University Press of Kentucky, 2021
I’ve been eagerly anticipating Mean...Moody…Magnificent, because I couldn’t put down Christina Rice’s first biography, about Ann Dvorak. While this book is not the passion project that Rice’s debut was her follow-up is just as addictive; she is a skilled storyteller and researcher.
I thought I had a good handle on the life and career of Jane Russell, a woman who became famous for her figure and who endured thanks to great comic chops and a big heart. It turns out there was a lot I didn’t know about the way her career unfolded and the varied life she led beyond the movies.
What I found most fascinating was that as much as Russell enjoyed making movies and worked to keep her career alive, they were not the center of her life, though she took her work seriously and would even produce some of her own films. She was a member of successful singing group, a vigorous advocate for child adoption via her organization World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), and lived a life full of friends, family, and associates to whom she was loyal and loving.
While Russell only made twenty-five films, she covered a variety of genres, from musicals and comedy to westerns, drama, and noir. Despite having no training as an actress, she was able to succeed in any kind of role she attempted, partially due to her unusually robust self confidence.
She has excellent comic timing in The Paleface (1948), sings and cracks wise with ease in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and rises to the occasion in more dramatic roles such as her turn as an isolated housewife in Foxfire (1955) and as an enterprising lady of the night in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).
Even in the films that are not as good: like Russell's debut in The Outlaw (1943) and the minor crime flick The Las Vegas Story (1952), she has a dynamic presence, always elevating a scene with the simple gift of her charisma. She wasn’t afraid of work, but in a way she didn’t have to work too hard, there was an effortless quality to her acting which seemed to mirror the easygoing way she approached life.
In a way Russell could afford to be a little laidback, because while her decades-long contract with the eccentric Howard Hughes could be restrictive, being backed by the wealthy producer gave her some career security. It was also ultimately wise that she was loyal to Hughes when she could have left his employ, despite all the frustrations that came with being under contract to him.
There were also some occasionally destructive aspects to Russell, which Rice approaches with an eye for the complexities of the situations in which she found herself. She likewise makes a thoughtful analysis of the controversial comments the actress made late in her life which seemed to contradict the way she lived.
What struck me the most about the way this book was written was how refreshing it was to hear Russell’s story from the perspective of a woman. In a time when there are men in the classic film community who still find it hilarious to make jokes about the actress’ breasts on Twitter, I liked how Rice fully explored the way her figure drove her career without treating it like a punch line.
Even Russell accepted that her measurements were a significant part of her fame; she would not have been a Playtex bra spokesperson in later years if she hadn’t, but she also found it all a bit ridiculous, because she knew how much more she had to offer. Rice also understands Russell’s value beyond that prodigious bust line and she gives proper focus to the other skills and elements of the actress’ personality that kept her successful where mere sex appeal would not have sufficed. She shows the depths of a woman who lived well by believing in herself and embracing the world around her.
Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.