|Mid 20th century sexpot, Jane Russell in a 'come hither' pose|
Described by film writer David Thompson as "immense and impervious", with her cascading raven hair, fine, wide-spaced eyes, red slash of a mouth and generous physical proportions swathed in sexy cloths, American 40s/50s actress Jane Russell was the walking embodiment of a wolf whistle. Yet unlike many of the other sex symbols of her era, Russell's persona was not that of the whispery, pouty sex kitten but rather a feisty lioness with a soft underbelly for the right man.
|Typically tawdry Macao poster|
While perhaps not the greatest actress (I couldn't see her playing Ophelia), through her considerable physical assets and a distinctive personality, she commanded attention and was well suited to the kind of simmering B grade dramas that were often thrown her way. She also had a wry line in smart rapport and a natural sense of humour: no small commodity in an industry plagued by ego and insecurity.
One of my favourite Jane Russell B films is Macao (1952), co-starring an amusingly cynical Robert Mitcham, William Bendix and Gloria Graham, a fabulously sulky B grade 50s actress. In Macau, a"fugitive's haven", Russell's earthy and highly sexy (naturally) character is allowed full reign in an exotic/erotic setting. Russell is perfectly cast as ultra-sultry nightclub singer, Julie Benton - wise to the antics of men and the ways of the world but capable of self-sacrificing passion, which she reserves for ex-serviceman Nick Cochran, played with cool aplomb by Mitcham. It's worth a watch just for the flirty 50s clothes, complete with hoop earrings and bust-popping halter necks.
It could be that Russell's unique film presence had its foundations in her rough and tumble upbringing on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley in California. Although she almost always played the sex queen, there was an undertone of true grit to her performances. Growing up she was a tomboy with four brothers, messing it up in jeans and check shirt amid the horses and hay and even as an adult she claimed to loathe fussy feminine preening and pseudo fragility. She believed women should be treated as men, receiving no special deference by virtue of their sex, yet she was no feminist and once declared "a man should be the head of the household and a woman the heart "(Guardian obituary).
|Jane Russell was an ideal 50s fashion plate|
The former tomboy's acting career took off after she screen tested for eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, who had launched a nationwide search for new talent with the va va voom factor. Immediately impressed by the va in her voom, Hughes adopted the nineteen year old as his protege, at one stage even inventing a special 'seamless' bra for her and on top of the money she received for her film work, paid her a 1000 dollars a week for life. Perhaps it was a possession thing but nice work if you can get it.
Hughes's first project for Russell, who had never acted before, was The Outlaw, a 1943 Western which Hughes co-directed with Howard Hawks (the latter uncredited) and which featured Russell as Rio McDonald, fought over object of desire by Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel) and Doc Holiday (Walter Huston). launched Russell aa star, helped along by some creative camerawork which focused on lingering close-ups of Jane's body parts..."just bend over to pick up those pails Miss Russell!" Her highly sexualised performance ushered in a new standard in breast-centred pin-up glamour that would follow through into the 1950s and turn aspiring stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield into screen goddesses - part-woman, part-Hollywood manufacture.
Russell went on to make many more films, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Underwater (another personal favourite) with Richard Egan and His Kind of Woman (1951) with Robert Mitcham. She also dabbled in some comic turns with Groucho Marx in Double Dynamite (1951) and Bob Hope in Paleface (1948), who described her as "the two and only...".
|Oh Mr Freud, what does that gun signify? Jane Russell in a publicity shot for Outlaw|
An American Ideal
These days I am a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist~ Jane Russell
Russell, who was nothing if not honest, died in 2011, aged 89. She had been a devout Christian since childhood and a staunch Republican as an adult. An early botched backyard pregnancy termination left her unable to have children but rather than supporting safe and legal abortion, in keeping with what appeared to be very black and white views, she became stridently anti-abortion.
Married thrice, first in 1943 to football player Bob Waterford, with whom she adopted three children, then in 1968, the same year as her divorce, to actor Roger Barrett, who died three months after the marriage and finally to real estate broker, John Calvin Peoples who died in 1999.
Film critic Mark Cousins, who wrote her obituary in The Guardian and met her in later life, recalled that Russell was "exactly as you'd expect her to be" - "no nonsense, down to earth" and "she laughed a lot". The contrast between Russell and her contemporary sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe is hard to avoid. Whereas the more fragile Marilyn got swept up and eventually mangled in the Hollywood image machine, Russell was able to detach and keep her feet firmly planted on the ground. There's a sense that perhaps she never took the sexy spiel too seriously or at least didn't let it get in the way of her own sense of identity.
|50s glamour in full force. Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes|
On screen, Jane Russell had represented an ideal of voluptuous womanhood at a particular time in American cultural history- sexual and feminine but at the same time, savvy and strong. Marilyn had been all hot sex and breakable vulnerability, while Jane was hot sex too but earthier and thus somehow more tangible. Male audiences searching for the American dream could fantasise about possessing such a woman as a running mate, taming her like a wild horse, until ultimately she would bend to his macho will. Quite a challenge.