Monday, February 28, 2011

God Speed Jane Russell

Jane Russell

Jane Russell was a full-figured woman with flare and attitude. She spoke her mind and wasn't afraid of what people thought of her. I think her impervious personality, her thoughtfulness as well as her down-to-earth nature was what Robert Mitchum, her best friend for many years, admired so much about her. In fact, she was the only non-family member who attended the spreading of Mitchum's ashes.

In the book Baby I Don't Care: Robert Mitchum, Lee Server says the following about Russell's early friendship with Mitchum.
Bob and Jane got along like old buddies... She would rave about his astounding command of the English language - even as he would tell her she was the most inarticulate girl he knew. He would tease her about her God-fearing ways, but he understood she was no Loretta Young, wallowing in piety. He loved to tell the one about the pestering report who couldn't believe a girl with her 'image' read the Bible and went to church each Sunday. 'Hey buddy,' she told him, 'Christians have big breasts, too.' She was good-natured, generous, strong-minded when she had to be, a stand-up guy. Mitchum nickname her 'Hard John.' They became fast friends. 

If you haven't seen the Private Screenings episode with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell being interviewed by Robert Osborne, I highly suggest you watch it. You learn a lot about both of the actors as well as their dealings with Howard Hughes and their days at RKO. I hope TCM will show it soon with Jane Russell's recent passing.

God Speed Jane Russell. Hope you'll continue to be fabulous wherever you are.

Here is the trailer to my favorite Jane Russell film, His Kind of Woman (1951).

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Uglification of Bette Davis & the Oscars

The Oscars are just around the corner and in thinking of these awards, I'm reminded how, in the past 10 years or so, the Academy has favored actresses who have transformed themselves physically for their movie role with nominations and/or Oscar statuettes. In an industry that is so focused on a specific type of beauty, the fact that these actresses were willing to sacrifice what they had in order to throw themselves into a role that they believed in is in many ways admirable. Let's look at a few examples:

Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry (1999) - won
Salma Hayek in Frida (2002) - nominated
Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002) - won
Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) - won
Mo'Nique in Precious (2009) - won

While this seems like a recent trend, it has happened in the past. Certain classic film actresses chose to strip their makeup and expose themselves to the harsh unforgiving lens of the movie camera in order to honor their character's role in the film. One that comes to mind is Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938). Yes I know it's one of her "prestige" films and she donned wigs, makeup and fabulous period costumes throughout the film. But at the end of the movie, when Marie Antoinette is imprisoned and about to be beheaded, there is a poignant scene with Norma Shearer, sans makeup and with a worn and fearful expression on her countenance all of which makes you forget that she is the Queen of MGM.

The best example I can think of, of a classic film actress undergoing a dramatic physical transformation is Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Essex and Elizabeth (1939). Davis was determined, at all costs, to look the part of Queen Elizabeth I. And in a time when historical pictures were frivolous with facts and details, it's admirable to see how devoted Davis was to being as historically accurate as possible.

From the book, Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk

[Makeup artist] Perc Westmore... shaved Davis's hair back two inches, thus underlining the reality of baldness under the red wigs and hairpieces. He then applied white, pasty makeup and shaved off her eyebrows, replacing them with thin lines that, in Robert Lord's words, 'made her look like a baby in a Halloween mask and costume.'
Davis spent much time studying portrait reproductions provided by the research department, seeking to approximate Elizabeth's actual appearance as accurately as possible. Her own appearance meant nothing to her - only historical accuracy. 'Make me up horribly, and dress me outlandishly - I don't care, so long as you get the essence of the original,' she told Perc Westmore and [costume designer] Orry-Kelly. 

Yet Bette Davis didn't win the Oscar for this performance. She wasn't even nominated for it. Instead, the Academy favored her performance in Dark Victory (1939) more and she was nominated for that role. If Bette Davis had done the same two performances in today's day and age, would she have won for Private Lives of Essex and Elizabeth instead?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fireball (1950) and thank you to @WarnerArchive

Fireball (1950) is pure novelty! From the campy plot, to Marilyn Monroe's supporting role, to Mickey Rooney on roller skates. It's a film I've been waiting years to see, ever since I had plotted to watch every Marilyn Monroe film known to man. And I've seen a lot. The good, the bad and the downright ugly. I watched a horrible late Marx Bros. movie for just a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe. I suffered through scenes with Ricardo Montalban macking on a not-so-sexy June Allyson in front of her then husband Dick Powell in Right Cross (1950) ::shudder::. But I've also discovered some really great films such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Clash By Night (1952) and All About Eve (1950). I've seen most of Monroe's catalog except for 4 and folks are not even sure if she's in 2 of those! What I really wanted to see was Fireball. Mickey Rooney, roller skating and Marilyn Monroe. That was enough to sell me on it. It helps that I had a career in roller skating too (a short career that ended with a broken hand).

Mickey Rooney plays Johnny Casar, a rebellious teen who is desperate to get out of the orphanage run by Father O'Hara (Edward O'Brien). Desperate for a meal, he steals some roller skates to pawn them for some cash. But when a cop stops him, he's forced to pretend the skates are his, puts them on and rolls on down the street in comedic fashion and lands himself right in front of a diner. This is when a series of opportunities present themselves to Johnny, and the eager young man seizes every single one of them and eventually rises to become a Roller Derby star. Marilyn Monroe is a sophisticated party gal who is in with the ritzy crowd but is titillated by the danger and excitement that comes with watching Roller Derby (it's like a fancy gal watching a boxing match in a pre-code!).

There is a lot of Mickey Rooney hate out there but you won't find it here. I love Mickey Rooney. For pete's sake, I drove all the way to Atlantic City to see the legend perform on stage. Rooney was as far away from me that glorious night in NJ as our television screen is from my sofa. Rooney is a pint-size ball of energy and his forte was entertaining on screen and on stage with that endless enthusiasm. Rooney was perfect for the role of Johnny. He had a knack for physical comedy and his energy allowed him to keep up with all the skating (and yes he did skate in most of the film!). If anyone is going to play a tireless pint-size athlete with a stubborn will to succeed, it's gotta be Mickey Rooney. (May I suggest a double feature with Rooney's other got-himself-in-too-deep film Quicksand (1950)?)

What's so wonderful about the Warner Archive is that we get to see all of those wonderful films that have been collecting dust for years in the Warner Bros. vaults. They are wonderful for a few reasons. Some are so bad, they are just so much fun to see. Some are real jewels, ones we've lusted after for years but were always out of reach. Some are brand new discoveries, eye-opening adventures. So thank you Warner Archive for putting out Fireball (1950). I thank you from the bottom of my Mickey-Rooney-Marilyn-Monroe-Roller-Skating-loving heart.

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