In my early 20s I started working my way through a lot of old movies I hadn’t yet seen. When I sat down to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes this eye popping clip of Jane Russell’s confounded my expectations. In a film where both stars played parodies of femininity, Russell seemed to be the most self-aware. Cynical and hard nosed, she wise-cracks her way through the film, mentally almost detached from her remarkable tall, broadshouldered physique.
Surely earning gay icon status in this 4 minute number alone, Russell, on a transatlantic liner to France, sings mournfully “Ain’t there anyone here for love?” surrounded by the nearly naked US men’s Olympic team performing a variety of bending exercises. Later in the film she dresses up in a blonde wig, pretending to be Marilyn Monroe, wiggling her way through her own rendition of “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”.
With hindsight I would compare it to that Robert Preston number from Victor/Victoria, when he does “The Shady Dame from Seville”.
Having written a BBC News obituary of Russell while a correspondent there in the 90s, I’ve come to the conclusion that she detached herself from the male fantasies constructed around her. Clearly exploited as a very young woman in The Outlaw (which incidentally, is very raunchy, and not just because of her bust) she went on to be a grown up star; a worthy match for her equally laconic costar Robert Mitchum, particularly in the wonderful His Kind of Woman. (Watch out for Vincent Price nearly stealing the show as a ham actor).
Whatever is written about her religious views and her love life. Russell’s films reveal a woman with a sense of self-deprecating humour, and too much intelligence to whine about the restrictions on her career by powerful men or social convention. She also did a huge service to her fellow country women by becoming the “face” of a famous brand of bras; advocating comfort for 18 hours. Though apparently in the early days she had to wear the bra over a poloneck jumper in the ads. Bridget Fonda, contemplating a breast enlargement for her dunderhead boyfriend in Singles watches Russell and Monroe singing “We’re Two little Girls from Little Rock” in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, fuelling her insecurity. But she of course misunderstood what Jane Russell was all about. (And changes her mind about the op) . An American female colleague told me today, that her famous and lighthearted Playtex bra ads from the 70s were hugely important to women.
A woman’s woman, you might say.