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#BornThisDay: Actor, Rosalind Russell

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“The Hired Wife” (1940), Universal Pictures via YouTube

June 4, 1907– Rosalind Russell:

“Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.”

Along with most gay guys my age, I simply must adore her, at the very least, for bringing all of us: Sylvia Fowler, Ruth Sherwood, Mame Dennis, Momma Rose and my favorite Mother Superior in film history.

Rosalind Russell was stylish, expressive, versatile, witty and smart. She was one of the best and busiest actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her career stretched from the 1930s to the 1970s and it encompassed all genres, but I especially appreciated her special talent for comedy, sophisticated or slapstick.

My favorite of her film roles was as Cary Grant’s foil, the fast-talking newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson in Howard Hawks‘ classic rat-a-tat screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940). The very best of the six different film adaptations of the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Broadway hit Front Page (1928), this one with Russell playing a role specifically written to be played by a man. What other female actor could pull-off this character with such authority and abandon, playing an ace reporter who can trade wisecracks with the best of the boys in the newsroom?

With Ralph Bellamy and Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday” (1940), Columbia Pictures via YouTube

But, most LGBTQ people hold Russell on the highest of Gay Icon pedestals for her definitive portrayal of Mame Dennis in what may be the gayest film of all time, Auntie Mame (1958). I caught it for the umpteenth time just last month. I always think I don’t need to watch the classic film one more time and then I come upon it while channel surfing and I get sucked right back into the madcap mayhem.

Russell won five Golden Globe Awards, a record at the time. She won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Ruth in the scrumptious Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green musical Wonderful Town (1953) on Broadway. Unbelievable, Russell never won an Academy Award, but she was nominated for My Sister Eileen (1942), Sister Kenny (1946), Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) and Auntie Mame. She was given the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy for her work raising funds and awareness for research and treatment of Rheuamatoid Arthritis from which she suffered so terribly.

Russell was born into a big Catholic Connecticut family. She studied at Marymount College in NYC, and at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts.

After finding work as a fashion model she started her stage career in the 1920s and she appeared in summer stock productions and minor roles in Broadway plays before Hollywood coaxed her, first with a contract with Universal Pictures, and then moving over to the number one studio, MGM.

She made her first film in 1934 with a prestige role in Evelyn Prentice opposite William Powell and Myrna Loy. During the 1930s, Russell worked really hard, appearing in films of all kinds and sometimes of dubious quality, until the studio brass finally realized that she was clearly made for comedy, with her expressive eyes and limber body. She often seemed to give performances that threatened to go way too over the top, but she would skillfully rein it all in, coming off as original, charming and very, very funny. Still, for most of her first decade as a film actor, Russell was mostly given the projects that Loy tossed aside.

With Norma Shearer in “The Women” (1939), MGM via YouTube

Her first truly great role was as Sylvia Fowler, the bitchiest of the bitches in The Women (1939), directed by gay George Cukor, a role she had to fight vigorously to win from the reticent director. In her memoir Life Is A Banquet (1977), Russell claims that Cukor kept asking for a bigger and more caustic performance, but she was afraid of making her all-female co-stars unhappy. She did manage to take the focus away from professional scene stealers  Joan CrawfordPaulette Goddard, and Norma Shearer, sometimes simultaneously. The film was a critical and box-office success. It boosted Russell’s career and brought her a reputation as one of the best comic actors in the biz.

The 1940s were her most prolific period for film work, but as roles for older females grew fewer (she was only in her 40s), Russell returned to the Broadway stage in the 1950s and she found unexpected success in musicals, reprising her earlier film role in My Sister Eileen in a new musical version of the same story, now titled Wonderful Town. She continued doing stage work, the occasional television appearance, or sometimes a supporting role in a film such as the prim school teacher in Picnic (1955), adapted from the play by gay writer William Inge.

“Auntie Mame” publicity shot, Warner Bros via YouTube

Then, along came that role to end all roles in the long running Broadway hit Auntie Mame adapted by gay writer Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee from the popular novel by gay writer Patrick Dennis. In a rare smart move by Hollywood executives, she was allowed to repeat the role in the film version in 1958, directed by gay Morton DaCosta who directed the Broadway play.  And I don’t care what you say, Russell’s Auntie Mame is the definitive Auntie Mame.

Russell returned to films during the 1960s, giving spry, smart performances as a lady of a certain age in A Majority Of One (1961) and especially in the musical Gypsy (1962), royally pissing off Ethel Merman who originated the role on stage. Raising the ire of Merman was a frightful thing. There has been a great deal of discussion among hard core musical theatre types (like me) about the casting of Russell in the film version of Gypsy, long considered Merman’s greatest triumph. But for me, Merman’s special gifts never came across well onscreen and Russell’s Mama Rose has the wit, bite and emotional range that work well on film, although she is no Barbra Streisand.

Russell wrapped up her long career in one of my favorite nun flicks (and I am a sucker for stories about the holy sisters), The Trouble With Angels (1966), along with its sequel Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968). Catholic educated Russell gave good nun. In a nice slice of meta, Russell famously portrayed the mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy. In The Trouble With Angels,  mother and daughter together again (for the first time) as Lee  portrays Mabel Dowling Phipps, interpretive dance instructor.

 

Lee and Russell in “Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows” (1968) Columbia Pictures via YouTube

Unusual for a figure in showbiz, Russell married just once, to Danish-American producer Frederick Brisson, whom she met through their mutual pal Cary Grant. Merman referred to Brisson as “The Lizard Of Roz”. Their marriage lasted 35 years, ending with her final bow in 1976, taken by that damn cancer. She was 69-years-old when she went. She is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, with of view of the former MGM lot.

“Flops are a part of life’s menu and I’ve never been a girl to miss out on any of the courses.”


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