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Biography 23.1 (2000) 1-28



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Not the Full Story: Representing Ruth Ellis

Sue Tweg

Figures

I must close now but remember I am quite happy with the verdict, but not the way the story was told, there is so much that people don't know about.

Ruth Ellis, on the eve of her execution (Hancock 2)

The Subject in Question

Although she was briefly an international celebrity, Ruth Ellis is not immediately memorable to people nowadays. She is best recognized by readers of "true crime" magazines, where she often features as the enduring pulp-fiction stereotype of tough blonde floozy--just the kind who would kill a playboy lover in a fit of jealous rage.

The real twenty-eight year old murderess named Ruth Ellis, who was hanged in Holloway Prison, London, on July 13, 1955, remains historically significant because the circumstances of her case contributed the last telling example to a gathering nationwide concern about the justice of capital punishment. Lingering questions about her criminal [End Page 1] actions, the handling of her trial, and her execution helped to bring about the greatest change in criminal law the British judicial system had hitherto countenanced--the abolition of the mandatory death penalty for murder.

The woman in question died in 1955. Capital punishment for most crimes of murder was abolished a decade later. Mike Newell's biopic of Ruth Ellis, Dance with a Stranger, titled after one of her favorite Peggy Lee songs, screened on both sides of the Atlantic in 1985 1 --again a critical time for the abolitionist cause in Britain, with arguments for the death penalty once more a hot political issue. The film's creators drew on interviews, Old Bailey trial transcripts, and other details which Ellis's original biographer, Robert Hancock, had first presented at length in 1963. Documentation of the film project's evolution suggests that Newell and his team understood their work's potential for carrying a powerful social message, even without placing overt emphasis on Ruth Ellis's trial and execution. Dance with a Stranger, therefore, concentrated on the last two years of her life, underpinning a lingering popular image of Ellis as a "good-time girl," but with a story closer to the sad truth of the matter--that she never had a good time.

This article discusses how Ellis's biography continued to be constructed socially over the three decades after her death, and thus engages with a fundamental issue of biopic making--how to tell a story. In the case of Ruth Ellis, there are two films to consider: Dance with a Stranger, and the less well-known 1956 "quasi-biopic" Yield to the Night, directed by J. Lee Thompson. Both have contributed to an ongoing social representation of the subject "Ruth Ellis" in public memory.

These films may be thought of as intertexts in that they both tell significant parts of what is generally (if erroneously) recognized as the Ellis "story." Both are tightly focused narratives, reducing the potential life span of a full biographical study to the last significant part of their subjects' lives--just over a year in one case, and under three weeks in the other. Through their chosen narrative, stylistic, and casting strategies, the films give a singular generic shape to their main characters--two socially deviant women in the same specific historical and social environment--while developing a discourse to critique simplistic moral readings of the transgressors who are their main subjects. In this way, as I shall argue, both films deliberately deny the viewer the easy closure that would comfortably fix Ruth Ellis's "story." Ultimately, despite each film's attempt to be truthful in its own way, neither the fictionalized reworking of the punishment nor the fictionalized biopic tells a "full" story of Ruth Ellis. [End Page 2]

Finally, we should also note that the actresses chosen to represent the main character in each film immediately took on an intertextual significance of another kind in relation to Ruth Ellis. At least in one instance, Ellis's life pattern was closely mirrored by Diana Dors...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 1-28
Launched on MUSE
1999-12-01
Open Access
No
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