Mean! Moody! Magnificent! Until you met her

Jane Russell was forgotten for sixty years, but yesterday she appeared on every front page. Why do film stars get such special treatment in death?

She died on Monday, aged 89, of a respiratory disease, with most in agreement that she did her best work in the 1940s.

She was married three times, with two of the marriages ending in divorce, one with much bitterness.

Alcoholism was a battle throughout her life and she spent a short time in jail for a drink-driving offence; a botched back-street abortion when she was 18 probably left her unable to have children.

In later years, having given up alcohol after her time in jail, she described herself as 'a teetotal mean-spirited right-wing conservative Christian bigot'.

And when asked what she thought of Hollywood stars with a social conscience like George Clooney, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, she replied: 'I think they're not well.'

She never did anything great. Yet Jane Russell's death is world news and her picture is on the front of every newspaper today. Why?

The simple answer is that Jane Russell was a film star. Few reading this will have heard of her because her era was the 40s and 50s.

In those days, she was very famous. 'Mean! Moody! Magnificent!'
was the publicity headline in her Hollywood debut in the 1943 film 'The Outlaw.'

The poster for the movie (above) featured Jane lying provocatively on a hay bale, and it was the defining image of her career.

Though a talented actress, it was her sex bomb image that made her a star.

But the star waned, and by the end of the 1950s Russell's film career was all but done, with only maybe four of her many films regarded as critical successes.

And it was all make-believe. Her screen persona was the creation of the publicity department and nothing like her real self. On screen, she was a sassy sex symbol and every man's fantasy. In real life, she held right-wing Christian beliefs and was a staunch supporter of family values and the American Way.

'Publicity,' she observed, 'can be terrible. But only if you don't have any.'

Here's looking at you
Why do we remember screen idols? They don't write the words they speak; they don't create the characters they play and rarely do they resemble them in real life.

Jane Russell was no devil-may-care sex symbol as we've discovered. Yet sixty years on, we're determined to remember her as one.

It's said that every star needs their fans. But perhaps the death of Jane Russell reminds us that fans need their stars even more. Screen fantasies who are untouched by real life, these icons of film reveal the enduring human need for escape into illusion.

You Decide

  1. Which public figures most deserve to be mourned in death?
  2. Why do we often have stronger opinions about celebrities than we do about people we know?

Activities

  1. Which historical characters should be remembered? Write a two-minute obituary and share it with the group. Do you all choose someone different?
  2. Consider your heroes/those you admire - whether from the world of sport, music, films, politics or elsewhere. What does your choice of hero say about you? Write down your conclusions – and keep them in a notebook somewhere.

Some People Say...

“What good did actors ever do?”

What do you think?

Q & A

If she only made four decent films, why was Jane Russell so famous?
Put bluntly, because of her breasts. In those days, women had to be sex symbols in films, and she became famous mainly for her cleavage.
So why did she give up on the movies.
Well, sex symbols don't have a long shelf life. 'Why did I quit movies?' she said. 'Because I was getting too old! You couldn't go on acting in those years if you were an actress over 30.'
Yet sixty years on, and with everything we know about her, the image remains?
Yes. It's something about our relationship to screen figures. It seems they have the power to become for us something bigger than they are in reality.A …something profound dies in us. We never knew them but they lived in our make-believe world, which has such power over us.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.