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Jane Russell, 1921-2011

Posted by Mark Feeney  March 1, 2011 01:58 PM

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Jane_Russell.jpgMovie history works in funny ways. A gifted actor or actress can have a long, even distinguished, career and yet somehow never become a vital part of it. Deborah Kerr's six best actress nominations and lifetime achievement Oscar notwithstanding, who remembers her? Nor is entry guaranteed by looks. Jennifer O'Neill, say, or Jacqueline Bissett (especially Jacqueline Bisset) possessed phenomenal beauty, but neither has the small, but also solid and enduring place in movie history that Jane Russell does.

Russell, who died yesterday, wasn't much of an actress. She had an easy, sleepy, slightly sassy presence -- she was too good-natured to be real sex bomb -- that neither pounced on the camera nor backed away from it. It was a diffidence that served her well in some pretty strange screen situations, such as sharing a musical number with Roy Rogers and Bob Hope, in "Son of Paleface." She instinctively understood that less is more when performing on the big screen. She was like Robert Mitchum that way. As it happens, she costarred with him in two of her most enjoyable pictures, "His Kind of Woman" (think "Out of the Past" minus the despair) and "Macao" (directed by Josef von Sternberg, no less).

She wasn't one of the great screen beauties either. Russell had a spectacular figure, which was what first attracted the attention of Howard Hughes (see below). Her pouty mouth could have understudied for Angelina Jolie's (well, almost). And she had Jackie Kennedy eyes (see above) before anyone knew who Jackie Kennedy was. But her forehead was too high and square, her nose too long, her cheeks too full. That sounds more critical than it's meant to be. Russell was most definitely a most attractive woman. It's just that screen-goddess standards for beauty are insanely high, and part of Russell's charm was that she looked more natural in front of a bale of hay than she would have on Mount Olympus. Ava Gardner, by comparison, could do both.

The hay bale came courtesy of "The Outlaw," a once-notorious western that was Russell's screen debut. It's the first of her two free passes into movie history. Hughes produced and directed (the latter with a lot of help from Howard Hawks). He found the 19-year-old Russell working in a doctor's office and decided she had the makings of a star. Certainly, he thought she had the measurements of a star. Putting to use his background in aviation manufacturing, Hughes designed a special bra for Russell to use. She said she never wore it. But that bit of lore, when added to the movie's then-unprecedented run-ins with the Hollywood Production Code, made the film legendary.

Russell's other free pass involves Howard Hawks again. It's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." That 1953 musical is one of the handful of female buddy movies. It's also a sign of Russell's being a good sport, her willing to star in such a movie despite not being a blonde. She's teamed with Marilyn Monroe as a pair of cheerfully gold-digging showgirls. Monroe may be even better a foil for Russell than Mitchum was. Opposite Monroe, she seems so much calmer, smarter, more natural. Managing to be both amused and amusing, she's like a cannier, no-less-sexy older sister. Monroe's a toddler with an adolescent's urges Marilyn_Monroe_and_Jane_Russell_at_Chinese_Theater_2.jpgin a woman's body. Russell is all grown-up woman, completely comfortable in her sexiness as against Marilyn's wide-eyed breathiness. In an ideal world, Russell and Monroe would have ended up double-dating Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis (come to think of it, Russell would have been a knockout in men's tailoring), except that she'd have eaten Lemmon for lunch.

No, Mitchum was the right man for her. And that rightness found a fitting echo late in their careers. Russell pretty much dropped off the movie map by the end of the '50s. When it comes to movie history, intensity matters so much more than duration. So her greatest claim to fame in later years was a series of ads for Playtex bras (did Howard Hughes watch them?) where she uttered the quite-winning phrase "us full-figured gals." That was in the '70s and '80s. A decade later, Mitchum was doing voiceovers for the American Beef Council: "Beef, it's what's for dinner!" Just as Russell had managed to make buying lingerie sound wholesome, Mitchum managed to make eating meat sound healthy.
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(Boy, Mitchum sure looks like Sean Penn, doesn't he?)

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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