Like many in Hollywood and beyond, I was saddened to hear the news of Jane Russell’s passing yesterday. She was one of film’s enduring icons, a great star from an era when being a star seemed to somehow mean more than it does today.
Reading tributes to her from a number of bloggers, including Leonard Maltin’s very fine piece on her here, I was reminded of a tribute Russell herself shared with me a few years ago, to her co-star Robert Mitchum – a colleague and friend who’d stood up for her at a time when she truly needed it. In 2005 I was involved in organizing a retrospective tribute to Russell at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. One afternoon I received a last-minute phone call from Marvin Paige, a well-known casting director who was helping to coordinate the retrospective and Russell’s appearance there. “I’m at Musso & Frank’s with Jane. Come down and join us,” he said, then hung up. I grabbed my colleague Gwen Deglise by the hand and we hustled across Hollywood Blvd. to Musso’s.
Russell was sitting with Marvin in one of the big red leather booths, wearing an eye-popping green blouse and pants outfit she’d designed herself – and clunky white sneakers. It was an incongruous pairing that fit her personality well. She was an actress and icon who seemed to have no illusions about the film industry, or life in general. She talked openly with us about serious eye problems she’d been dealing with: for the past year and a half she’d been suffering from macular degeneration, and had been coming down to L.A. for experimental treatments at UCLA medical center which involved “sticking a needle into my eye,” as she said matter-of-factly.
While discussing which films to show in her upcoming tribute, she mentioned Macao, the dark, exotic crime film she’d made in 1952 for her The Outlaw producer Howard Hughes, and co-starring Robert Mitchum. She had nothing but kind words for Mitchum, but the same couldn’t be said for the man who directed the film. Macao was credited to director Josef von Sternberg, the legendary helmer of such visually ravishing films as The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress among others.
Macao was in fact von Sternberg’s last Hollywood film – he was replaced during production by Nicholas Ray (later of Rebel Without A Cause fame) – and Russell shared some fascinating and very personal insight as to why he was fired.
“Mitch [Robert Mitchum] and I worked with Josef von Sterberg on that film,” she said over lunch. “Everything was very stiff and posed, except for the stuff Nick Ray shot. He was great fun to work with. Von Sternberg was arrogant as could be. He used to say things like ‘What are we going to do with this beautiful stupid broad in this scene, Mitch?’, and Mitch would just look at him without saying anything.”
It was obvious, listening to her tell the story, that von Sternberg’s comments still cut deep, even five decades later.
“Finally it got so bad it couldn’t go on,” she continued. “Mitch told his secretary to bring him a big picnic basket to the set one day. He spread out a blanket and sat down, right in the middle of everything. Pulls out a sandwich, opens a bottle of champagne and pours himself a glass, just like that.”
“Von Sternberg’s standing there and watching him with the rest of the crew. His face is going red. He’s literally shaking he’s so angry. Finally he rushes over to Mitch and shouts ‘What are you doing?! Who do you think you are sitting down and eating on my set??! You can be replaced, you know!’”
“Mitch just looked at him and said, ‘No, you can be replaced.’ And that afternoon von Sternberg got a letter and he was gone.”
Russell said it was Mitchum’s own personal way of standing up for her, when she was suffering abuse from a co-worker and colleague. It was a gesture she never forgot.