This page specifically explores the sexuality as portrayed by Jean Simmons as Varinia in the film Spartacus (1960).
by Emily Drisch
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus, sexuality is addressed in ways that no other Sword and Sandal film has done previously. In this film, women are still deemed to have their so-called "good" sexuality linked to marriage, and independent sexuality linked to deviance or evil—like in the case for the Roman women who, bored and with too much money, “oogle” the gladiators “as if at a stockyard or zoo”. Varinia’s case, however, is slightly different. Yes, she is sexual with Spartacus--Spartacus allows her to be most comfortable in her sexuality, yet she, upon first meeting him, has the advantage over Spartacus in terms of sexual experience. Varinia, with the help of Jean Simmons (playing the part), Stanley Kubrick for his disregard for most Hollywood standards, and Dalton Trumbo’s superior script, is portrayed with notable progression and care.
Jean Simmons' Sword and Sandal Roles Edit
Jean Simmons Edit
Jean Simmons, a woman known throughout her career as playing “mildly rebellious women” played Varinia when she was 30 years old—this factor allowed Simmons to channel Varinia’s quiet experience, who is “above Spartacus in terms of her intelligence and experience” and was, according to many, “born to play the part” because Simmons was often thought of as demure but intelligent and powerful.
Diana in The Robe Edit
Jean Simmons' role as Diana in Henry Koster's The Robe was markedly different from her role in Spartacus. Diana is in love with Marcus (played by Cleopatra's Richard Burton)--devoid of much sexuality and mostly innocent, converting to Christianity to be forever with Marcus. However, Simmons used her characteristic quiet power to display Diana's bravery and gumption.
Varinia in Spartacus Edit
Varinia is much the same. British-born and sold into Roman slavery, she is a well-read, well-educated, and sexually experienced. When we first meet her, she is brought into Spartacus’s holding cell in order to please him sexually. She is indifferent, unafraid, as Spartacus regards her with fear and awe. He tells her that he has never “had a woman”. Thus, she then becomes the pillar for him, the one who answers Spartacus’s questions, has a life independent of his. When they are finally married, she then “willingly reserves her sexual expression solely for him, thereby maintaining the traditional structure of gender relations” of the film (and of the entire patriarchal outlook of that time—late 50s, early 60s), yet her power over him is never forgotten throughout the film--especially during the scene where she bathes naked in the river, exuding sensuality. So rare it is to see a woman on screen who is comfortable with her sexuality—especially during the time in which Spartacus was filmed and broadcasted.
Other women in Spartacus Edit
In contrast, the other women in the film are portrayed also as sexually free but with a sexist, negative connotation. It should be noted, however, that the women are cast to be the antagonist to Varinia. They regard the gladiators in a decidedly sexual manner, and their actions are there to highlight the ways in which the gladiators are treated—like animals in cages. Thus, women who are freely sexual are “bad” for the most part—Varinia is the exception, although, ultimately and conversely, her sexual nature is only truly accepted once she marries Spartacus.
Jean Simmon's Legacy Edit
Having four roles in major Sword and Sandal films--Androcles and the Lion (1952), The Robe (1953), and Spartacus (1960),--and an uncredited, small role in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) as a harpist--it is safe to say that Jean Simmons' role in Sword and Sandal films is large and ever important. She played each role with a sexuality that was steely yet open in Spartacus, acted with naive bravery in The Robe, and always elevated each film she was in.