Saturday, November 8, 2008

Starring Betsy Russell

While her career never reached the heights many fans hoped it would, the work of Betsy Russell in the 1980s remains enduring for her devoted following of admirers. Her welcome and surprising return to the screen in the past few years in the Saw sequels have served as notice that she has lost none of the charisma, or looks, that distinguished her when she made her screen-debut more than twenty-five years ago.

Born in San Diego in the late summer of 1963, Betsy Russell’s interest in acting was sparked early in her life, and her teenage years were marked by many memorable appearances in various high school stage productions. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising that something in Betsy sought after the limelight for it was in her blood, as her Grandfather was none other than controversial syndicated columnist Max Lerner.

After graduating high school she left home and ended up in Los Angeles, where her natural good looks instantly began to land her work as a model and as a commercial actress. She immediately began landing auditions for various low budget films around Hollywood, and just before her 19th birthday she was cast as Kittie in the sexploitation comedy Let’s Do It for cult director Bert I. Gordon.
Let’s Do It (1982) failed to distinguish itself among the many teenage sex comedies that crowded theaters in the early to mid eighties but Betsy proved instantly memorable, showing a resonate charm and a warm sexuality that few of her young contemporaries could even hope to match.

Betsy’s debut film role didn’t immediately lead to more film roles but it did land her some television work throughout the next year or so. Head turning spots on everything from T.J. Hooker to Family Ties appeared during this period, each marking Betsy as one to watch and it wasn’t long before she would make the big splash many felt she was destined for.

Pretty Poison’s director Noel Black’s Private School (1983) might not be able to claim itself as a great film, but with a cast including Phoebe Cates, Sylvia Kristel and Matthew Modine it has become an undeniable cult favorite. Stealing the show is Betsy Russell, whose performance as bitchy, sometimes nude, horseback riding Jordan Leigh-Jenson immediately seemed to enter into the realm of eighties pop culture and the heart of every teenage boy watching.

Private School was a hit and it remains a mystery (at least to me) why Betsy wasn’t able to capitalize on it, and yet it would be a full two years (outside of a one shot on The A-Team) before she appeared in front of the cameras again. 1985 would prove to be the busiest for Betsy Russell even though the films were mostly less than distinguished.

First up was Avenging Angel, the trashy but fun follow up to 1984’s Angel, which Betsy had not appeared in. Sporting bigger and blacker hair and a harder edge than she had shown previously, Betsy is extremely solid in Robert Vincent O’Neill’s revenge flick. One of Betsy’s most enduring films immediately followed, Herb Freed’s Tomboy, a flawed but still delightful work that is among the most memorable comedies of the eighties. As mechanic and wanna-be race car driver Tommy, Russell delivers exactly the kind of energetic and witty performance that should have led her directly to better material. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be as mostly silly little teen comedies like Private School and Tomboy remain chiefly what Betsy Russell is remembered for.

The teen action flick Out of Control (a film which also featured a young Sherilyn Fenn) followed as did more TV work but it was quickly becoming apparent that the career of Betsy Russell wasn’t going in the direction it should have been, and by 1987 film roles were getting further and further apart.

Arguably the last really memorable role of her career before her recent appearances in the Saw sequels came in 1987 with another horror film, the cult slasher favorite Cheerleader Camp (Bloody Pom-Poms) for director John Quinn. Few would argue that Quinn’s film ranks as a good one but it has its charms (chief among them Betsy’s lead turn as Alison Wentworth) and its dark humor pre-dates Wes Craven’s Scream by nearly a full decade.

Betsy Russell would scrape through the rest of the eighties with more TV work and a handful of mostly forgettable films. I remember one particular viewing of the Anthony Edwards-Lance Henrikson film Delta Heat in the early nineties, in which Betsy had a co-starring role as essentially ‘the girl’, when a friend I was watching it with pointed out that she deserved better…she certainly did.

All but retired from films by the mid nineties to care for her children, Betsy Russell seemed like some sort of distant dream before she suddenly (and rather magically) appeared in 2006’s underrated Saw III. A much larger role followed in last year’s disappointing Saw IV and she can currently be seen in Saw V.

Betsy Russell’s surprising and welcome comeback should continue. She has wrapped another horror film, Chain Letter, and hopefully more roles will continue to come her way.
Personally speaking, I have always admired Betsy Russell and think of her as one of the most memorable icons of a decade that just didn't have enough good material to offer. To quote my friend, 'she deserves better' but how marvelous that she still managed to prove so memorable in the relatively few quality films she appeared in.

***Some of the stills used in this piece are taken from this Yahoo group dedicated to Betsy.***


Keith said...

I had a big crush on her back in the 80's. Wow! What a babe. All my buddies really loved her. It has been great to see her again in the Saw movies.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for digging up some info on this 80s charmer. I was always infatuated with her, especially in Private School.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith and Tony,
Nice to hear some enthusiastic words about her...much appreciated and I am glad the post was enjoyable.

Joe said...

I like Betsy Russell as well. I guess she was the Megan Fox of the 1980s, only she was sexy, silly and appeared in trashy movies as opposed to $200 million dollar ones. My kind of actress.

I always thought the nude horse riding scene in Private School was an obvious attempt to outdo Phoebe Cates' pool scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but it worked for me. I'm glad that Russell did not develop a cocaine habit or end up on E! True Hollywood Story.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Joe,
I'm glad that didn't happen to her either. Thanks for the comments.

Will Errickson said...

Wow, I don't often get caught short on this site, but somehow I missed Betsy Russell! The Tomboy poster I remember, and I knew Sylvia Kristel was in Private School, but that's it. Netflix queue adjusted accordingly. Thanks!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Will,
Since the majority of her films aren't that great, I would recommend Private School as the best one to start with (just enjoy it as a mid eighties teen comedy with a killer cast) and Cheerleader Camp manages to be a lot of fun without that being great of the film. Watch Private School though and you'll never forget Betsy.
Thanks for the comments!

Yum-Yum said...

Excellent tribute to Betsy Russell. She definitely deserves it.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much Yum-Yum...I think she deserves it too.

MovieMan0283 said...

One of the things I really like about this site is your loyalty to films, filmmakers, and actors that you appreciate which may not be appreciated by the culture at large.

I actually hadn't heard of her before (my knowledge of 80s teen films is razor-thin, given that I was busy playing with Mr. Potato Head while many of you were going on double dates to Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles...)

Makes me think of Sheryl Lee, though, who blew me away in Fire Walk With Me...but never really went anywhere after that. There are thousands of actresses like that out there. Pity.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks MovieMan,
I really appreciate you saying that, as indeed my favorite posts here are the ones like these where I get to pay tribute to a forgotten or undervalued figure or the positive feedback on them means a lot.
Agreed on Sheryl in FIRE WALK WITH Oscar worthy turn she never got the chance to really follow up on.

Anonymous said...

Her best films are the ones where she gets the starring role. Private School, Tomboy, Cheerleader Camp, etc, she\'s never far away from the action so of course the movie is easy on the eyes. Let\'s Do It, she looks like Jordan so that\'s cool though it\'s such a small part.