February 8, 2016

Rosalind Russell, Mourning Becomes Electra

According to Inside Oscar, it was the great Oscar publicist Henry Rogers who, fresh off two consecutive successful Oscar campaigns for Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland, singled out Rosalind Russell's performance in Mourning Becomes Electra as his Chosen One for 1947. Why? Because the role of Lavinia was the juiciest offering of the contenders. It's interesting then, that all the fuss which surrounds this performance--that of Rosalind Russell standing up just before it was revealed that Loretta Young was the true Best Actress winner, in turn forever marking the victory as one for the ages in Oscar Upset History--is more of a byproduct of a PR man and less-so rooted in the actual merit behind Russell's work. After all - reviews of the film aren't exactly praising her, and the film itself was a big flop at the box office.

I will say that I believe that this performance is quite strong. Is it the best of the entire film? No. But it is easily the most complicated and compelling of the entire picture, and Russell does a fine enough job of it. "Fine" is crucial here. While one might deduct points due to the the sheer theatricality of her work (and boy can it be theatrical - the poses she uses in reaction to things are sharp and archaic), but I can't quite fault this style of acting because the film itself is such a chaotic display of melodrama. You'll find that Lavinia herself is described as 'severe' - and is this not something that Russell conveys rather excellently? Though in my opinion she is a little too old to be playing the part, she is still powerful in a number of her scenes - she channels doting hope and embittered rage in her big scene in which she embraces Kirk Douglas, her final encounters with Hazel and Peter are cutting and outstanding and altogether a hefty cocktail of tempestuousness most befitting for such a frantic film. But in the grand scheme of things, when you're reflecting on her overall performance as a whole, it appears as though Russell brings bursts of excellence when it could have been holistically excellent - what's preventing it from being truly great is the lack of consistency. I feel as though there are tough scenes in which Russell doesn't dig as deep as one could have--thus these scenes appear as though she's dramatically gazing, and in turn she doesn't pack as much of a punch. For me, the transition between the second and third acts, wherein Lavinia is supposed to assume the position of Christine, is sloppily handled and not as apparent as the screenplay would aloud to us. A few other key moments of the film - such as her reaction to her father's death or her double-edged feelings towards Brant - aren't controlled as expertly as they could have been - these are moments in which she shows up rather one-dimensionally...not necessarily affecting the performance in the negative, but watching her I got the feeling that with a more multi-faceted approach--with more expert subtlety--the performance could have been extraordinary. So this is where "fine" comes in to play.  I'm still of the belief that this is a solid performance - one that I'd happily revisit at that - but there's that little extra something that's lacking, and for that I give it

Note: I debated back and forth, and ultimately settled on a four for Roz as I didn't think it was poor enough to be a three. That said, this in turn affects Michael Redgrave, whom I found more superior to Roz, and thus I had to bump him up to five.


  1. Very generous rating. It's been a while since I have seen her but I remember that I liked her. Sure, she overacts but she knows how to sell it. I even remember liking Katina but a re-watch might change that :)

  2. You hit the nail right on the head when you noted Russell's lack of consistency, a tendency which mars many of her dramatic performances. I found her very theatrical in this film, indicating left, right and sideways at times without centering her work into a solid character. Too much Russell and not enough Lavinia.

    I think she may have been considered an Oscar fav because the field was rather weak in 1947 and her role was a marathon one that required work on so many levels. Russell didn't reach all those levels but, as always, she gave it her all. I remember reading something (maybe in 'Inside Oscar') where the writer commented that she got a nomination for this "presumably for her courage". That putdown inadvertently acknowledges the effort Russell made here. It shows and it doesn't always work, but she still carries the film in her way.

  3. Rewatching this performance didn't help her for me, I like the darkness of her portrayal, but you're right, there's a lack of consistency in her whole work. I think Hayward is way better than her, so now I am expecting a 5 for her.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. There's a 1948 Russell vehicle called The Velvet Touch wherein her character, a stage actress, accidentally kills her producer, a nasty Leon Ames. She lets Claire Trevor take the blame for a good long time, and also gets to spar with a great Syndey Greenstreet. Try as I did to be fair to Mourning, Velvet Touch is far more an accessible film, and like Picnic, voids before it's raised any suggestion Russell was only good in comedy.

    Still, Mame will always be the saddest of her four losses. Mourning is one of the films that makes me anxious as you to get out of the forties. Deliver me to Gloria, Judy and Bette!

  6. You're right about "The Velvet Touch". It's a lost classic that shows Russell in command of all of her powers. "Auntie Mame" ... that's another story. Here, Russell glorifies all of her mannerisms without ever connecting to who this woman is. She's constantly over-the-top and SHOWS-SHOWS-SHOWS what this woman is feeling without ever seeming genuine. It's a showy performance of the past in every way and I can't imagine modern audiences understanding it, much less relating to it.

  7. This film is so good... on paper.

    Needs a remake.