My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1942: Rosalind Russell in "My Sister Eileen"

When she received her first Oscar nomination for the situation comedy My Sister Eileen, Rosalind Russell had not only achieved a status as an expert for portraying intelligent, sophisticated and wealthy women but also as one of Hollywood’s first-class comediennes, most notably due to her work opposite Cary Grant in the classic His Girl Friday. While the Academy did not nominate Rosalind Russell for her comedic performance that year, maybe feeling that one comedy turn per year is enough (Katharine Hepburn filled that spot with her comeback turn in The Philadelphia Story), she finally received recognition for her funny talents two years later with her performance as Ruth Sherwood, one of two sisters – one smart, one pretty – who want to find fame and success in New York but have to face various problems and obstacles before everything turns out well for the obligatory Happy End. Considering the nature of the two central female parts there could hardly be any suspense about which one of the sisters Rosalind Russell was bringing to life since her famous talents for wise-cracking, fast-talking and physical comedy were always used best when she was playing a smart, sassy and strong woman who knows what she is worth, what she wants and how to get it. And all of this was offered to her 'on a silver plate' in the part of Ruth Sherwood, an inspiring writer who always takes charge, not only for herself but for her sister, too, to enable them both to make it on their own in The Big Apple. In 1942, the nomination for Rosalind Russell was hardly a surprise – an actual Oscar win was certainly out of the question since Greer Garson’s Mrs. Miniver basically had the year to herself but it was an ideal opportunity for the Academy to welcome Rosalind Russell into its inner circle and show its respect for her considerable talents and her ability to carry whole pictures with her unique acting style that combines strong screen presence, precise comedic timing and the ability to toss around sarcastic one-liners with great effect. Furthermore, My Sister Eileen, even though not the kind of movie that usually collects a load of trophies, was a popular crowd-pleaser with healthy box office success which only further proved Rosalind Russell’s strong standing as a well-liked and respected movie star among Hollywood's film industry. And so, the combination of popular acclaim and her first Oscar nomination is already enough to call Ruth Sherwood one of the most defining roles of Rosalind Russell’s career – but there was still more to come. In 1953, Rosalind Russell brought the part back to where it had originally came from – to Broadway where Shirley Booth had been the first actress to bring Ruth Sherwood to life in 1940. This time, it was Rosalind Russell who played the part in front of live audiences in the musical version Wonderful Town, earning herself a Tony Award as Best Leading Actress in a Musical. But strangely enough, despite a Tony Award, an Oscar nomination and financial success, the character of Ruth Sherwood did not truly become the signature work of her career – instead, it seems to have almost disappeared behind her much better remembered work in movies like Auntie Mame, His Girl Friday, The Women or Mourning Becomes Electra. It’s a strange case of a performance that played an important part in an actress’s career and yet feels strangely neglectable at the same time. And so this evokes the question if Rosalind Russell’s work is unfairly put aside next to showier performances in more famous movies or if Ruth Sherwood is a role that maybe suits Rosalind Russell’s own personality and acting style, therefore making it easy for her to impress at the moment, but leaves too much to be desired when all is said and done, therefore fading away as time goes on which might also explain why the degree of familiarity has decreased over the years.

As mentioned above, the casting of Rosalind Russell in the part of Ruth Sherwood appears to be an ideal fusion of actress and character, a merging of identities in which both personalities can benefit from each other and use all the qualities they are able to offer to their own advantages. Rosalind Russell was an actress who could certainly adjust her own acting and talents to the characters she was playing but she could just as easily shape those roles to her own preference zone, forming them in a way that would suit her distinct style and abilities. And Ruth Sherwood is in many ways a white paper – it is a role that does not offer any complexity or true depth but it therefore allowed an actress different ways to substantiate her character. Essentially, she is the ‘straight’ person of the story, the one who understands and witnesses the craziness around her and who constantly comments on the behavior and characters of all those people that constantly enter her little apartment. But in this aspect, Ruth Sherwood is also a vessel for dry and sarcastic humor as she tries to distance herself from most of the events in My Sister Eileen, focusing on her own career as a writer, but finds that she is again and again drawn right into the middle of all different plot points. And so both Rosalind Russell and Ruth Sherwood offered the right ingredients for this fusion of identities – Ruth Sherwood gave Rosalind Russell the chance to fully use her talents for her distinct display of sarcastic and snarky comments and observations and additionally was underwritten enough to let her fill the remaining part of her personality with her own sharp-edged and sassy acting style that combines her talents for double-takes with exaggerated facial expression which resulted in a character who constantly both acts and re-acts, openly tells her mind and also shows how much the kookiness around her shapes her own behavior and way of thinking. All this means that Ruth Sherwood remained the straight character of the story, providing the most mature moments and thought-out decisions, but Rosalind Russell’s own embodiment of broad comedic tendencies also meant that she became the one providing all the humor and all the laughs, too, and who is no-nonsense without being serious, caring without being stern and funny without intending to be. In this aspect, Rosalind Russell was an obvious choice for Ruth Sherwood and the overall demands of the script which asked her to grab every comedic opportunity and also inject her strong personality into the character with the goal of crafting a woman who is a believable centre of reason but still a self-made part of all the exaggeratedness around her – like few other actresses, Rosalind Russell was able to work her way through any script and turn herself into the constant center of attention, injecting every moment and situation with her distinct style and screen presence. At a first look, this appears to be a rather logical decision for My Sister Eileen which is neither a very sophisticated nor an overly clever comedy, more than once forcing its own understanding of humor on the audience – from the Greek landlord to street cleaning vehicles shooting water into Ruth’s and Eileen’s basement apartment to Portuguese naval officer dancing their way through their front door, My Sister Eileen uses every opportunity to achieve its goal of entertaining and amusing its viewers by exaggerating and overdoing almost every single plot point, denying every bit of spontaneity and relaxedness. My Sister Eileen is not a race car but it still wants to be as fast as possible, adding one joke after another and depending on the cast to fill the moments between these jokes with their own personalities. Because of this, My Sister Eileen almost exclusively depends on the abilities of its two leading ladies to counterbalance the craziness around them with the more quiet moments of the script while also realizing their performances in harmony with the movie and adding their own ideas of humor, too – My Sister Eileen needed a certain amount of 'star power' to compensate for its lack of dramatic structure and content. But this amount was at first too reduced and as a consequence too excessive because even if the casting of Ruth Sherwood appears to be the ideal solution for this kind of character in this kind of motion picture, the actual realization of the role was still harmed by circumstances that were created both by the movie itself but also by Rosalind Russell who too often went too far in her own ideas and interpretation of the part and its place in the overall narrative context.

My Sister Eileen is a movie that can be a lot of things – it can be a star-vehicle for one, a star-vehicle for two and an ensemble piece at once. Considering the nature of the story, it would be most obvious to expect a well-balanced combination of a star-vehicle for two and an ensemble piece but the final outcome is, from start to finish, just supposed to be a showcase for Rosalind Russell in which not only the script gives slight focus to the character of Ruth but a rather pale supporting cast and especially the casting of an almost invisible actress like Janet Blair in the crucial role of Eileen  further underlined this impression,  making it almost too easy for Rosalind Russell to turn herself into the glorious centre of My Sister Eileen at which everything and everyone points to. An actress of Rosalind Russell’s stature surely felt confident enough to carry this picture and take over not only her own responsibilities to entertain but also those of her fellow cast-members, too, but this confidence often contradicted the intentions of My Sister Eileen – Rosalind Russell managed to constantly be its most noteworthy aspect, more than once saving it with unexpected laughs and absurdities but this constant domination of the production in every scene, no matter if suitable or not, was not only responsible for the movie’s best moments but also managed to harm both her work and the overall production, too. In some ways, My Sister Eileen was not the kind of movie that – despite appearing tailor-made for her kind of acting style – truly displayed all of Rosalind Russell’s talent. Or rather – it showed too little of some and too much of others. Because there is the Rosalind Russell who can find humor in almost every situation, who is able to maybe control the proceedings around her but never feels affected and who can combine fast talk, quirky line delivery and deadpan punch lines like few others. In this aspect, it was a wise decision of Rosalind Russell to add her own style to the picture – the lines ‘Yes, Mr. Banes’ and ‘Thank you, Mr. Banes’ don’t seem to offer much for an actress but Rosalind Russell’s weird and fast delivery combined with her exaggerated eyes result in what is probably the funniest scene of the movie. The character of Ruth Sherwood is already intended to be slightly sarcastic and observing but when Rosalind Russell flawlessly tosses out lines like ‘You…go away’ or ‘You’ll cool off’, she adds a special layer to this woman, going beyond the purely observing and commenting aspect and crafting Ruth’s own personality much stronger and decisive than the script suggested. But even if this script gives Rosalind Russell various lines that are perfectly suited to her comedic talents and even lets her add some of her own tics and tricks, too, it unfortunately doesn’t offer her anything else beyond this succession of sarcastic one-liners and quirky remarks. As it is, the part of Ruth Sherwood is not only underwritten but also extremely underdeveloped and she never turns into the kind of plausible human being a comedy like this needs to give the audience the chance to catch a break every once in a while and instead always remains a vessel for a constant display of the aforementioned sarcastic jokes or observations which not even Rosalind Russell’s constant efforts can change. Because of this, she is not allowed to display her usual ability to find true humans underneath her often eccentric creations and too often has nothing to do but overemphasize the comedic aspect of her acting, both exhausting and underwhelming the audience in the process. Rosalind Russell might be the raison d'être of My Sister Eileen but her screen presence and comedic acting also have another side as she often uses this screen presence to not only take charge but dominate her movie and her comedic acting can be overstated to an extent that makes any chance for human development impossible – because even if the script did not offer any true human being to play, Rosalind Russell still sacrificed her own possibilities in this aspect for the sake of playing Ruth Sherwood as a ‘human joke box’. So, Ruth Sherwood, as previously mentioned, is just too little and too much of Rosalind Russell – too little of her human talents, too much of her decision to use every second on the screen for maximum effect. This decision not only denied Ruth Sherwood of a more strongly developed complexity but it also harmed My Sister Eileen itself just as much as it benefitted from her strong comedic talents. Rosalind Russell’s dominance serves the movie by constantly breathing fresh air into the proceedings and harms it by taking the air back just as quickly as she gave it, suffocating everything and everyone around her. Her instincts can be very compelling and raise a whole production to a higher level but My Sister Eileen sometimes almost collapses from her tight control over the whole proceedings as she too often wants to make sure that My Sister Eileen never forgets who the center of its universe is during every moment of her onscreen time. She alone may be responsible for every laugh that My Sister Eileen is able to produce and her performance turned out as amusing as humanly possible under the circumstances but since the script doesn't present her with a truly challenging or thought-out character, she relies too much on her ability to ‘wink’ at the audience and very often simply feels too proud of her own comedic talents. She uses almost every line to be better than those around her, often seems to wait for the laughter of the audience to die down and when she is not delivering some kind of punch line, she uses the time between her dialogue to either wrinkle up her face as a reaction to the dialogue of the other characters or makes some other gesture to keep the attention of the viewers centered on her. During the scene in which she is having dinner with a man, Rosalind Russell reacts to his constant talking with one exaggerated exhausted face after another – this scene is almost representative of her whole performance since Rosalind Russell constantly displays her own awareness in the part of Ruth Sherwood, almost appearing boastful, as if she is playing with the viewers, telling them that she is as much aware of her own effects as everyone else and that she considers herself just as funny as everyone else does or should. In this aspect it is easy to imagine that Rosalind Russell won a Tony Award for her stage work since her acting style in this role constantly communicates with the audience, resulting in the kind of performance that makes its members go home after the show, saying ‘Wasn’t Rosalind Russell a hoot?’ Movie audiences probably thought the same in 1942 but Rosalind Russell’s constant domination of the entire production, her unwillingness to step aside for a single moment, still sometimes comes across as too arrogant and too contrived to really deliver a performance that feels honestly developed.

Overall, it is hard to criticize Rosalind Russell's work since she is in every way the most cherishable aspect of My Sister Eileen but everything that makes her ‘such a hoot’ also prevents her performance from becoming truly reasoned and fulfilled. She was certainly right in her assumption that if she would not entertain the audience, nobody else would since her fellow cast-members lacked both the energy and the personality to bring their roles to life with the needed amount of humor and credibility, but she was just as wrong to assume that the movie would only benefit from her domineering performance and its self-centered interpretation. It's a dilemma that certainly very few actresses could have solved effectively as the movie asks Ruth Sherwood to steal the show but suffers when she does it too much and Rosalind Russell needed to counterbalance the work of her co-stars with her own performance but threw the whole proceedings off-balance too many times in her efforts. But even with these disadvantages on her side, Rosalind Russell thankfully possessed the rare comedic gift to make her performance appear completely logical within the boundaries of My Sister Eileen and she is able to make the viewers laugh even if they are aware of her occasionally misplaced acting choices. And furthermore, even if Rosalind Russell was not allowed to let her talent for humanising her eccentricities completely shine, she was still confident enough in her own possibilities to find the chance to add another layer to her character, at least sometimes. She never forgot the title of the movie and that her Ruth Sherwood is not only smart and witty but also the responsible and dependable older sister who is used to take care of Eileen who, even though not dumb, is a little helpless in the world and needs Ruth as her guide and advisor. Thanks to Rosalind Russell’s mature personality, it is easy for her to play these aspects of Ruth very naturally – she shows that Ruth has always taken care of her little sister and is determined to help her to find her way in the world, giving her a little push if necessary, like writing a sensational review of her stage performance hours before the curtain actually rises. Ruth is well aware of her own importance in Eileen’s life but also has never-ending confidence that Eileen can make it on her own eventually. Rosalind Russell plays these more serious aspects of her character very well and, most importantly, in a very light way that always stays in touch with the light nature of the film and she always understands that Ruth and Eileen are not only sister but also best friends. These moments might be scattered throughout the movie but they still manage to bring a very welcome change of pace, a rare instant of quietness in the otherwise uproarious My Sister Eileen. In those moments, Rosalind Russell was able to bring an urgently needed human touch to the movie that would help to keep its story more grounded even if they cannot equilibrate all those events that are constantly happening around them. And even Rosalind Russell's dominant screen personality, that often overshadowed all other aspects of My Sister Eileen, was able to add positively to these scenes since her strength on the screen makes her presentation as the more mature, more deciding and responsible sister entirely believable. In this aspect, her pairing with Janet Blair does make a certain sense but overall, My Sister Eileen is a movie that would have benefited from a stronger co-lead or even an equal share of impressions at its top because it would not only have given the story a more balanced structure but also would have made it possible for Rosalind Russell to strengthen her own work and define it with more precision in the context of the story as well has her inpretation of her character, its place in all the ongoing events and in the relation to the other characters, therefore making a lot of Ruth’s actions more plausible in the process – and more importantly, it might have caused Rosalind Russell to reduce her own acting style instead of trying to do her own work as well as that of Janet Blair, too, enabling her to focus more clearly on the character she was playing instead of the effects she was hoping to achieve. In her performance, it is always obvious that Rosalind Russell has the strength and the power of persuasion to steal an entire movie and make it worthwhile but at the same time she cannot overcome the constant feeling of lost opportunities that haunt the entire production from start to finish.

In the end, Rosalind Russell worked her way through My Sister Eileen with a lot of confidence and competence and gave an amusing and harmless performance that got all of the comedy out of the material even it if missed a more human aspect. Her work does feel fine in the context of the movie and she, without a doubt, is its single source of energy. But her performance is similar to that of fellow nominee Teresa Wright in The Pride of the Yankees – in both cases, the script does not offer the actresses anything beyond a performance that mostly exists on the surface and leaves them with nothing to do but ‘do their thing’. In the case of Teresa Wright, this was beaming with charm and loveliness while she makes it clear that Lou Gehrig deserves every bit of the admiration she can give. In the case of Rosalind Russell, this was grabbing the movie and actively stealing every scene with her personal talents for domineering comedic displays. Essentially, Ruth Sherwood is a role that offered Rosalind Russell everything that she could do in her sleep – and apparently Rosalind Russell knew this, too. She often feels too self-assured in a role that could have used much more consideration to her own acting and much more devotion to her fellow players but at least she, unlike her supporting cast, knows how to entertain. It’s an overall mixed performance that never truly reaches a level of excellence and Rosalind Russell’s ability to find humor in almost every angle of the script is often as misplaced as it is delightful but she deserves some kind of praise for appearing strangely indispensable despite all the problems in her work. So to come back to the initial question – it is surely mainly the fault of My Sister Eileen itself that Rosalind Russell’s performance is mostly forgotten compared to some of her other performances since her resume offers various movies that leave a much stronger impression and are much better suited to her own acting style. But even with the quality of My Sister Eileen put aside, Rosalind Russell’s actual performance also does not provide enough to turn it into any kind of truly memorable experience. Still, if My Sister Eileen is worth watching, she is the only reason for it. A mixed performance that still manages to be effective as long as it lasts.


joe burns said...

Interesting writeup! I think that she'll rank below Garson, and that this will end up a weak year.

Fritz said...

We'll see... :-)

BTW, is 'interesting writeup' good or bad? :-)

joe burns said...

Oh, good, LOL.