Saturday, May 13, 2006
Moonrise Postscript: Gail Russell
When Jane Fonda was preparing to play a washed-up alcoholic in The Morning After, the actress maudit she researched was Gail Russell. Many performers claim to be shy, but Russell really was, and afflicted with stage fright so acute she often would throw up before takes. As early as her first starring role, in 1944's The Uninvited, she started to smother her fear with drinking. The 1950s began with one drunk-driving conviction and ended with another; in between the parts got fewer and smaller. She died in 1961 of an alcohol-induced heart attack, age 36. It was a long, sorry decline from her run of good movies in the 1940s, including Angel and the Badman, the Witness forerunner with her lifelong friend John Wayne; the adorable Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, as a young American breezing through Europe; and Moonrise. In that last Russell shows all the things that could have earned her enduring fame. She was beautiful, of course, with near-perfect bone structure and eyes that photographed pure silver in black-and-white. On film she seemed not seductive, but delicate, full of tender mercies. Russell makes you believe this improbably gorgeous schoolteacher could love Dane Clark, with his twitchy fears, sketchy past and frequent disappearances. In Moonrise, as in Angel and the Badman, she's the rock that saves a good man from a bad end. In real life, Russell could have used someone like that herself.