If ever we needed news to remind us of Shakespeare’s line about troubles not coming in single spies but in battalions, this is it. Debbie Reynolds, one of the aristocrats of the Hollywood golden age and glorious star of the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain, has died.
She has an impregnable, unchallengeable status in the history of cinema simply for her part in that movie. Just watching her in it, alive with fun, with dance, with comedy and romance, is enough to cure any bad mood. Certainly it’s been like that for me.
Reynolds’s face is irradiated with an extraordinary kind of pure joy – and with that innocent happiness and pertness which bespoke a type of femininity which Hollywood and the music industry promoted in those days, but which was never so persuasive, or so beguiling, as Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain.
Reynolds’s death comes just one day after the death of Carrie Fisher, her daughter. It is a desperately sad moment (yet another desperately sad moment) that marks the end of a long career of stage and screen, and the end of a deeply complex mother-daughter relationship that was painful, loving, competitive, passionate – and creative.
For long periods the two were almost like sundered partners in a classic double act, exemplars of old and new Hollywood, falling out a great deal of the time, but finding common ground in an awful lot – not least being let down and condescended to by men. They came to be candid about the strains that Reynolds put on her daughter Fisher, who was often effectively the emotional caregiver through her mother’s failed marriages while at the same time trying to move out of Reynolds’s shadow.
Fisher conferred upon her mother a kind of second act in Hollywood myth, through Fisher’s portrayal of her in the autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. Fisher adapted it for the 1990 movie version, about a recovering addict forced to live with a responsible adult, her mom – greatly expanding the juicy role for her impossible, demanding and hilarious mother, played, of course, by Shirley MacLaine in the film.
MacLaine was great casting. Maybe Reynolds would have been even better. But this movie surely inspired one of Reynolds’s great late-career roles, in Albert Brooks’s comedy Mother (1996), in which Brooks starred as the failing writer who moves back in with his overbearing mother in an attempt to understand his problems with women. Brooks’s friend Carrie Fisher was instrumental in persuading Reynolds to take the part.
Reynolds got her greatest role in 1952 at the age of 19 in Singin’ in the Rain, playing Kathy Selden, a gutsy wannabe stage actress in Los Angeles who, as the industry panics at the coming of the talkies, falls for Gene Kelly’s smooth star Don Lockwood. It was a superb role, and Reynolds inhabited it to perfection; the part transformed Reynolds’s virginal girl-scout image and, for all its apparent golden-age nostalgia, the movie showed a kind of genius in plugging Reynolds into what was, after all, the thrill of modernity. Her character is in the vanguard of cinema’s move away from the silent age. Singin’ in the Rain showcased her adorable innocence and glorious energy and life in a way that outclassed the relatively staid roles before and afterwards.
Her meet-cute with Gene Kelly is one of the great romantic scenes in film history, perhaps the greatest. Kathy has given the big-headed star Don a lift in her car: a little conceited herself, she has given him a lecture about how shallow the movies are compared to the great heights to which she aspires in the legitimate theatre.
Later, at his swanky Hollywood after-party, Don is astonished and hugely amused to see Kathy pop out of the cake as part of the entertainment, to sing the great number All I Do Is Dream Of You. He grins and gloats: with natural screen-acting brilliance, Reynolds shows clearly how Kathy is by turns furious to see him, then embarrassed, and then deeply upset, and all while carrying on with the number like the hoofer and trooper she is. And of course this is the moment that Don falls for her. He knows how tough it is to get a start in this town. It is impossible not to fall for Debbie Reynolds while watching this.
After Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds’s roles tended to focus on various constituent ingredients of that magic recipe: the gutsiness, the innocence, the never-say-die spirit of show business. In Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), she was the sweet Mississippi gal who falls in love with a big-city guy played by Leslie Nielsen, in his pre-ironic leading man days. The movie spawned sequels with, among others, Sandra Dee in the role. Reynolds in fact tended to be typecast in the Sandra Dee or Doris Day type of part — if not lousy with virginity, then a little encumbered by it.
Reynolds had an unlikely screen partnership with Tony Curtis in the darker, more self-consciously modern drama The Rat Race (1960), which was actually candid about sex. She is the struggling model and dancer who shares an apartment in New York with Curtis’s equally embattled sax player; she secretly falls for him and enters into an abusive relationship with a seedy dance-hall promoter so that she can loan Curtis cash. It was counterintuitive casting. In Divorce American Style (1967), she plays the ex-wife of Dick van Dyke in this swingingly modern, modishly jaded comedy. Again, it was not a natural fit for her talents.
What was clearly better was the boisterous musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), with Reynolds as the lead, based on the real-life figure of Margaret Brown: a saloon-singer, social climber and veritable life-force who survives the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. This roistering performance earned Reynolds an Academy Award nomination.
But it was clear that Reynolds’s persona and style were now out of fashion, and at the end of the 60s she withdrew from the movies, to some degrees, in favour of TV work and Broadway musicals and revue – itself an old-fashioned species of show business. But she returned to film work in the 90s with a much-admired lead turn in Mother, and played Liberace’s elderly mother in Behind the Candelabra, opposite Michael Douglas.
Maybe Debbie Reynolds never did anything to top Singin’ in the Rain, and never quite had the producers or directors with the imagination to use her lovely, subtle, intuitive gifts for romance and comedy to build her a sustained career in screen musicals. But her genius in that movie is worth a thousand lesser Hollywood careers. Debbie Reynolds was a vitamin boost for the heart.
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