Rosalind Russell (June 4, 1907 – November 28, 1976) was an American actress of stage and screen, perhaps best known for her role as a fast-talking newspaper reporter in the Howard Hawks screwball comedy His Girl Friday, as well as the role of Mame Dennis in the film Auntie Mame. She won all five Golden Globes for which she was nominated, and was tied with Meryl Streep for wins until 2007 when Streep was awarded a sixth. Russell won a Tony Award in 1953 for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Ruth in the Broadway show Wonderful Town (a musical based on the film My Sister Eileen, in which she also starred).
Russell was known for playing character roles, exceptionally wealthy, dignified ladylike women, as well as for being one of the few actresses of her time who regularly played professional women, such as judges, reporters, and psychiatrists. She had a wide career span from the 1930s to the 1970s, and attributed her long career to the fact that, although usually playing classy and glamorous roles, she never became a sex symbol.
Rosalind Russell was one of seven children born in Waterbury, Connecticut, to James Edward and Clara A. (née McKnight) Russell,an Irish-American Catholic family. She was named after a ship on which her parents had traveled, not after the character fromShakespeare's As You Like It. She attended Catholic schools, including Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York, before attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Her parents thought Russell was studying to become a teacher, and were unaware that she was planning on becoming a stage comedienne.
Russell started her career as a fashion model and was in many Broadway shows. Against parental objections, she took a job at a stock company for seven months at Saranac Lake and then Hartford, Connecticut. Afterwards, she moved to Boston, where she acted for a year at a theatre group for Edward E. Clive. Later, she appeared in a revue in New York. There, she took voice lessons and built a career in the opera, which was short-lived due to her inability to reach high notes.
In the early 1930s, Russell went west to Los Angeles to be a contract actress for Universal Pictures. When she first arrived on the lot, she was ignored by most of the crew and later told the press she felt terrible and humiliated at the studio, which had influence on her self-confidence. Unhappy with Universal's leadership, and second-class film status at the time, Russell set her sights on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and was able to get out of her Universal contract on her own terms. When MGM first approached her for a screen test, Russell was not enthusiastic, remembering Universal. When she met MGM's Benny Thau and Ben Piazza, she was surprised, as they were "the soul of understanding." Her screen test was directed by Harold S. Bucquet, and she later recalled that she was hired because of a close-up he took of her.
Picked up by MGM, Russell debuted in Evelyn Prentice (1934); and, although the role was small, she was noticed, with one critic saying that she was "convincing as the woman scorned." She starred in many comedies, such as Forsaking All Others (1934), and Four's a Crowd (1938), as well as dramas, including Craig's Wife (1936) (which would be the film's second of three remakes; Joan Crawford did the third) and The Citadel (1938). Russell was first acclaimed when she co-starred with Robert Young in the MGM drama West Point of the Air (1935). One critic wrote: "Rosalind Russell as the 'other woman' in the story gives an intelligent and deft handling to her scenes with Young." She quickly rose to fame and, by 1935, was seen as a replacement of actress Myrna Loy, as she took many roles Loy was initially set for. Furthermore, one journalist claimed that she was the only newcomer of 1935 destined for stardom.
In her first years at Hollywood, Russell was, both in her personal life and film career, characterized as a sophisticated lady. This dissatisfied Russell, who claimed in a 1936 interview:
- "Being typed as a lady is the greatest misfortune possible to a motion picture actress. It limits your characterizations, confines you to play feminine sops and menaces and the public never highly approves of either. An impeccably dressed lady is always viewed with suspicion in real life and when you strut onto the screen with beautiful clothes and charming manners, the most naive of theatergoers senses immediately that you are in a position to do the hero no good. I earnestly want to get away from this. First, because I want to improve my career and professional life and, secondly because I am tired of being a clothes horse – a sort of hothouse orchid in a stand of wild flowers."
Russell approached director Frank Lloyd for help changing her image; but, instead of helping her, Lloyd cast her as a wealthy aristocrat in Under Two Flags (1936).
In 1939, she was cast as catty gossip Sylvia Fowler in the all-female comedy The Women, directed by George Cukor. The film was a major hit, boosting her career and establishing her reputation as a comedienne.
in His Girl Friday
Russell continued to display her talent for comedy in the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), directed by Howard Hawks. In the film, a reworking of Ben Hecht's story The Front Page, Russell played quick-witted ace reporter Hildy Johnson, who was also the ex-wife of her newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant).
In the 1940s, she made comedies such as The Feminine Touch (1941) and Take a Letter, Darling (1942), dramas including Sister Kenny (1946), and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), and a murder mystery The Velvet Touch (1948).
Over the course of her career, Russell earned four Academy Award nominations for Best Actress: My Sister Eileen (1942); Sister Kenny (1946); Mourning Becomes Electra (1947); and the movie version of Auntie Mame (1958). She received a Special Academy Award, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 1972. The awarded trophy for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award is an Oscar statuette.
Russell scored a big hit on Broadway with her Tony Award-winning performance in Wonderful Town (1953), a musical version of her successful film of a decade earlier, My Sister Eileen. Russell reprised her starring role for a 1958 television special.
Perhaps her most memorable performance was in the title role of the long-running stage hit Auntie Mame and the subsequent 1958 movie version, in which she played an eccentric aunt whose orphan nephew comes to live with her. When asked which role she was most closely identified with, she replied that strangers who spotted her still called out, "Hey, Auntie Mame!" She received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Play in 1957 for her performance. Patrick Dennis dedicated his second Auntie Mame book Around the World with Auntie Mame to "the one and only Rosalind Russell" in 1958.
She continued to appear in movies through the mid-1960s, including Picnic (1955), A Majority of One (1961), Five Finger Exercise(1962), Gypsy (1962), and The Trouble with Angels (1966).
Russell was the logical choice for reprising her role as Auntie Mame when its Broadway musical adaptation Mame was set for production in 1966, but she declined for health reasons.
In addition to her acting career, Russell also wrote the story for the film The Unguarded Moment, a story of sexual harassment, released in 1956, starring Esther Williams.
On October 25, 1941, Russell married Danish-American producer Frederick Brisson, son of actor Carl Brisson. Their marriage lasted 35 years, ending with her death. They had one child in 1943, a son named Lance.
She was a Roman Catholic, and a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California.
Russell died of breast cancer on November 28, 1976. She was survived by her husband and her son. She is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Rosalind Russell has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1708 Vine Street.
Her autobiography, written with Chris Chase, Life Is a Banquet, was published a year after her death. In the foreword (written by her husband), he states that Russell had a mental breakdown sometime in 1943. Details are scant (she made no films in 1944), but it indicates that her health problems paired with the deaths of a sister and a brother, can be traced back to the 1940s.
In 2009, a documentary film Life Is a Banquet: The Life of Rosalind Russell, narrated by Kathleen Turner, was shown at film festivals across the U.S. and on some PBS stations. This documentary is available on Amazon as a DVD that you can order and as a movie that you can rent from Amazon Instant Video.