moment she appears onscreen.  I always felt that Simmons, even at 16, could have carried off the job of playing the adult Estella, too.  After all, two years later, surrounded by classically trained actors of the very first rank who had decades of experience in stage productions of Shakespeare, Simmons stole the show as Ophelia in Olivier's Hamlet, bringing to the role a naturalness of feeling and expression that stood out amid all the proficient soliloquizing.  Simmons made the cover of Time, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (her only Oscar nomination aside from the one she would get two decades later for The Happy Ending), and won a prize at the Venice Film Festival.  Many critics singled out her performance as the film’s best:   “We know who we are,” read the tag line on the Time cover, “but know not what we may be.” 

There were other early British movies, some better than others, but I wouldn't have missed any of them, and over the years I watched them again and again on TV just to see her.  In The Blue Lagoon (1949) she played the part Brooke Shields took in the 1980 remake; Adam and Evelyne (1950) was a cute romantic comedy; So Long at the Fair was a missing-person mystery set at the 1896 Paris Exposition; "Sanatorium," the closing segment of Trio (1950), based on three Maugham stories, was about a young couple with serious medical problems who fall in love and bet on life; The Clouded Yellow (1950) was a thriller.  None are classics, but they represent a time when even the less distinguished productions of major U.S. and British studios tended to have certain standards - in regard to, among other things, coherent narrative structure and at least halfway literate dialogue - that would be swept away by the Easy Rider revolution.  And she brought to all of these films a poise, a humanity, an air of civilized feeling, that nowadays can often feel gone with the wind.  

In the fifties she left Britain for Hollywood, where she starred in the MGM costume drama Young Bess (1953) as the princess who would grow up to be Queen Elizabeth I.  Her characterization is richer than a casual viewer might realize: Simmons credibly captures Bess's playful side in her scenes with little brother Edward VI, captures her Tudor toughness in a standoff with her father (Charles Laughton, reprising his Henry VIII turn), captures her puppy love – evolving into full-scale passion –  for the dashing Admiral Thomas Seymour (Stewart Granger, Simmons’s then husband), and captures her affectingly conflicted feelings for Katharine Parr (Deborah Kerr), Henry’s last queen and later Seymour’s wife, whom the princess simultaneously adores and betrays. 

Then came Desirée (1954) and Guys and Dolls (1955), in both of which she played opposite Marlon Brando.  In the latter film, as missionary Sarah Brown, an innocent surrounded by shady Broadway gangsters, she was not only very funny and touching but even sang.  Though she disparaged her own singing, she had a sweet voice and imbued her songs – including “I’ll Know” and “If I Were a Bell” – with feeling and conviction.  (Years later, starring in A Little Night Music onstage, she rendered “Send in the Clowns” more movingly, in my view, than anyone else has ever done.)  She won a Golden Globe for Guys and Dolls, but wasn't even nominated for an Oscar.  She went on to essay a range of parts in a range of films: in the Runyonesque romantic comedy This Could Be the Night (1957), she's a prim schoolteacher from Newton, Mass., who finds a night job as a secretary in a seedy Manhattan night spot; in Until They Sail (1957), she's a self-possessed young war widow who tries her hardest not to fall for a U.S. officer (Paul Newman) stationed in her hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, during World War II; in the Western epic The Big Country (1958), the actress from London is the ultimate American heroine, projecting a classically Wild West strength, independence, and wry humor as the smart, self-reliant cattle rancher and schoolmarm who stands nobly alongside Gregory Peck against two trigger-happy landowners feuding over water rights. 

During the 1950s Simmons also became a fixture of epics set in ancient times, playing the hero's serene, devoted love interest successively in The Robe (1953), The Egyptian (1954), and Spartacus (1960) To Spartacus, in which she acted alongside a battalion of scenery-chewing male stars – including Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, and of course Kirk Douglas as the eponymous gladiator-in-training turned slave general – Simmons imparted a core of gentleness and humanity without which the picture would have been a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  Spartacus was an event, and the same year saw the release of the equally formidable Elmer Gantry, for which Burt Lancaster, as the eponymous Jesus-huckster, ended up winning the Best Actor Oscar and Shirley Jones was named Best Supporting Actress for playing a hooker and thereby violating her wholesome Oklahoma image.  But Simmons’s performance as Sharon Falconer, a tent-meeting evangelist à la Aimee Semple MacPherson, was the standout.  It was by far the film’s most complex role, and she put it over brilliantly, combining a convincing spirituality with an equally persuasive carnality.  Harmetz also quotes Kael on this performance: "Simmons is one of the most quietly commanding actresses Hollywood has ever trashed."  (And this from a critic who was generally allergic to refined English actresses.)  And as if Spartacus and Elmer Gantry weren't enough, 1960 also saw the release of The Grass Is Greener, a frothy Noel Coward-ish item in which Simmons is hilarious as a rich, bubble-headed London floozy whose aristocratic friends’ (Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr) marriage is on the rocks.  But there was no Oscar nomination for Simmons that year.  (Liz Taylor won for Butterfield 8.)

The Happy Ending, coming as it did at the beginning of the post-Easy Rider era, marked an ending of sorts for Simmons.  Yes, she kept working, doing bad TV movies, accepting guest spots on shows like Murder, She Wrote and a recurring role on the 1991 revival of Dark Shadows, starring in the inane miniseries North and South, and even playing Miss Havisham in a TV version of Great Expectations that she had to have known would end up being considered an embarrrassment alongide David Lean's exquisite original.  Her determination to keep working, even in small roles in unworthy projects, seemed to me a mark of character, though after a certain point I couldn't bear to watch her in all these awful things.  It was also painful to see her fame gradually fade.  I remember reading or hearing, years ago,  that when somebody asked Cher if she wanted to meet Gene Simmons - the member of the vulgar, disgusting rock band KISS with whom she would end up living for several years - she said yes, eagerly, because she thought she was being invited to meet Jean Simmons.  There was once a skit on the old Carol Burnett Show - I don't remember the specifics, but it seems to me it was a parody of epic movies about the Roman Empire - and Burnett came onstage looking like a mess, and got a laugh with the line "What did you expect?  Jean Simmons?"  For many years, when people referred to Gene Simmons of KISS, they would say - they would have to say - "Gene Simmons of KISS."  But at some point, they just started saying "Gene Simmons," and everybody understood.  I found this terribly sad - not just for Jean, but for everything that, in my mind, she represented, and that had been, it seemed, irrevocably lost.

The whole award thing is strange to try to make sense of.  Of course it doesn't make any sense, and it's silly to expect it to.  In 1953 the National Board of Review presented Simmons with its Best Actress award for Young Bess, The Actress, and The Robe - and in the same year the Academy totally ignored her work in all three films, bestowing its statuette instead upon newcomer Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.  Director William Wyler had originally wanted Simmons for Hepburn's role, but Howard Hughes, to whom she was under contract, had refused to release her.  "Those who knew her said she was generous, modest and unassuming," writes Harmetz in the Times obituary, and as an example of these qualities, which are not necessarily ones we would immediately associate with many of today's movie stars, Harmetz notes that after seeing Roman Holiday, Simmons phoned Hepburn and said, “I wanted to hate you, but I have to tell you I wouldn’t have been half as good.”  Over the years, I've met people who had known or even worked with Simmons, and their accounts were entirely consistent with Harmetz's.  Alan Young played opposite her in Androcles and the Lion (1952), and when I met him decades later at the home of mutual friends, his face lit up at the mention of her name.  "I'm still in love with her," he said. 

As it happens, I was fortunate enough to discover for myself that in person she was, indeed, exactly as Harmetz describes.  As with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman (if you haven't seen it, rent it), our paths crossed three times.  In 1974, after seeing her in A Little Night Music at Westbury Music Fair on Long Island, I went backstage, a nervous, adoring teenager, and she was graciousness itself.  Years later, a family friend who ran the publicity office at Good Morning America tipped me off that Jean Simmons would be coming in the next morning to tape an interview, and invited me to drop by.  The next day, my friend and I happened to run into Simmons and Julie Andrews (who was there for a live interview) at the very moment when the two actresses ran into each other at the GMA studio, and they were both every bit as kind to me, a nobody, as they were to each other: the very best of old Hollywood incarnate. 

But my most prolonged encounter with Jean Simmons was on the Warners lot on August 10, 1982.  She was filming The Thorn Birds, in which she played the heroine's mother (a role for which she would win a supporting Emmy), and I had arranged to write a piece about the production of the miniseries so that I might have an excuse to talk to her.  I was not disappointed.  We talked on the set for about a half hour and she was as sweet as could be.  I was in heaven.  She had nothing negative to say about anybody she had ever worked with - she seemed truly to have liked all her co-stars and to have felt honored to have played opposite them - and she seemed genuinely shocked when I mentioned some detail from one of her earlier movies: "You're much too young ever to have seen that!"  Indeed, for someone who had been a movie star for as long as she had, she was astonishingly self-effacing, and appeared to be almost uncomfortable talking about herself.  When the four (or was it three?) handsome, strapping young actors who played her sons in The Thorn Birds appeared on the set, she waved them over, introduced each of them to me, and praised them to the skies in a patent attempt to turn my attention away from herself. 

Thursday, January 21, 2010, 2:45 A.M. CET: Wednesday marked the beginning of the pre-trial hearing of Geert Wilders, who -  in what not long ago was widely considered the most liberal country in the world - faces charges of having spoken his mind, and for this risks a prison sentence of up to a year.  My piece for Human Rights Service about this obscenity also appears on the City Journal website.  Wilders, though  unimaginably busy preparing for his case, was also gracious enough to answer questions for Human Rights Service in an interview published simultaneously by Pajamas Media. 


Wednesday, January 13, 2010, 1:59 P.M. CET: A few updates.  Here's something I did for City Journal last week.  At the international pages of Human Rights Service, Angelo Pezzana has a piece on Italy's lack of debate about Islamization, while Rooshanie Ejaz describes "the tension in the air these days" in her homeland of Pakistan.  Finally, a couple of eye-opening pieces by my colleague Rita Karlsen at Front Page Magazine and Pajamas Media.  

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