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...


  1. you raise an interesting comparison with roz and joan. bottom line, roz was an good actress, joan, a good movie star. compare how their careers played out. no one strangled roz, tied her up or paired her with a ridiculous monster, trog/baby jane....take your pick.

    surprised that TCM chose to run, "mourning becomes elektra." that's a mighty tough one to sit thru.

  2. For me the biggest difference between the two is Crawford is someone I would liked to have seen at Sardi's. Roz is someone I would have liked to have lunched with at Sardi's.

  3. It's hard for me to fully image Roz as Mildred Pierce too although she was offered it first and turned it down. Especially her chemistry with Eve Arden since their interplay with their co-stars often had a similar vibe it seems they would have been too similar to relate in the way Eve and Joan did.

    Gypsy is an odd trade off, while I adore the Merm emotional resonance was not her strong suit and Roz injected a lot of it into Momma Rose making her mad drive at least somewhat understandable if no less overpowering. But as far as singing the songs it is no contest whatsoever and it's a pity Ethel performance wasn't captured on film. Both are better than the Momma Rose everyone wanted at first though, Judy Garland. Again I love Judy and at that point she still had the vocal power to blow the score away but even when she was a virago on screen which was rare, I Could Go on Singing is the only film that comes to mind, you had the sense that she was at heart a sweet woman with problems. Momma Rose's only problem was herself and she was many things but sweet was not one of them.

    Among her films, aside from Auntie Mame which is pretty much unbeatable, I've always had a particular fondness for No Time for Comedy with Jimmy Stewart and The Velvet Touch a sensational but little known mystery where she goes toe to toe with Sydney Greenstreet.

  4. One of my oldest and dearest friends is such a fan that many of Roz's mannerisms and vocal inflections have become his. Intentional or not, it is charming and quite amusing.

    I spent a rather memorable Thanksgiving dinner in the company of a roomful of Auntie Mames. I was a baby gay and working a second job at the door and coat check of a gay club. It was my second home for the better part of a decade. The staff thanksgiving dinner was a pot luck held late that afternoon at folding tables and chairs on the dance floor. The video screen dropped down during the meal and a roomful of bartenders, bar backs, dj's and door staff did their best Roz. I had, amazingly, never seen the movie all the way through. It was delighted by the staff, my friends and second family really, and their memory of the lines and delivery. But no one held a candle to Roz. She was the onscreen life of a very lively party.

    I haven't thought of that day in a very long time. So thank you for the post, Muscato. It was a lifetime ago. The club is still there. Well past its prime and most of its purpose in this age of Internet meetings and greater acceptance, but still there after some 50 years. I have lost touch with most of the old staff. Some are still there, now the old guard rather than the blossoming newbies that we once were. Some have moved on and out. Some are long gone and just barely a memory.

    But Roz's humor, confidence, brains and indomitable spirit so often remind me of who we all were, or we're trying to be, back in the 80s and early 90s. Life was a banquet. We drank and danced and quipped and cried and fought for ourselves and loved and lost. And good gosh, I've gotten lost in a memory and way off topic.

    But Roz was a rare gem and, much like my halcyon days, we'll not see her kind again.

  5. Amen and amen. Roz's is the only Hollywood autobiography that I ever read, and I was richly rewarded. You hit the nail on the head about her.