“Take a good grip on yourself; you are going to DIE! Stephen Haines is stepping out on Mary!” With this juicy salvo, Rosalind Russell spits out the verbal spark that ignited “The Women.” It was one of the highest grossing films of 1939, a whip-smart comedy lampooning the intrigues of the privileged class, featuring a veritable army of female talent. Much has been said about Rosalind Russell’s performance in “The Women”, and rightfully so: its brilliance is undeniable. Russell’s portrayal of ruthless gossip Sylvia Fowler is a mad gallop across the gamut of what’s funny: lethal one liners executed with rat-a-tat-tat rapidity, coupled with ferocious physical comedy, all in service of an unforgettably daffy character who easily carries away the entire film. Sylvia Fowler, with her eager ears and unstoppable mouth, would be the last person anyone would want to see sitting across from them at a gathering of friends. Yet the crazed charisma of Russell’s performance transforms this ruthless scandalmonger into a lovable lunatic. She simply cannot help herself. Her condition, as summed up by her best friend Edith Potter (Phylis Povah) is congenital and chronic: “It’s just her tough luck that she wasn’t born deaf and dumb.” We love her best of all the women in the film, even those whose lives she destroys.
Beyond a career accomplishment for Russell, the performance is a landmark achievement in female comedy, one that has been shamelessly aped by Lucille Ball and still resonates in modern funny girl vehicles like “Bridesmaids” and “Absolutely Fabulous.” But that’s been said, too. Yes, Russell is amazing; the performance is indeed groundbreaking. What else is there to be said? I’d like to argue that Russell’s Sylvia Fowler goes beyond brilliant; the performance is prescient, heralding a day in which the roles of audience and performer are interchangeable and the entertainment is reality itself.
Admirers of Russell’s Sylvia Fowler inevitably gravitate towards the physicality she brings to the role: her shambling nose-first gait, the impatient, perpetual motion machine that is her mouth when she chews gum, her kamikaze approach to slapstick, her impressive cat-fighting chops. But when it comes to the most remarkable aspect to this physical tour-de-force, the eyes have it. From the nose down, Fowler is infamously an instigator: a trouble maker whose every utterance is outrageously provocative. From the nose up, however, she’s an enraptured observer, her gaze alternating between intrusive curiosity to dazzled fascination. Within the context of that sumptuously haughty patrician face, Russell plays out the symbiotic relationship between the compulsions to observe and to provoke. This intelligently nuanced aspect of the performance plays like a delicate leitmotif within the 1812 Overture, but it’s hardly obscure. Rosalind Russell’s Sylvia Fowler was a meticulously-created MGM monster with a committee of mad scientists on her pedigree: she was germinated from Clare Boothe Luce’s original play, sharpened and honed by Anita Loos’ screenplay, outrageously accoutered with clever symbolism by Adrian, and ultimately marshaled by legendary director George Cukor. To see her as a spiteful yenta would be to miss the richness of this performance and the dark depths invested in her character. Sylvia Fowler is the observer run amuck, sparking mayhem for the sake of her own entertainment.
“Great guns! What are you made up for? The Seeing Eye?” The outfit is outrageous. The reaction is hilariously spot-on. Yet there swans Fowler in the drawing room of her cousin Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), impervious to all criticism as she awaits luncheon amongst her cronies. She is proudly decked out in a blouse festooned with eyes. This ensemble, a sight in black and white, was in actuality violet on fuchsia over a purple skirt , a visual riot that had to have played havoc on the retinas of Russell’s costars. Sylvia Fowler wears her spectacles in this scene, a delightful visual pun that comments on her show-stopping fashion sense, but also establishes her as all seeing, even as she calls attention to herself. A veil draped over the eyes like a stage curtain, hint at subterfuge and theatricality, but the eyes are hardly concealed at all, marking the character as a bad actor.
The costume, coupled with the glasses, makes it symbolically plain that Fowler is watching the show as she is instigating it. This warning emblazoned upon her slender frame, ironically goes ignored by a key member of her social circle. As we’ll see in the unspooling of the narrative, they merely hear her voice and react to its provocations, but are blind to the compulsion powering it: the hunger for spectacle. The reference to The Seeing Eye, therefore, is brilliantly bang-on.
Her knowledge that “Stephen Haines is stepping out on Mary” affords Fowler with a choice opportunity to play a key role in a delicious drama. She is well aware of this, and Russell puts in double duty as an actress playing a ham. When she breaks the scandal to her friends, the only thing her performance lacks is a spotlight. “While we’re on the subject, have either of you wondered whether the master of this maison might not be straying?” The line is delivered with almost extravagant staginess: a leg is tossed over the knee of the other, her head cocked in such a way to make her ridiculous bouquet of a hat appear divinely elegant, almost like a halo. Her eyes are lowered demurely, yet the corners of her mouth curl with an almost fiendish pleasure.
The final result isn’t so much a pose as a grand tableau vivant. Her ridiculously obvious theatricality is sussed out by Nancy Blake (Florence Nash), a streetwise author and no great lover of Sylvia. “You’re so resourceful, darling. I ought to go to you for plots. “
The audience clamoring within the actor reliably wreaks havoc on Fowler’s performances. Sylvia the spectator overtakes Sylvia the participant most notably during her reconnaissance mission to a perfume counter to size up “the other woman” Crystal Allen. Slithering into the scene with Povah in tow, peering into a veritable fortress of “Summer Rain” perfume bottles with a perverse gleam in her eye, Russell makes it plain that her character is in her intrusive glory. But when she’s finally confronted with Allen herself, an odd thing happens to this meddlesome motor mouth: she is rendered absolutely speechless. Regarding Crawford with a dazzled smile, Russell takes in her costar’s face with a glazed, dreamy gaze as if she were mooning over a close-up of a female lead in a romance. The star struck spell lasts for an agonizing moment, and is only broken by a hard elbow to Fowler’s ribs, administered by Edith. The lower part of Russell’s face, famous for its rapid fire delivery, engages once more, and Fowler is once again a player in the game. The cover she puts up, that of a shopper who innocently mentions the name of Allen’s lover, is as transparent as the veils she favors. Allen evades all questioning and sees Fowler off with the freshly minted putdown “Mrs. Prowler.”
Perhaps learning a valuable lesson on discretion, Fowler seems to tighten the reins on her mien, but only just barely. Russell trots out this more nuanced Sylvia for the fashion show scene…along with those notorious spectacles, a mouthful of gum, and a set of knitting needles, that foreshadow the tangled web she weaves to entrap Mary. The look is topped off with a demonic-looking bow, in case anyone is unclear as to where Fowler stands in relation to the moral Mason-Dixon line. She dogs Mary’s every step, goading her with salty commentary about her husband’s infidelity. But the eyes have it yet again: Russell literally gets in Shearer’s face, her gaze avidly ping-ponging back and forth from one eye to another, zestfully inspecting her face for any sign of dismay. In that moment, Russell’s mouth is permitted another silent smile-a full-bore beam, in fact. Encouraged by what she sees, she triumphantly cries “She can’t take it!”
But she’s far from satisfied. Ravenous for confrontation, Fowler ferrets Mary out from the refuge of her dressing room and peppers her friend with provocations designed to instigate a showdown between the wife and the other woman, who happens to be trying on dresses right across the hall. Russell’s face is simply out of control in this scene: the mouth kicks into manic overdrive and the eyes are ablaze with unhinged villainy. Director George Cukor seizes upon this moment to wrest every deliciously wicked drop out of Russell’s performance: crowding the frame (not to mention Shearer herself) with Russell, raging in triplicate by way of dressing room mirrors, closing in like a rabid wolf pack for the kill.
In the mayhem, we see Fowler’s savagery unmasked: it’s bigger than she is. Hell, it’s practically bigger than the dressing room. All she can do to conceal the enormity of her true nature is turn her back to Haines. Pretending to dial down her onslaught, Fowler goes for Haines’ jugular with the mock-mild invocation of Allen as potential stepmother to Haines’ young daughter. It’s Fowler’s worst performance to date, squeezing this veritable mushroom cloud of malevolence behind the ill-fitting mask of the “concerned friend”. Amazingly, Haines buys it.
Even when they can’t see, Fowler’s eyes want to watch: they defy stage direction and practically turn the corners of her eye sockets in an attempt to Haines’ reaction in the background. This poisonous dart of a glance is symptomatic of something more powerful than a mere proclivity; it’s the hallmark of a hard-wired reflex. At that moment, the daffy babbler is superseded by a compulsive voyeur who would say absolutely anything for the sake of a good show. It’s a cold and unsettling thing to behold.
Cukor and Russell used every tool at their disposal to build the perfect beast in Fowler. This creature isn’t merely a wolf in designer clothing, nor should we simply chalk up the performance as a comedic exemplar for generations of funny women; Russell’s Sylvia Fowler stands as a scathing indictment of the heartless heart of entertainment itself. She is ruthless in her pursuit of entertainment, an avid spectator who takes it all in and wants more—all of it indispensable yet imminently disposable at the same time. Her behavior is reflective of an odd sense of unreality, a suspension of disbelief that divorces her from the painful reality of lives ruined for the sake of entertainment. When confronted with the possible ramifications of her actions, Fowler’s dismissive reply is staggering: “Oh, you remember the awful things they said about what’s-her-name before she jumped out the window? There. You see? I can’t even remember her name so who cares?” The passing of another human being is just another character killed off as far as Fowler is concerned. Russell’s breezy delivery, so offhanded and effortless, is played as Fowler’s sole moment without guile or pretense; she speaks from the heart—her cold, black heart. Russell delivers this wisecracking 1939 version of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage”, and exits the scene with a toss of a curtain. And with that sly symbolic gesture, we learn Fowler’s true place is somewhere far removed from the petty concerns of those poor players who strut and fret, but close enough not to miss a single tear or drop of sweat.
Yet we love this horrible creature. Somehow, we forgive her monstrous deeds. Why? Russell’s charisma, while considerable, can’t be the only reason for this. The reason lies in that Russell portrays her as an instigator, oblivious to being such. She does what she does because she is at her heart an observer, a rapt member of the audience, sitting right next to us in the darkness, gobbling up the spectacle like so much popcorn.
The compulsion to see what happens, and then what happens next, to the end, is why we bought a ticket to this film when it was released in 1939. Indeed, it’s the reason why we watch any show, open any novel, or slow down to look at an accident on the expressway. The poor (snarling, rabid) creature can’t help herself any more than we can, it’s plain to see.
Russell’s Sylvia Fowler doesn’t merely hold a mirror up to the audience. It offers a glimpse in the crystal ball at the future of entertainment. Like all great works, the performance tells a timeless truth—in this case, a statement about the disconnect between human beings that permits us to see one another as abstract playthings whose struggles are to be savored. The Germans had a word for this: schadenfreude. In the nearly 75 years since Russell shambled across the silver screen as the living embodiment of the audience, delighting in the thick of a juicy domestic drama, we have seen the gradual erosion of the fictional barrier between entertainment and the entertained. The made-up scandals we’ve enjoyed as a polite stand-ins for the actual sufferings others, (of which “The Women” is a prime example) no longer satisfy our appetite for schadenfreude. Like Sylvia Fowler herself, we have become impatient to simply watch what is offered: we must storm the stage ourselves.
Sylvia Fowler is alive and well today, and up to her old tricks as we speak. In fact, if you click through the channels on any given night, you’ll encounter dozens of her in various incarnations- the hot mess “Housewives”, the scenery-devouring celebutants– all instigating human drama for mass consumption on reality television. It’s very likely none of Sylvia Fowler’s forebears have ever heard of their fictional prototype, yet it’s eerie how clearly they demonstrate her most notable attributes with their cheap theatrics, their outrageous lack of discretion, their willingness to say and do almost anything for the sake of a good show, and ultimately, their chilling lack of accountability when their actions inevitably hit the fan. The Sylvia Fowler creation is truly great, one that easily deserves its place in the Western comedic pantheon because it rings with an almost prophetic truthfulness, harkening a future in which reality is entertainment, and the audience is the star.
This chapter of The Gaytheist is dedicated to my friend Susan, a long-standing proponent of “The Women” and my mom, a long-standing proponent of Rosalind Russell. I can’t believe it took me this long to listen to you!