Rachel Bellwoar reviews Mean… Moody… Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend…
Ever have that experience where you watch a movie starring an actor you really never paid much attention to before and suddenly all you want to do is find out more about them? For me, that’s what happened after watching the two films Jane Russell starred in with Robert Mitchum – Macao and especially His Kind of Woman, which also features Vincent Price in one of his funniest roles. Criterion Channel streamed both films in June to commemorate what would’ve been Russell’s 100th birthday, and while I’d heard about Christina Rice’s book before that, it wasn’t until I’d seen those films that I realized how much I needed to check it out.
What I didn’t realize is Rice’s book is the first biography to ever be written about Jane Russell. Russell herself released an autobiography in 1986, but that’s it. One possible reason for this is Russell wasn’t always mindful of her words and, especially as she got older, her Conservative Christian views lead to her being quoted as saying some very hurtful things. That Russell’s actions often contradicted her statements is something Rice is able to lay out for readers, and without ever sugarcoating, Rice’s book is a true testament to what’s lost when reactionary responses, however warranted, get the last word.
The Russell in Rice’s book is extremely human. Starting with her childhood, Russell was the oldest and only girl among four boys. Her mom, Geraldine, and producer, Howard Hughes, quickly emerge as key figures. Russell would work with Hughes for thirty years and her first film, The Outlaw, was produced by him. More than the film itself, the marketing campaign which heavily featured Russell is the stuff of legend and it’s amazing how much men felt entitled to say whatever they wanted about her breasts throughout her career.
Separating fact from fiction, Rice is able to dig up the real story behind how Russell was discovered, as well as shine some light on the parts of Russell’s career that might not be as well-known as her Hollywood years. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great behind the scenes stories, including Russell’s support of Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but faith was very important to Russell, and her organization, WAIF, would help lobby for legal change in making international adoption easier.
Like any working mom, making time for family was important to Russell too and two things that really stand out in this book is the longevity of her friendships and how diverse her resume was. From singing to being a spokesperson for Playtex, Russell never stopped trying her hand at new things, even when that meant stepping out of her comfort zone, and Rice’s chapter on Broadway’s Company might be a highlight.
Mean… Moody… Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend is available now from The University Press of Kentucky.