Janice Rule, actress and psychoanalyst: born Norwood, Ohio 15 August 1931; married first Robert Thom (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second N. Richard Nash (marriage dissolved), third 1961 Ben Gazzara (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1979); died New York 17 October 2003.
The actress, singer and dancer Janice Rule was a tawny-haired beauty who had an active career on stage, screen and television before putting her actor's insight to use as a psychoanalyst. On Broadway she created the character of Madge in William Inge's Picnic and bewitched critics with her song and dance skills in The Happiest Girl in the World, and on screen she graduated from ingénues to such complex roles as the mute artist in Robert Altman's intriguing Three Women.
Born in Ohio in 1931, she studied ballet, and began her career as a dancer at the age of 15 in the Chicago night-club Chez Paree. She was in the chorus of two Broadway musicals, Miss Liberty (1949) and Great to Be Alive! (1950) and made her screen début with an uncredited bit role in Fourteen Hours (1951).
Signed to a contract by Warners, she was given the choice role of a rebellious college student in Vincent Sherman's Goodbye, My Fancy (1951). Based on Fay Kanin's play, the film suffered by having both its political and sexual aspects softened for the screen and is best known for the on-set feud that developed between Rule and the film's star Joan Crawford. Crawford wrote in her 1962 autobiography, Portrait of Joan,
The cast included a young girl named Janice Rule whose personality definitely clashed with mine. I felt she was non-professional in her attitude, that she regarded film work as something less than slumming and one day I told her so. "Miss Rule," I said, "you'd better enjoy making films while you can, I doubt that you'll be with us long!"
Rule later said that the tense atmosphere on the set caused her to muff take after take. Though she was pictured on the cover of Life magazine on 8 January 1951 as a rising young actress, Warners quickly dropped their new player after just one more film, Starlift (1951), an all-star morale-booster about Hollywood's valiant work entertaining Korean War troops. The film seemed too self-serving to gain great approval, though Rule shone as a movie star who falls in love with an airman, displaying her dancing skill in two duets with Gene Nelson.
After starring in two minor MGM movies, Holiday for Sinners (1952) and Rogue's March (1953), Rule returned to the stage, where she had a great personal success in William Inge's Picnic, originating the role of Madge, the restless small-town beauty played in the film version by Kim Novak. Ralph Meeker played the drifter with whom she falls in love, and Paul Newman had one of his first notable roles as her executive boyfriend. Meeker became a good friend of Rule, and it was at his suggestion that she was cast opposite him in the film A Woman's Devotion (with the UK title War Shock, 1956), as the wife of a disturbed war veteran.
In Abner Biberman's superior western Gun for a Coward (1957), she was the heroine torn between two brothers (Fred MacMurray and Jeffrey Hunter) and in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) she played the snooty fiancée of a publisher (James Stewart) who falls in love with a witch (Kim Novak). Her finest opportunities continued, though, to come from the theatre. In 1959 she was acclaimed for her performance as a neurotic beauty ruining several lives in Michael V. Gazzo's short-lived drama The Night Circus.
Her co-star in The Night Circus was Ben Gazzara, and in 1961 he became Rule's third husband. Her first two were the writer-director Robert Thom and the playwright N. Richard Nash, and she was once engaged to Farley Granger, a liaison described as the briefest engagement in show business. Her marriage to Gazzara lasted until 1979.
In 1961 Rule had another personal triumph in the musical The Happiest Girl in the World, based on Aristophanes' Lysistrata, with the music of Offenbach given wittily fanciful lyrics by E.Y. Harburg. She played Diana, goddess of the moon, who inspires Lysistrata with the idea that women must refuse their favours until men agree to keep the peace. Still recalled affectionately by theatregoers is the show-stopping duet she shared with her uncle Pluto (Cyril Richard), "Vive la Virtue!", a lilting gavotte in which he points out, "This is man's ambivalent taste, whatever is chaste has got to be chased."
The New York Herald-Tribune critic Walter Kerr wrote,
I suppose Cyril Ritchard and Janice Rule could have danced all night; they link arms, lift their ears for a beat, and take off - to the lightest of Offenbach - as though they'd quite forgotten which Palace they're supposed to have come from. Lovely work.
Howard Taubman in The New York Times lauded her "personal magic" and John Chapman in the New York News called her "a beautiful and bewitching dancer and an all-round musical comedy player."
The previous year Rule had starred as a man-hating beatnik in a screen version of Jack Kerouac's "beat" novel The Subterraneans, a film that caused Joan Crawford graciously to admit her error. In 1962 she wrote,
On board a ship last summer I sat watching The Subterraneans, absolutely rapt over the performance of an actress who dances brilliantly, who has a flair for drama, for comedy. "Who is this girl? She's fantastic!" I said. Well, the girl was Janice Rule. I've since
seen her on TV and I can only add superlatives. Miss Rule, my apologies, I think you're going to be with us a long long time.
Rule's film career continued to be sporadic. She co-starred with Yul Brynner in a Freudian western, Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), and was one of a fine cast (Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson, Miriam Hopkins, Robert Duvall) in Arthur Penn's muddled melodrama The Chase (1966), which gave her one of her first neurotic roles as Duvall's slatternly wife who drunkenly swallows a string of pearls. She was a loose woman dallying with both Richard Widmark and William Holden in the western Alvarez Kelly (1966), was splendid as a rugged frontierswoman in the bleak western Welcome to Hard Times (1967) and had a rare chance to display her sense of humour in the spy spoof The Ambushers (1967).
In Frank Perry's hauntingly enigmatic drama The Swimmer (1968), Rule was powerfully biting as Burt Lancaster's vitriolic ex-mistress who claims never to have loved him. Her scene with Lancaster was directed, uncredited, by Sydney Pollack. Rule's screen work, though impressive, had never made her a box-office name, and much of her later work was on television.
In 1972 she appeared in Stephen Frears's British film Gumshoe, which starred Albert Finney as a bingo-caller with aspirations to be a Bogart-like private detective. Rule was a duplicitous client who is actually a gunrunner and dope smuggler. In 1977 she had one of her most memorable roles as a mute and pregnant artist, painter of weird and vaguely sexual murals which reflect her fear of men, in Robert Altman's audacious, strange but compelling movie Three Women, co-starring Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek.
Among her last film roles was that in John Badham's American Flyers (1985) as the dysfunctional mother of two brothers, one of whom is dying, who enter a bicycle marathon. For several years she had been working as a psychoanalyst, having gained a doctorate from the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute in Los Angeles in 1983.
Tom VallanceReuse content