The years of trouble and anxiety involved in the mother-daughter relationship between Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher is well known. It was captured in writing by Carrie Fisher and in her novel Postcards on the Edge and in her screenplay for the film of the same title which included spectacular acting performances by Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine as fictionalized versions of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds respectively. All the trauma, conflict, addiction, and deep wounds involved in both lives could not be any less recognizable in the acting career of either woman. Carrie of course is best known for playing the heroic and charismatic Princess Leia, and Debbie is best known for her delightful musical comedies.
The loss of both women less than a day apart from each other has left a devastating gap in the movie world. Ironically but happily, the best way to honor both of them is through the pure escapism they brought so wonderfully to the world.
The greatest moment of Debbie Reynolds’ career is undoubtedly her role as Kathy Seldon in Singin’ in the Rain. Almost every time a list of the greatest movies is published by a group of critics or industry professionals, Singin’ in the Rain lands in the top ten. They always mention the historical importance of the film’s accurate portrayal of the difficulties involved in the movie industry’s change from silent movies to talkies, the process of making a movie in the late 1920s that this movie takes its audience through in an incredibly entertaining way, the wonderful use of songs made popular through the early movie musicals of the 20s and 30s, the dancing of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, especially in the “Gotta Dance” ballet sequence, and Jean Hagen’s role as Lina Lamont, perhaps the funniest character in movie history. All of these are obvious contributions to the greatness of Singin’ in the Rain, but Debbie Reynolds’ part of that greatness is not often talked about.
The skeleton of the love story in Singin’ in the Rain was already beyond cliche in 1952 and could only work if used as a small part of a far more structured and unique film and acted with so much charm that it just doesn’t matter how many times we’ve already seen this type of a romance. Both of these are definitely in tact. The story isn’t only so rich and so funny that it can handle a cliched romance, but that romance is also infinitely more enjoyable here than any of the other hundreds of times it’s been done. That’s mostly because Debbie Reynolds knew how to work with Gene Kelly and make something great.
Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) finds himself in Kathy’s car when running from his adoring fans. The flirtation begins immediately, but Kathy tries very hard to restrain herself from giving into any of his advances scared of a relationship with a movie star and not expecting that she’ll ever see him again. So when she does see him again, she has to keep her facade of arrogance and resistance that wants nothing to do with him. While she is Don’s biggest fan in reality, she mocks him, questions his acting abilities, and humiliates him in order to maintain her facade. She is so utterly convincing in both her disdain and her attraction to Do, often in the very same scene, that she brings so much more to this character than the cliches could ever allow. Her singsongy announcement of their arrival at Sunset and Camden is the sound of a woman in love and a mischievous character willing to destroy the other person, even though the subject of both is the same person. In scenes like this, she is at her funniest and shows that thin line between love and hate in ways no other movie ever could.
Of course there is much more to be said about Singin’ in the Rain than I am doing here. I will hopefully write another article in the future dealing more with the movie as a whole. But for now this seemed to be a fitting tribute to an actress who though very much loved is often not given the attention she deserves for her brilliant comic timing and her ability to transform a cliche into complex character.