Friday, December 27, 2013

Rosalind Russell's Most Memorable Performance?

"Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!"

Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell)

Rosalind Russell is remembered for many movie roles, but perhaps the one with which she is most associated is the title role of the movie version of "Auntie Mame," which premiered 55 years ago today.

It was a comedy, but a very sophisticated one. Russell's character insisted on being called Awntie Mame. I was raised to pronounce the word like ant, which seems to be the way most Americans pronounce it (well, most Southern Americans, anyway). Awntie seems like more of a British pronunciation to me.

Well, however you pronounce it, Auntie Mame was a flamboyant character, and the choice of Russell to play it was perfect.

My grandmother was a big fan of "Auntie Mame," although I never knew it while she was living. The evidence was all around me. I just never saw the movie until after my grandmother died.

I will always remember watching it for the first time and hearing Russell speak in that exaggerated way she had — and I realized it was the way my grandmother liked to speak at times when she was feeling playful. It always struck me as an inside joke that the grownups all seemed to get, but I didn't get it. I guess I never asked for clarification.

Auntie Mame was more of a free spirit than my grandmother was. And her decorating style definitely was more fluid than my grandmother's. In all the time that I was growing up, I don't think anything in my grandmother's house changed. The furniture was always the same. The art on the walls was always the same.

(Whenever I woke during the night in my grandmother's home, and I wasn't sure where I was, the grandfather clock in the living room was sure to chime every quarter hour, and, when it did, I knew instantly where I was. My brother has that clock now. I don't think it works now, but he has it, and he claims he will get it working again. He probably will. He's always been very mechanically inclined. And, when he does, I am sure I will have a real sense of deja vu when I hear it chime.)

But Auntie Mame's apartment was constantly changing. It was a device for showing the passage of time, I suppose, but the viewer had to reorient him or herself with each new chapter in the story. The only thing that was recognizable was the grand staircase; the decor surrounding it was always different.

Mame threw some wild parties in her home; in fact, she was in the process of throwing such a party when she first met her nephew.

See, in the movie, Mame's eccentric ways were put to the test when she became the guardian of her late brother's son. Her brother was very affluent when he died so the nephew's inheritance came with a trustee who didn't approve of the way she lived her life. Neither, for that matter, had her brother, who left instructions for how his son was to be raised if he should die a premature death.

But, with apologies to Little Orphan Annie, it probably never was so much fun being an orphan.
Auntie Mame: Please, dear, your Auntie Mame's hung.

After her money was lost in the stock market crash of 1929, Mame took on a series of employment challenges. She acted on the stage. She worked as a switchboard operator. She even worked in retail sales — where she met a rich Southerner (Forrest Tucker) and fell in love.

They married and embarked on a 'round–the–world honeymoon, during which Tucker's photography–obsessed character fell to his death on the Matterhorn.

Mame returned to America and resumed her involvement in the life of her nephew, who had become as stuffy as she suspected from his letters.

If you haven't seen this movie, I'll stop discussing the plot here. But be advised that many people believe this was the greatest performance of Russell's career. She received her fourth and final Best Actress Oscar nomination for it.