The first is that The Outlaw, the picture which established her as a Hollywood star, was held up for years -- years -- by the various voices which declared it immoral. Among the most prominent of these was the Roman Catholic Church. The second is that Russell was herself a committed and outspoken Christian of a socially conservative bent, who organized Bible studies for movie people and spoke freely and often about her faith.
The New York Times obit quotes her this way:
“These days I’m a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist,” she told an Australian newspaper, The Daily Mail, in 2003. Bigotry, she added, “just means you don’t have an open mind.”
The Times also tells us that she "remained active in her church," but it doesn't say which church that was. Since Russell hailed originally from Bemidji, Minnesota, we had some fond hope that she might have been one of our bigots -- and perhaps she was, once upon a time. But the Los Angeles Times obit says that her funeral will be held at Pacific Christian Center, an Assemblies of God congregation.
One moral subject of great importance to Russell was abortion, to which she was opposed even in cases of rape and incest. Her passion regarding the matter apparently grew from a botched -- and illegal -- abortion, which left her sterile. To her credit, she was also a passionate advocate for adoption. You'd be surprised how rarely those two passions are found together.
Russell was an alcoholic who, urged by her family, entered rehab at the age of 79. That takes a certain quotient of guts.
Now, this story offers ironies nestled within ironies. The woman became famous for something that was, by the standards of its time, morally questionable. These days, nobody much faults an actress for showing a bit of cleavage -- okay, a lot of cleavage, but all of it carefully arranged, with a wardrobe so carefully engineered as to allow not the slightest malfunction. Even in her time, the "scandal" was more a creation of Howard Hughes and his drive for publicity than of any widespread moral sentiment. And yet the fact is that, once again, yesterday's censored moral outrage is tomorrow's censorious moralist. Paging Chuck Colson!
It is a little sad that, for people of Father A.'s generation, Jane Russell will always be associated, and often primarily so, with her advertisements for the Playtex Cross-Your-Heart 18-Hour Bra. In our tender years, they introduced us not only to Russell, but also to the very ideas of a "full-figured gal" and a brassiere. Dare we say that, in later life, these ideas have been, ahem, foundational?) Obviously, she would never have made these ads if she hadn't already been famous for ... well, something. But for many of us, this was her legacy.
That's unfortunate, and unfair to Russell. She was an actress, and not by any means a bad one. Even after her time in movies ended, she did a lot of stage work, and continued performing into her 80s.
Truth be told, we've never seen many of Russell's movies. Westerns don't interest us all that much, and Bob Hope's mugging needs to be taken in small doses. But we have seen Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and more than once. It is, as they used to say, a swell picture. And she is swell in it, more than holding her own in a swell ensemble. In the LA Times obit, she is quoted complaining about her career: "Except for comedy, I never went anywhere in acting," which is a bit like saying that except for relativity, Einstein never went anywhere in physics. Comedy is notoriously difficult, and she had the gift.
Jane Russell died yesterday. Should you be so inclined, there any number of ways to honor her memory -- donating to one of her causes, or to your own parish, for example. That would be nice, at least if her causes are also yours. But we ourselves will probably just try to find a copy of Gentlemen, and watch it again, wishing there were more.