Tall brunette leading lady who hit her stride in the 1940s playing wisecracking, no-nonsense career women in a string of breezy comedies. Entering films in 1935, she was briefly typecast as upper crust, sometimes British "other women", but quickly established herself in leading roles (especially with her performances in such fine films as Dorothy Arzner's "Craig's Wife" 1936 and King Vidor's "The Citadel" 1938). She really achieved full star status, though, with her memorable turn as the sly, bitchy girlfriend of Norma Shearer in the all-star, all-female catfight, "The Women" (1939), as ringmastered by George Cukor. A highly talented, charismatic and appealing actress, she excelled in Howard Hawks' rapid-fire "His Girl Friday" (1940), opposite Cary Grant, and in "My Sister Eileen" (1942), in a role she would later reprise on the musical stage. Her straight dramatic roles were generally less successful, though two of her four Oscar nominations were in very serious if not entirely successful "prestige" films for screenwriter-director Dudley Nichols: "Sister Kenny" (1946) and "Mourning Becomes Electra" (1947).
Russell made fewer films during the 1950s, but kept busy with her huge success in the musicalized "Eileen", renamed "Wonderful Town". Not really a singer, Russell nevertheless bowled audiences over by sheer force of personality, capturing practically every award the theater community had to offer. She later tried a variety of semi-character roles in film which generally relied on the aggressiveness and exuberance of her established star persona. In a number of leading ("Auntie Mame" 1958) and supporting ("Picnic" 1955) roles tinged with seriocomic eccentricity she was quite successful, but her turn as the domineering mother in "Gypsy" (1962) received a split verdict from critics. She continued making films into the early 70s and devoted much of her time to charity work, for which she was awarded a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Russell was long married to producer Frederick Brisson, who helped manage her career.