3/2/11

Goodbye Jane Russell: It Gets Sappy...You've Been Warned

I've written briefly about Jane Russell before. Everybody says this now, but I really did grow up loving Jane Russell. (Pardon my hipster moment.) The short version of this blog is that I loved her and I'm sad she's gone. But there's so much more to my life with Jane, we have a long history together. Even though she never knew it.

Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong place and time, because I've always identified so much with the old timey dames of the silver screen. I used to go to grade school after an all-night movie fest and try to talk how people spoke in the old movies, use their jargon and affect their accents and my fellow kids would look at me like I was nuts. "Eee gads," I might start, "however did you manage to get your hair in those ringlets?" I would say to one of the popular girls trying to make a connection, thinking I was being clever and funny talking like the showgirls in Cover Girl. They would stare blankly at me with wide eyes and back away, not understanding what weird voice I was putting on, not having any gauge or reference to what I was talking about. Hard as it was for me to believe, not everyone came from families where film history was an important part of growing up. Being born for geekdom, I didn't have a chance at making a connection with any other little film geeks. Not yet anyway...

I was a hopeless insomniac as a child, all the way through junior high school. Pair that with my obsessive movie watching habits, and when I tell you that I would literally watch movies all night long, I mean that I would literally watch movies all night long.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was in my regular rotation along with Ziegfeld Girl, all the Marx Brothers movies, Shall We Dance and a several more "regulars". But Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the one I watched the most.



There are several reasons I think, looking back, why that movie was my favorite. First of all, it had everything I loved. It had travel and adventure and comedy. Second of all, my oldest sister Shannon introduced me to the film (and many others). She was the first real movie geek I ever knew, and still, she was the most serious and dedicated film lover I've probably ever known, forgoing long nights and weekends out in her teen years and early adulthood to stay at home and watch movie after movie that we rented from the library for free. Classic after classic. She had an endless hunger for film. An endless appreciation.



More than any of that though, the movie had Jane Russell. Russell was a revelation to me. Most of the classic movies that I watched had delicate flowers of leading ladies. Fragile women that needed the care and protection of a man. I loved Marilyn Monroe, I still do, but even as a kid there was something about her comically needy onscreen presence that occasionally irked me, causing my attention to drift in the middle of The Seven Year Itch. I know. It's sacrilege to say that, but there it is. And it's the truth. I know Monroe was different off screen than she was on and what she was doing was an act, a pitch perfect mirror of the sometimes sad reality about what men really wanted back then. A helpless little nymphette. By spoofing the very idea, Marilyn was projecting a different kind of strength and intelligence.

But then, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, there was Jane. After an entire childhood packed with Monroe, when my sister introduced me to Russell, I was thrilled. I was captivated. I was hooked, literally, on that movie. I loved it like a friend, ridiculous as it is to say, and watching it became a part of my life routine.

Once in the early nineties, when arriving home from a long Griswold-style family road trip to the Grand Canyon at 4:00 a.m., my parents went straight to bed. I was exhausted, but I popped in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and watched the early morning light of the Indiana sunrise fill the living room. I was only able to drift off to sleep after the end credits had rolled.

Russell was eerily modern. She was witty and sarcastic. She was proto-Tina Fey. She was funny and strong and self-aware, she was something the world didn't know yet. She was woman, hear her roar. She was tall and amazonesque compared to Monroe. She had a loud strong voice and her character spoke with a frank honesty that would've been considered unladylike back then. After her scandalous "too sexy" debut in the western The Outlaw, that I also watched over and again, I figure Russell had nothing to lose. So she developed a personae without the typical fears and anxieties that many young starlets had. (I think Sigourney Weaver's debut of strength has allowed her the same luxury. She can play anything now, sexy, silly, helpless, mean...and she's safe because she played her role as Ripley with such strength that everyone knows she has depth and range.)

More than anything else though, Russell was talented. She could sing. She could dance. She could be funny or dramatic. She literally had it all.

Jane Russell was someone I could want to be like, all the way, without any caveats. She was a strange kind of amalgamation of what we now know as action heroine strength combined with all the class and romance and femininity of the golden age of Hollywood.

When Shannon died tragically in a car accident my freshman year in high school, when she was in her mid-twenties, I slipped into a kind of emotional coma. And guess who had a hand in pulling me out of it? Russell. When I was swimming in a sea of mysterious grief, I could pop in the VHS tape that had Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on it. When I was floating around in my living room in those long sleepless nights after my sister's death, like I was the only person on planet Earth, I could run my finger over the label hand written by Shannon. Touching the title on the white label written in her feminine bubble letters, in faded blue marker. I could watch the movie she introduced me to, I could remember the parts she laughed at, and it was my way of reaching my hand through the veil and trying to touch her life again. There comes a moment for everyone after they lose someone they love, a moment when they have to either give up completely or turn around and try to get back to being alive again. I can't tell you my exact moment, but it definitely took place during one of my insomniac movie binges. When what was on the screen was too good, too funny and full of energy for me to want to leave the party.

I think it may have been when Jane Russell does her Marilyn Monroe impression. Shannon used to laugh and laugh and laugh hysterically at that moment. She would lift her hand to cover her mouth when she let out a high  pitched squeak, and then she would pause the movie and get up to try to imitate it. Shannon had introduced me to enough good things, enough great movie moments, to know that life was worth living.

It's not that I worshiped Jane Russell. (Though if I were ever to live my lifelong dream of becoming a drag queen, Russell would be my second choice after Carmen Miranda.) It's that Russell had qualities I could admire, qualities I can still admire that made her different from almost all the other Hollywood actresses of her day. (Save for maybe Lauren Bacall.) I loved that in the film, Russell stood out. Russell was different than Monroe, different than any of the other women encountered in the plot. I was different too. Of course, I was different because I didn't understand basic human social rituals or how to match my clothes...but still. Different is different is different and watching her made me feel better.

Russell also had all the usual class and strength and talent, and let's not forget...ultimate beauty. She made me proud to be a brunette. Watching her made me realize for the first time that dark hair and dark eyes could be something attractive, growing up in the eighties in the Mid-West, I though bleach blonde was the only way to be. So Russell's very aesthetic offered me wonderful new insights.

And really, it's that Russell was like my sister. A spitfire, all woman and not ashamed of it, but also not one to ever play herself up as weak for anyone else's expectations. When you're a kid, you wander around like a little sponge, soaking up everything you see and hear. I think soaking up all of that old-movie sassy dame sensibility combined with my sister's willingness to be her own individual changed the wiring in my growing brain somehow. The more films I watched, the more possibilities I knew there were in life, the more I could handle growing up weird.

With Russell passing away, it's almost like I'm back to the April where my sister died. Back at the beginning of that long summer of watching movies all night, every night. But I know I'm not. It's just one of those fleeting moments. Jane is gone. Shannon is gone. It's like getting a shot, a brief wince of pain for a day or so and I'll be back in my present reality. Back to my life, not as a grief-stricken young teenager in my hometown but as an almost thirty-year-old happily married writer. I'm here now and people need to know about Jane (and Shannon) and plenty else in this world...so I write. I ramble on and on about great movies and fun memories and that's just how I roll.

It's so odd. The Earth stops spinning briefly because a movie star slipped away somewhere on the other side of the country...just a second or two. Just a day. Just a fleeting reminder of the last time the Earth stopped. How silly. What an unpredictable thing my brain is...who knew that a love affair with film would bring up these brief stings.

There's an upside to this down day though. There's someone I can call to talk about this moment in time, if I need to. My best friend Lindsay. Lindsay, who I met in junior high. A movie geek just like me. A partial insomniac, just like me. Someone who not only watched Jane Russell movies with me, but someone who stayed up on those late nights to try to learn Russell's dance moves and learn how to sing her songs. So I did find someone who understood my old movie geek speak after all.

So Jane, even though you're gone...ridiculous as I feel talking to you in my nothing little blog, I just wish I could tell you that you will literally never be forgotten. Not just because some people out there think you're funny or pretty, but because you really made a difference in my life.

Bye Jane...you were amazing.

 "Though you'll be gone for a while, I know that I'll be smilin'..."



1 comment:

Lauren said...

I was hoping you would write something about Jane. Wonderfully done. And when you told me I look like Jane Russell when we first met, it was the best compliment I ever received and still is. Love ya.