Monday, June 4, 2012
Birthday Girl: Auntie Roz
Miss Rosalind Russell would have been 105 today, and a chance to think about her life and work is never something to pass up.
It's no secret how fond I am of Roz, and I know I trade far too frequently in superlatives, but still: she was, to my mind, Hollywood's most sensible star, the one least taken in by fame (I'd accord that honor to Miss Lillian Gish, who was equally dismissive of her own - titanic - powers, but who was instead almost fatally smitten by those of Mr. D.W. Griffith). She was a marvel of versatility. Just when she seemed doomed to a second-string career as an affable leading lady, she lashed out with a tense star turn in Craig's Wife (I prefer her Harriet to Crawford's), and then, just when drama seemed her forte, out from nowhere came the over-the-top virtuoso farcicality (is that a word? It ought to be.) of Sylvia Fowler and The Women. She could play biopics, classics, screwball, and even, after a fashion, musicals, you name it, and she created a gallery of characters whose names still resonate: Harriet, Sylvia, Hildy Johnson, Ruth Sherwood, Mame Dennis, Momma Rose (although the last was perhaps more brave than well-advised - she's good or better than good in Gypsy - but then there's Merman. Game over.).
While of course there's no denying the supremacy of Auntie Mame, I have a very fond spot for Roz in Picnic, a picture in which she pulls together all her talents - comic and tragic, ridiculous and heartbreaking - to play spinster schoolteacher Rosemary. She's Sylvia without the millions, Mame without whimsy, a roiling mix of pedestrian convention and raw need. It's a fearless, fantastic performance, played without a trace of vanity (except the character's own, very particular sort), one of the great supporting roles played with the kind of bravura only a true star could bring to it.
Roz was the guest of honor at a party in 1974, a gala do at the Rainbow Room; Joan Crawford, her old co-star and friend, was a guest. When Crawford saw the photos the next morning, unflattering images of Russell showing all too clearly the puffiness cause by her arthritis medication and Joan herself looking roc-like and raddled, she ended her public life, at one go. Roz soldiered on, for two more years. They make an interesting pair, those two - polar opposites in stardom, totally different, but genuinely peers. About the only part that either played that was interchangeable was Harriet Craig - it's equally hard to imagine Russell as Mildred Pierce or Crawford conquering Broadway in Wonderful Town. Still, they share something, a kind of invincibility, a steely core. The difference, though, is that even with all the folderol of stardom, the gloss that came from having been a Metro star, the decades of acclaim - Russell kept her sense of her own self, a bright girl from Connecticut, and her sense of humor.
Hell; she may, per TV Week, have hosted "Women of the Year" in 1973, but she's a woman for any year, and it's a privilege to wish her many happy returns, wherever she is. She had a gift for living and imparting life: it's a banquet, after all, and most poor sons of bitches...