Friday, February 26, 2016

The Best Actress of 1958—Auntie Roz

It’s absolutely incredible to me that so many of our greatest film stars never won an Oscar...Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Natalie Wood, Marlene Dietrich and Richard Burton come to mind. Rosalind Russell was nominated four times, and really should have won for Auntie Mame (1958).

In my opinion, Rosalind Russell’s iconic, bravura performance in the film adaptation of her Broadway triumph was the best performance by an actress in 1958 and should have copped her the golden statuette she had always so badly wanted to win. Though her competition that year included Elizabeth Taylor (as Maggie the Cat), Deborah Kerr, Shirley MacLaine and the winning turn by Susan Hayward (as convicted murderess Barbara Graham in I Want to Live!), the Oscar should have gone to Roz.

(Not that I don’t worship Miss Hayward; I do, but my favorite performance of hers was three years earlier, as alcoholic songstress Lillian Roth in I’ll Cry Tomorrow. But that’s another story...)

The many faces of Roz as Mame Dennis

By the time she received this Oscar nomination as Best Actress of 1958, Rosalind Russell was a mature and established actress who had paid her dues and survived a roller coaster of personal and show business ups and downs. Auntie Mame was the culmination of a life’s work and the apex and high point of her film career.

Though she would headline some high-profile movie projects throughout the next decade, most notably as Mama Rose in the musical Gypsy and as the Mother Superior in the comedy The Trouble with Angels and its sequel, Russell would never again experience the heights of critical acclaim and commercial success she had enjoyed with Auntie Mame. This would be her final Oscar nomination.

She had started in Hollywood as a supporting actor, albeit a glamorous one, under contract to MGM in the early 1930s, where she was usually cast as a humorless, wealthy British heiress who would lose her fiancé (William Powell or Clark Gable) to a more charismatic or street-smart leading lady (Katharine Hepburn or Jean Harlow). That she was so often cast as a Brit was a tribute to her acting ability, as she had been born in Waterbury, Connecticut!

"Are we all lit?" Roz ignites Fred Clark's Flaming Mame

Russell worked hard, progressing to dramatic leading lady roles, which she found equally dull to play, so she segued into comedy character parts, triumphing in the supporting role of the gum-chewing gossip Sylvia Fowler in The Women (1939) and then opposite Cary Grant in the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940).

It was through Grant that she would meet her husband, producer Frederick Brisson. In show business circles, Brisson was snidely referred to as The Lizard of Roz for his ruthless devotion to his wife’s career, buying up the rights to books and Broadway plays out from under other stars to commandeer their roles for herself. (Ethel Merman may well have coined the nickname for Brisson!)

Russell had come so close to winning the Oscar before. She had been nominated as Best Actress in 1942 for My Sister Eileen (losing to Greer Garson in the sentimental wartime favorite Mrs. Miniver) and in 1946 playing the real-life heroic nursing nun Sister Kenny (losing to Olivia deHavilland, finally winning her first statuette for To Each His Own).

But in 1947, Russell was the odds-on favorite to win for her performance in Eugene O’Neill’s heavily dramatic Mourning Becomes Electra. It was her turn...or so everyone thought, including Russell. Legend has it that the night of the ceremonies, our Miss Roz rose from her seat as the envelope was opened and the winner’s name read. Still standing, poor Roz was mortified to realize that it was Loretta Young’s name that had been called, for the light comedy The Farmer’s Daughter. Literally thinking on her feet, Russell gamely started a standing ovation for winner Young.

A toast to the original and best Mame
 Auntie Mame was her final acting nomination, though in 1973 she was awarded the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, presented by her friend Frank Sinatra, for her tireless charity work. (Other recipients have included Elizabeth Taylor, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Debbie Reynolds.)

Mame Dennis is Rosalind Russell’s greatest and most enduring screen role, richly deserving of the Academy Award. Russell’s Mame has everything—humor, wit and hilarity; vulnerability, heart and emotion. It’s the story of a high-living Manhattan party girl whose life is transformed by love when her orphaned nephew comes to live with her, becoming the center of her universe. Through a series of comic (and tragic) misadventures, Mame imparts to Patrick her credo and philosophy: “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”

Mame’s first appearance is perhaps the greatest entrance in film history as she descends down a grand winding staircase at the height of a raucous cocktail party, trotting down the stairs at breakneck pace talking a mile a minute. All bets are off—you know you are in for one hell of a ride with this saucy dame!

"Help is on the way, darlings!"
Russell is the epitome of mature glamour in the ostentatious Orry-Kelly gowns that underline the flamboyancy of her character, but it’s her sheer charisma that carries this film. She is at turns wise, noble and loving, at other times as loco as Lucy Ricardo, but always every inch the grand lady. Roz commands the screen with her tour de force performance, creating a character that has become a lasting archetype in popular culture--everyone, it seems, has a delightfully off-kilter black sheep like Auntie Mame in their family.

In Auntie Mame, Russell is ably supported by a large cast of zany and lovable character actors, including Coral Browne as a drunken stage star, Forrest Tucker as a southern sugar daddy, Fred Clark doing a slow burn as Patrick’s conservative bank trustee, and best of all, Peggy Cass recreating her stage role as the shy and retiring secretary Agnes Gooch, who gets more than she bargained for when inspired by Mame’s memoir Live, Live, Live. (Miss Cass also earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her own iconic performance.)

Russell to Jan Handzlick as Patrick: "Your Auntie Mame is hung..."

As Mame’s nephew Patrick, Jan Handzlik (who also played the role on Broadway) enjoys great chemistry with Russell and allows her to show a softer, more vulnerable and maternal side to the character. (In real life, Russell was a famously doting and loving mother to her only son, Lance.) The grown-up Patrick is played by the very handsome Roger Smith, soon to become a TV heartthrob on 77 Sunset Strip before devoting himself full-time to managing his wife Ann-Margret’s career.

Coral Browne as Vera Charles

Peggy Cass as Agnes Gooch

Auntie Mame marked something of a film comeback for Russell, who had reinvented herself as a stage star when her movie career began to flag in the early 1950s, triumphing in the 1953 Comden and Green/Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town (based on her 1942 film My Sister Eileen), quite a feat since she had never sung or danced before.

Roz originated the role in the play based on the book

Brisson and Russell then acquired the rights to the best-selling memoir Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, which was developed into the hit play on which the film was based. Later, the story was adapted into the 1966 Jerry Herman musical Mame, which starred Angela Lansbury, and the 1974 musical film Mame with Lucille Ball. Russell claimed in her memoir that she had been offered the role of Mame in both the Broadway musical and the film version, but turned them down, probably wisely. (Roz’s atonal singing in the film version of Gypsy had been universally panned by critics.)

Roger Smith as Patrick Dennis

Rosalind Russell died in 1976 after a long battle with breast cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. She had undergone a double mastectomy as early as 1959, and kept her condition a secret from everyone except her costume designers. But later on she became one of the first stars to discuss her cancer publicly, in the hopes that she could help others struggling with the disease.

Though the Academy gives its Oscars ostensibly for the single outstanding performance that wins the prize, it often also awards performers for a final crowning achievement, as a thank-you for a long and brilliant career. Rosalind Russell’s Auntie Mame is worthy of that golden statue on both counts.

Russell accepts her Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from Frank Sinatra in 1973
Thanks to my friend Quiggy at his wonderful Midnite Drive-In blog for sponsoring the Oscar Snubs Blogathon with Silver Scenes!  It's such an honor to participate!


  1. A very well written post, Chris. I just wish I'd been more erudite in my post for Peter O'Toole. I'll have the link to this shortly on my blog.

  2. LOVED your post on The Stunt Man, Quiggy!! Can't wait to see it again.
    Thanks for turning me on to this fun Oscar blogathon!
    I am enjoying everyone's posts immensely.

  3. Another very well-done post, Chris. Why do I think you kind of admire old Roz? Actually. I thought she was a fine actress myself. I will have to see "Auntie Mame" again -- my recollections of it are not quite as positive as yours but a second viewing may change my mind.

    I'm still waiting for the New York Public Library to deliver to me the one and only copy it has of "Mommie Dearest" -- I hope it will still play! And I'm going to look at the musical "Lost Horizon" soon.

    Speaking of musicals, I've always liked Jerry Herman's "Mame" andd Lucy's film version had its moments, mostly in the interplay between Ball and Bea Arthur as Vera Charles. I have to see the Russell version to see how that compares to Roz and Coral Browne!

  4. Hi Bill! I love Roz in this film, in The Trouble with Angels, of course in The Women and even in Gypsy--her acting made up for the singing!

    Lucy and Bea Arthur doing Bosom Buddies is the highlight of the Lucy version of Mame (also love Preston and company doing the title tune, with Lucy high kicking with Goldwyn Girl perfection). Roz and Coral Browne have a different sort of bitchy repartee, with fast-paced dialogue scenes as Mame prepares to meet with Patrick's trustee, and in a madcap rendition of a ditty called Chu Chin Girl just as the stock market crashes...very oddball and zany.

    See this one again; may be slightly too screwball and/or sentimental for you, but I love watching all these actors work, especially Miss Roz at her zenith.

    Thanks as always for stopping by!

  5. I've not seen "I Want to Live" but based on your fab arguments, I suspect Rosalind Russell was robbed. She is pitch perfect in this film: brash, amusing, smart, and once in a while she lets her guard down to let us see her vulnerability. When I see that film, I am CONVINCED that Russell is Auntie Mame.

    Great post!

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  7. Thank you so much for stopping by! I also love your blog! What a wonderful way to spend this movie-lovers weekend, discovering so many wonderful new blogs and perspectives with people who share such a great passion for film!

  8. Great post! You're kind of convincing me. Sometimes Roz is a bit too much for me, but here personality and role were a perfect match. She WAS Auntie Mame.

  9. Hi FlickChick - agreed, absolutely, Russell can often be a bit much...her overdone performance in the film version of Picnic comes to mind. But I really do think she was born to play Mame Dennis.
    I thank you for your visit and your comment, and I love your blog!
    - Chris

  10. Roz was stellar as Auntie Mame. She was a marvelous actress and like a bottle of vintage champagne, she really bubbled as she aged. Critics tend to pan her performance in A Majority of One but I always considered that one of her best roles ( along with Auntie Mame, of course ). This was a great read and a real tribute to her performance. Thanks for joining in on the Oscars blogathon!

  11. My pleasure, thank YOU! I also enjoyed Majority of One, finally saw it after reading about it for years. I am also a fan of her final film, Mrs. Pollifax--Spy. Roz is a BIG personality, and I do believe as Mame she captured all the many facets of that big talent on film.

  12. Hi Chris
    As much as I love Elizabeth Taylor in "Roof", I have to agree with you that Russell deserved the Oscar for "Auntie Mame." And you really make a great case for the oversight in highlighting so many of her memorable moments, all of which bring to mind her inimitable style and delivery.
    She really put her stamp on this role and keeps this somewhat overlong film moving at a very brisk pace.
    And of course I love the Oscar night story where Roz pulls a Stephen Boyd and starts a standing ovation.
    A very fun and informative read with some great photos I've never seen (particularly like the book photo). Thanks for stirring up some nice memories of Russell and this wonderful film!

  13. Hi Ken - you are so right, Auntie Mame is one of those epic long, long movies perfect for a lazy afternoon, but Russell's energetic performance gives it the engine that keeps the story chugging along.

    I need to see The Oscar again with Stephen Boyd! And I think it might be time for a remake as well...maybe with Tom Cruise (who has never won one himself)?

    Thanks as always, Ken, for stopping by!

  14. Chris-
    I FINALLY got around to watching this one in lieu of my own post to the upcoming Rosalind Russell blogathon (coming up soon). Found out she was one HELL of a great actress and this is one of my favorite characters now.