Back then they were called bosoms. Jane Russell had some, and Howard Hughes knew how to exploit them. Having cast the 19-year-old as the female lead in his western The Outlaw, Hughes designed a seamless brassiere for uplift (Russell says she didn't wear it) and had her filmed leaning forward in low-cut blouses. "I have never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shot of [her] breasts," said movie censor Joseph Breen, who nixed the film. So Hughes released The Outlaw himself in 1943 and made a mint on Russell's cleavage. Hollywood had long sold female sexiness but only as a full package: face, figure and personality. Russell, who died Feb. 28 at 89, was the first woman to become a movie star by being peddled in parts.
She ripened into a fine actress in drama, with Robert Mitchum in Macao, and comedy, with Bob Hope in The Paleface. Russell also memorably played a sultry chanteuse alongside Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She essentially retired from film in the late '50s, later playing on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim's Company, proselytizing against abortion and for adoption and serving as a pitchwoman for Playtex bras ("for us full-figured gals"). The woman Hope called "the two and only Jane Russell" always accepted her strange fame with grace and a knowing smile.
This text originally appeared in the March 14, 2011 issue of TIME magazine.