Review of the Jane Russell biography MEAN…MOODY…MAGNIFICENT!

Like millions of unenlightened American males, my first reaction to seeing movie actress Jane Russell was sheer lust. When I was 15 years old, there was a coffee-table movie book that showed a publicity photo of Russell from her musical The French Line. The photo showed Jane in a notoriously skimpy bathing suit, and that was it for me. It was long after that before I saw any of her movies, and I gradually realized that Russell’s fame was based on genuine talent as much as on her anatomy.

The first book to detail Russell’s life has now completed my view of Russell as far more complex than I’d ever imagined. Christina Rice’s book is named Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend, and it’s worthy of its attention-getting title.

(For those not in the know, Rice took the 3M title from a famed publicity poster for Russell’s debut film, The Outlaw [1943].)

From what I’ve previously read of Russell, she was a mass of contradictions. In her own autobiography, Russell apologizes to any actresses who saw the exploitation of their bodies as Russell’s route to quick fame. Yet Russell’s book is filled with photos that show her as seemingly happy to show off her body in any instance. Russell later became a gay icon, yet at various times, she both approved of or brushed off any connection with what would later become known as the LGBT community.

One of the interesting points about MMM is that Rice embraces Russell’s dichotomies and shows that Russell herself was at a loss to explain her yin-yang philosophies of life. Rice has written a spirited book that takes as its template Russell’s public persona of “Take it or leave it.”

Rice details Russell’s good and bad sides in equal detail. Russell was a staunch, lifelong Christian who never forced her beliefs on anyone but made very public use of them whenever they were needed. Nevertheless, in addition to Russell’s many provocative movie roles, she did many things that conservatives would label as most un-Christian. In the ’40s, she submitted to a botched abortion that nearly killed her. Her long but troubled marriage to football star Robert Waterfield included physical fights and infidelities on both of their parts.

Russell’s many good works are discussed in the book as well. Foremost among them is Russell’s formation of WAIF, the association that paved the way for international adoptions of suffering or abandoned children. Rice lovingly describes how Russell bulldozed through government bureaucracy to start her groundbreaking project. Also described in the book are her generosity and friendship towards her many friends, co-stars, and fans.

Of course, the book would be incomplete without the story of millionaire Howard Hughes’ discovery and subsequent exploitation of Russell. Rice examines how the young, naive Russell eventually overcome her fear and distaste of Hollywood’s manipulation of her (forgive me) public figure and stood out as an early feminist (though Russell claimed she disliked the term and was certain she wasn’t a feminist at all).

Rice provides a meticulously researched, yet breezy read about an actress who embraced her contradictions and put them to good use, yet stood up for herself whenever necessary. Mean…Moody…Magnificent! provides the multi-faced study of Russell that her movies never did .

A public service announcement

Most of you can probably borrow movies on disc from your local library. But a chain of libraries across the country have enabled viewers to stream movies for free from an online system.

The system is named Kanopy.com, and it’s essentially a mini-Netflix for library users. If you have an up-to-date library card, go to Kanapy.com. The site can take you to the address for the library you regularly use, or if you don’t go to one particular library in your area, Kanopy can find one for you.

Kanopy will then ask for your library card’s ID and password, plus the usual name-and-address information. Once you’re approved as a member, Kanopy will take you to their selection of movies and TV series. After that, you are allowed to stream up to six movies per month for free to your computer or electronic device. Kanopy’s selection isn’t as huge as Netflix’s, but it has a quality line-up, including contemporary movies, family and adult TV shows, and film classics such as The Odd Couple and Chinatown.

So now you have yet another alternative for watching your favorite movies at home for free. Don’t you just love the Internet?

The Norman Lear Effect’s effect on Norman Lear’s ego

YouTube has created a channel with the misleading name of “The Norman Lear Effect.”

For those not in the know: After toiling in TV and movie writing for decades, in 1971 Lear created “All in the Family,” a CBS sitcom that was groundbreaking in its use of topicality (particularly about race) and frank dialogue. It was a major hit that spawned several spin-offs, leading to further TV hits created by Lear. In the 1970’s, Lear was the auteur equivalent of Lucille Ball — it seemed as though any TV channel you turned into, you coul find one of Lear’s shows being broadcast.

Lear was my hero when I was a kid. Even though I was only 10 years old when “All in the Family” premiered, I greatly appreciated its depiction of working-class life. I could never relate to “The Brady Bunch” with its cutesy kids and fluffy dog. I could easily relate to “AITF” with its sounds of toilets flushing and loudly arguing family members.

In 1978, Lear left his perch as producer of “AITF” and his other hits, and he went on to pursue other interests. The shows of his that were still running were folded into a production company named Embassy Communications, which went on to produce hits of their own.

The trouble was, the Embassy productions were bland shows that followed the same formula: One-note characters bleating out one-liners in “harmless” situations were the exact opposite of “AITF’s”
confrontational plots. If you’ve ever seen “Silver Spoons” or “Who’s the Boss?”, you’d never mistake them for Norman Lear productions.

(Johnny Carson perfectly summed up the situation in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview where he praised the writing on Lear’s “AITF” and “Maude” while comparing it to the cutesiness of other sitcoms:

“In some of the stuff I see, the kids are funny, the housekeeper is funny, the garbage man comes on and he’s funny. Everybody is throwing funny things around, but there are no convincing relationships between the characters. Well, in the first place, you don’t really give a s**t. You don’t know these people, so you don’t care. Writers have just written jokes for them.”

Unfortunately, that’s a perfect description of “Diff’rent Strokes,” an Embassy production that premiered shortly after Lear left TV.)

(Another test I would use against these shows is memorability. TV fans still talk about, “Remember the episode where Archie Bunker… [fill in the blank — met Sammy Davis Jr., got locked in the basement, etc.].” I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could fondly recall any plotline of “Silver Spoons.”)

The reason I’m ranting about this is because YouTube’s “The Norman Lear Effect” is mixing the good with the bad. They’re posting complete episodes of “AITF,” “One Day at a Time,” and other Lear hits, which is fine with me. (If only they’d post eps of Lear’s short-lived but bawdy and funny “Hot L Baltimore” (1975), featuring ensemble work from future stars Conchata Ferrell and James Cromwell.)

But YouTube is also posting episodes from Embassy productions that I don’t want to hear about again, much less watch. (I don’t ever want to be forced to watch another episode of “Archie Bunker’s Place,” the Lear-less “All in the Family” spin-off in which Carroll O’Connor took an iconic TV character and ran him into the ground.)

You would think that Lear, who is now 98 (!!) years old, would have a big enough body of work that he wouldn’t try to take credit for anyone else’s. But no, if it came from his production company, apparently he’s glad to say that he had his fingerprints in it somewhere. It’s rather like tracing the lineage of the guy who created the limerick to the guy who wrote, “There once was a man from Nantucket…”

If you need a guide to try and sort this out, go to Wikipedia’s entry on Norman Lear. It has a chart that lists only the shows with which Lear was directly involved. “Silver Spoons” and its ilk are not on that chart. If we’re going to remember Lear (as well we should), let’s remember the stuff that he did best.