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 .

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