Not many actresses had enough raw charisma to share the screen with Marilyn Monroe without getting upstaged, but Jane Russell could. Russell, who died Monday at the age of 89 of respiratory-related illness, was a rare Hollywood commodity: an actress who combined raw sexual magnetism with a razor-sharp wit. She was beautiful and sexy and smart and funny, the total package. And man, what a package.
Russell gave the world two gifts for which we will be forever grateful: the musical comedy “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with Monroe, and a figure so voluptuous it inspired filmmaker, aviator, and voluptuousness hobbyist Howard Hughes to invent one of the first underwire brassieres. As the legend goes, Russell served as Hughes’ bra muse during production of his film “The Outlaw” in 1941. The 19-year-old actress had been plucked from obscurity working in a doctor’s office when Hughes cast her for her curvaceous body and smoldering onscreen presence. Here, according to NNDB.com, is what happened next:
“Hughes had his engineers design a seamless underwire brassiere, a breakthrough in bra science to lift Russell’s 38-D breasts, leaving no visible support lines to interrupt the under-blouse contour of her bosom. It was the first practical “lift and separate” push-up bra, but Russell later said she did not wear the uncomfortable contraption during filming. Instead she wore her own bras, adding a layer of tissue paper over the cups to eliminate unsightly support lines. Hughes, despite directing the picture himself, never knew the difference.”
The publicity photos of Russell for “The Outlaw” — reclining with a gun in a dress that looked like it was about to fall off her frame completely — became one of the most iconic images of sexuality of the 1940s. The stills’ blend of sex and violence continues to inspire movie marketers to this day.
Anyone whose obituary includes the phrase “breakthrough in bra science” has already lived a great and important life. But Russell wasn’t done. In 1953, she made Howard Hawks’ “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a hilarious comedy about two man-crazed showgirls living it up on a cruise to Paris. Almost sixty years later, I’m not sure Hollywood has yet to make a funnier and sexier movie from a woman’s perspective. The film was completely ahead of its time, feminist before feminism even existed, in its depiction of its two leads as capable, independent women in complete control of their lives and their powerful sexuality.
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is most famous for Monroe’s climactic musical number “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and rightfully so, but Russell gives an unforgettable performance too. She plays Dorothy Shaw to Monroe’s Lorelei Lee, chaperone for Lorelei’s transatlantic voyage to marry her rich fiance Mr. Esmond (Tommy Noonan). Esmond’s father disapproves of the marriage and so the couple travel separately to Paris for their nuptials. If they have any hope of convincing Esmond Sr. of their seriousness, there can’t be any funny business on the boat. Hence it’s Russell’s job to keep an eye on things, an arrangement which suits her well. “The chaperone’s job is to see that nobody else has any fun,” she tells Esmond on the docks. “Nobody chaperones the chaperone.”
Dorothy Shaw has to be one of the coolest characters in all of the movies, a one-liner factory built like a brick house. Her sexuality is both powerful and empowering. Her eyes widen when she sees the entire U.S. Olympic team on the boat, and she later shares a lusty musical number with them in their skin-colored swim trunks, “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?,” which puts a lie to the theory that all Hollywood films are designed solely for the pleasure of the male gaze.
Russell’s promiscuous ways — in an age when married couples still slept in separate beds onscreen, Dorothy openly admits to sleeping with a guy on their first date — aren’t portrayed as sleazy or slutty. Dorothy is simply smart, self-aware, and self-reliant. None of the men in this movie, even the one she ultimately chooses to be with, seem good enough for her — Hawks, taking a page of the Hitchcock playbook, cast duds as his male leads so that the women would be even more appealling. It worked: though “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” stars two of the most beautiful women to ever appear in the movies, it’s not about fantasizing about them; it’s about fantasizing about being them.
Though Russell worked steadily through the 1940s and 50s, including notable films with Bob Hope (“Son of Paleface”) and Robert Mitchum (“Macao”), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was her unrepeatable apex. The New York Times story about her death says that in her later years she became a bra spokesman, struggled with alcoholism and, maybe most surprisingly, dabbled in conservative politics. There was nothing conservative about the young Russell, who pushed boundaries, broke taboos, and offered one of the most comprehensive arguments in history why gentlemen shouldn’t prefer blondes.