The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Jane Russell, R.I.P.

Posted on | March 1, 2011 | 14 Comments

The passing of Hollywood screen legend Jane Russell reminds us that nowadays everything is political. When someone famous dies, we can’t be permitted merely to remember the person’s life and work. No, the celebrity must be placed in political context, for how else shall we know whether to remember them fondly or not?

Turning dead people into political symbols, when they aren’t around to clarify the record themselves, is something profoundly distasteful. Neverthless, the post-mortem is political for many writers nowadays:

The last time I saw the late Jane Russell in the flesh was five years ago. . . . I remember being surprised to find out that Russell had always been a staunch Republican. Despite the notion today that most Hollywood celebs are liberals, many stars of the 1950s were quite conservative. Jane Russell was right up there with Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Lou Costello, June Allyson, Dick Powell and Jimmy Stewart. During a speech in 2003, she announced that “these days I am a teetotaling, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist.” She sure didn’t come across that way in her delightful discussion that night.

Why does the writer (Danny Miller of Huffington Post) have problems reconciling Russell’s “delightful discussion” with the fact that she was a “staunch Republican”? Whence this automatic assumption that no Republican is fun-loving, clever or cheerful? Put aside that question for a moment, and ponder how the writer subsequently subjects Russell to a litmus test:

Unlike many of her conservative colleagues, Russell was certainly no homophobe. She spent a lot of time in the Q&A waxing nostalgic over her openly gay choreographer in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Jack Cole. She repeatedly called him a genius and said he was largely responsible for the success of the film since neither she nor Marilyn Monroe could dance a step when they started shooting. Jane always seemed to enjoy her status as a gay icon, and she commented on the bizarre bit of homoerotica in the film when she sings “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” in the middle of a training session for the Olympic team.

Where to begin unwinding this Gordian Knot of liberal assumptions? Let’s begin here: Why is it that a disagreement over public policy (laws treating homosexuality as a “civil right”) should be authomatically conflated with personal prejudice  (“homophobia”)?

And perhaps next let’s go here: Is it really so contradictory that the “staunch Republican” Russell should notice and comment on the “homoerotic” implications of a scene where those implications are plainly obvious? Or is it really so odd that Russell “seemed to enjoy her status as a gay icon”? Has the writer failed to notice that Ann Coulter celebrates her status as the “right-wing Judy Garland”?

In an otherwise enlightening and admiring retrospective on Russell’s career, the HuffPo eulogist can’t resist sticking in the political dagger:

Some of Russell’s past affiliations I find completely perplexing, like her involvement with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum.

“Perplexing”? Really, Danny Miller? I rather think this perplexity could be solved by reference to your third paragraph:

I was surprised to learn about the incredible work Jane Russell did for the rights of adopted children. After a botched abortion left her unable to have kids, she adopted three children in the 1950s but faced major hurdles in the process, especially when she tried to adopt a child overseas. She started working to change the laws, testifying before Congress, and was instrumental in the passage of the Federal Orphan Adoption Amendment of 1953. . . . Whenever the studio sent her on a publicity tour, she spent much of her time in that area working for this cause but she didn’t advertise her achievements. That night we saw her, whenever anyone tried to compliment her about her life’s work she just shrugged and said “That’s where God put me.” Normally such comments would make me cringe but Jane was so humble and sincere that I could see how her deep faith has guided her life in so many positive ways.

Hello? Don’t you think, Danny Miller, that Jane Russell and Phyllis Schlafly would agree — if they agreed on nothing else — that abortion is a very bad thing? Does it really seem so implausible that Russell might have had a special understanding that abortion victimizes women? And don’t you suppose that Russell’s advocacy on behalf of adoption was, as she said, a sort of divine mission — redemption through humanitarian penance?

To push back against this politicized post-mortem is to risk trying to win an unseemly battle over the corpse of the dearly departed. Danny Miller’s article is certainly worth reading, whatever its flaws, as opposed to Amanda Marcotte’s attempt to use Russell’s death as an occasion for — I’m not making this up — deconstructing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a “proto-feminist satire” that undermines patriarchy by making fun of “how privileged men become dull and weak because they’re so shielded from challenge.”

If the thought of such silliness makes your head hurt, and you’d rather remember Jane Russell as simply one of the most beautiful stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, please permit me to recommend Bob Belvedere’s “Gentlemen Prefer Jane.” You’ll certainly get an eyeful there and, of course, more than an eyeful is wasted.


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