Monday, February 25, 2013

What is it about Barbara Rush...Or is it Just Me?

Barbara Rush is the sort of actress who forms the backbone of the entertainment industry.  Beautiful and talented, she has always delivered the goods from the moment she burst onto the scene in the early 1950s.  With a career spanning decades, Rush remains a welcome, appealing presence in movies and television.  She is respected and well-liked by both critics and audiences and has enjoyed a solid career consisting of substantial roles.  Rush might be difficult to peg because of the diversity of her career.  She's a sci-fi cult favorite ("When Worlds Collide" and "It Came from Outer Space"); a Universal-International contract player ("Taza, Son of Cochise", "Captain Lightfoot" and "The Black Shield of Falworth"); 1950s melodrama heroine ("Bigger than Life," "No Down Payment," "The Young Lions," and "The Young Philadelphians"); a distaff member of Sinatra's Rat Pack ("Come Blow Your Horn" and "Robin and the Seven Hoods"); a "Batman" baddie; TV guest star perennial (you name it, she's been on it); and prime time soap queen ("Peyton Place" and "Flamingo Road") at different stages of her career.  The term "classy" is incredibly overused when it comes to describing actresses, but it genuinely applies when it comes to discussing Barbara Rush, however.  Rush grew even more beautiful as she matured, probably because she continued to find the warmth, humanity and dignity in every character she played.

Even though Rush gave many fine performances in films during the 1950s and 1960s, my favorite era from her career were the roles she played in the late 1970s/early 1980s.  She guest starred twice on "The Love Boat" in 1979 playing a recurring character.  In her first "Love Boat," entitled "The 'Now' Marriage," Rush played Eleanor Gardiner, a woman married to a psychologist (played by Peter Marshall) who has written a book advocating open relationships in order to keep things lively in a marriage.  Eleanor is happily married to her husband, but becomes alarmed when he decides to put his theory to the test by entering into an adulterous relationship with a single passenger (Phyllis Davis) he meets aboard ship.  Eleanor tries to retain her dignity even as her heart breaks as her husband flaunts his affair in front of her.  She finds an unselfish confidante in Captain Stubing (Gavin MacLeod), who is clearly attracted to her but knows better than to take advantage of her during a vulnerable moment.  Rush brings genuine heart and sensitivity to this role that allows the segment to rise above the average "Love Boat" episode.  Eleanor comes across as a real human being whose life has been turned upside down in the course of the cruise, and Rush makes sure never to trivialize the character.  At the end of the episode, when Peter Marshall's character dumps Phyllis Davis and thinks he can come back to Eleanor, she turns the tables on him and tells him that their marriage is over.  When the cruise ends, Eleanor and Captain Stubing vow to remain friends.

Rush made a welcome return to "Love Boat" several months later reprising the character in the appropriately titled segment "Eleanor's Return."  In the episode, Captain Stubing is excited at seeing Eleanor again, only to find that she has become involved with another passenger on the ship played by character actor Jon Cypher.  During an intimate moment with Cypher's character, however, Eleanor makes the heartbreaking discovery that he's a married man just looking for a light, no-strings rendezvous.  Eleanor, who was on the verge of really falling for this guy, is humiliated that the first serious relationship she's had since her divorce from Peter Marshall's character turns out to be a bust.  Captain Stubing again comes to her rescue and again proves to be a loyal and thoughtful friend.  Rush sensitively dramatized the sorts of small steps that women who are entering the dating scene after years of being married go through.  At the end of the episode, Eleanor and Stubing vow to stay in touch and become more intimately acquainted, but unfortunately the character was never seen again on the series.  It's a shame, because Rush and MacLeod had great chemistry together and she would have been a welcome continued presence on "The Love Boat."

Rush again brought depth to what could have been a stereotypical character in the Irwin Allen-produced TV disaster movie "The Night the Bridge Fell Down."  It was shot in 1980 but sat on the shelf for several years until NBC finally aired it on February 28, 1983, opposite the last episode of "M*A*S*H."  Originally intended to air in two-parts, Rush played Elaine Howard, a secretary who helps her married lover Paul Warren (Leslie Nielsen) embezzle valuable bonds to use as collateral for an investment scheme he has going.  As Elaine and Warren are driving to deliver the bonds, they are trapped aboard a collapsing commuter suspension bridge along with other motorists including an armed bank robber (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) who holds everyone hostage.  James MacArthur played the heroic engineer determined to help rescue all the motorists before the bridge completely collapses and takes the motorists with them.  Unlike other actors appearing on made-for-TV disaster movies, Rush doesn't phone in her performance and is completely committed to her role.  In Rush's best scene, she expresses to Leslie Nielsen her sense that their entrapment on the bridge is divine punishment for luring him away from his wife, and for helping him to steal the bonds.  As such, she comes across as the most haunted, thoughtful and soulful character among the hapless protagonists in the movie.

Throughout "The Night the Bridge Fell Down" are some lame "flashback" scenes among the other characters as they recall past events in their lives in a lazy attempt by the screenwriters to provide a backstory to these thinly drawn roles.  Rush was one of the few characters in this film without those flashbacks, a reflection on how her performance was so well thought-out that her character's "arc" didn't need artificial padding to enhance it.  Another good moment for Rush in the movie takes place when the bridge is violently shaking and she almost goes over the edge.  Rather than reaching out to help her, Leslie Nielsen's character reaches out to save the bonds hidden in her purse.  Realizing that the bonds mean more to Nielsen than her, she angrily throws the purse over the railing into the water below.  Like Eleanor in the "Love Boat" segments, Rush again brings sensitivity to another woman who finds herself expendable to the man that she has made sacrifices for.  At the end of the film, when Rush and the other characters are slowly climbing down the base of the bridge to try and reach safety, she completely submerges herself into the terror her character is experiencing at that moment.  Unlike other actors, who appear disinterested while starring in made-for-TV disaster movies in order to pick up a paycheck, Rush's sincere expression of nervous fear helps heighten the suspense for the audience during the finale of the movie.  "The Night the Bridge Fell Down" isn't a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but Rush's fine performance helps make it better than it has any right to be.

My favorite Barbara Rush role was her two-season tenure on the short-lived NBC prime time soap "Flamingo Road," which I have blogged about before.  Rush played the noble Eudora Weldon, wife of cowardly paper mill tycoon Claude Weldon (Kevin McCarthy) and adoptive mother of snooty Constance Weldon Carlyle (Morgan Fairchild), the richest girl in Truro, Florida.  Throughout the first season of "Flamingo Road," Eudora is oblivious to the fact that Constance is actually her husband Claude's natural daughter, the result of his long-ago affair with Lute-Mae Sanders (Stella Stevens), proprietor of the local roadhouse/brothel in Truro.  What was wonderful about Rush's performance on "Flamingo Road" was the genuine compassion and sympathy that Eudora felt for others.  Unlike her adoptive daughter Constance, Eudora is always genuinely warm towards Lute-Mae before she learns that Lute-Mae is her daughter's natural mother, and even afterwards.  After Eudora learns the truth of her daughter's parentage in the second season premiere of "Flamingo Road," while overhearing Claude and Lute-Mae talking in the hospital chapel after Constance has taken a fall off the bannister at Lute-Mae's, she never feels threatened or jealous because of her newly-realized knowledge of Lute-Mae's biological relationship to her daughter.  Instead, she treats Lute-Mae with generosity and kindness because she is appreciative of the fact that Lute-Mae gave birth to the adoptive daughter she loves deeply.  Eudora rightfully takes out her rage, over being lied to, upon her own husband Claude, not Lute-Mae.

Eudora was a complex, nuanced role that Rush complemented beautifully.  Not only did she bring reservoirs of depth and humanity to the role, she also brought an accepting, non-judgmental quality to Eudora that made her incredibly endearing.  She is one of the few people in Truro who does not shun carnival dancer-turned-saloon singer Lane Ballou (Cristina Raines) even after she arrives in town and becomes rivals with Eudora's own daughter Constance for the affections of handsome Deputy Sheriff Fielding Carlyle (Mark Harmon).  When Eudora meets Lane for the first time, she admits to Lane that she understands why her son-in-law Field would be so attracted to her.  Eudora reassures Lane that, unlike her daughter Constance, her own husband Claude, and evil sheriff Titus Semple (Howard Duff)--who all tried to run Lane out of town--she is not Lane's enemy.  Eudora treats Lane with respect during the few times they encounter one another on "Flamingo Road," and genuinely wishes Lane well when she marries successful businessman Sam Curtis (John Beck) and moves into the house next door to the Weldon's during the second season of the series.  Perhaps Eudora, who feels like an outsider living amongst her own treacherous and devious family members, feels a kinship with outsider Lane than she does with her own relatives.  When Lane and Field's affair during Season One destroys his marriage to Constance, Eudora is genuinely heartbroken.  One of my favorite scenes is the moment when Field has packed his bags, in order to move out of the Weldon's house to go live with Lane, and runs into Eudora at the bottom of the stairs.  Field thanks Eudora for her kindness to him during his marriage to Constance.  Eudora urges Field to do the right thing and not "thank" her by committing adultery against her daughter and betraying the trust that her family had bestowed onto him.  When Field admits he never loved Constance, Eudora slowly-mounting anger erupts.  She tells Field that the men in her family were all honorable and lived up to their commitments; and if Field is unable to live up to the promises he has made, he should just go ahead, walk out the door and leave her family immediately.  In the hands of a lesser actress, it could have come across as hammy and mannered, but Barbara Rush gave a marvelous and superb performance in that scene so that her feelings were never less than authentic.

Barbara Rush gave such consistently excellent performances throughout her career that one expects her to have an armful of awards.  However, except for winning the Golden Globes' Most Promising Female Newcomer Award in 1954, Rush has not had the sort of nominations, awards and prizes that an actress of her caliber and stature deserves.  She deserved, at the very least, several Emmys for her fine work in television that characterized much of her career.  Here's to hoping that we get even more performances from the still-attractive Rush that will finally bring her the awards she richly deserves.  In Martin Ritt's "No Down Payment" (1957), which was a blueprint for "Knots Landing," Rush gave a sympathetic performance as a solid middle-class housewife raising a young family in a suburban tract community.  Her authentically nuanced performance in "No Down Payment" was a refreshing contrast to co-star Joanne Woodward's mannered Actors Studio/Method Acting posturing.  I think the reason why Barbara Rush is sometimes taken for granted is because she is so subtle in her approach to acting that she makes it seem effortless when, in fact, a lot of skill and craftsmanship went into creating all of her performances.  While watching a Barbara Rush performance, we don't sense that she's "acting" the way other more overt performers (Elizabeth Ashley comes to mind) are when they approach their roles.  In many ways, because the appropriately-named Rush brings to life characters in such an excitingly authentic and nuanced manner, she is able to live what other, more stylized and esoteric actresses can only dream of. 


  1. Here's a little something on Barbara's B movie career:

  2. I recently caught the Love Boat episodes you mentioned and I just had to google the lovely Barbara Rush. I guess you could say Im her newest fan!


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