Its undisguised relationship to a film I love, Singin’ in the Rain – watched at least once a year for many decades – may well be the reason why I found it so touching. In a strange, sad synchronicity it was the morning after I watched La La Land that I discovered Debbie Reynolds had sadly died bringing the earlier musical, to which it is in many way a homage, back to the fore.
Reynolds’ death was perhaps more of a sting for me than that of her daughter. Though I am very much from the Fisher generation I have never seen Star Wars, so Princess Leia is an unknown to me. But Reynolds’ perky, all singing, all dancing Kathy Selden, who finds her voice Hollywood style, feels like an old friend and seeing all those clips on social media of her hoofing alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor brought a bitter-sweet sensation.
The 1930s was a time when women in film were on top and Singin’ in the Rain for all its light-hearted silliness and slapstick was, at twenty years’ distance, articulating that moment when the voiceless siren, whose power lay merely in the reflection of the male gaze, came off her pedestal to become a real flesh and blood heroine whose wit, charisma and comic timing became box-office gold.
It was a short-lived moment, by the advent of WW2 the screwball comedy was on its way out. Now, eighty years on, we are in an era in which most films don’t even pass the Bedchel Test. (This is a test that requires a film to have three things: Two female characters – preferably named; Who talk to each other; about something other than a man.) It is also sadly the case that there are few actresses now who earn as much, or hold equal billing with, their male counterparts. Indeed Singin’ in the Rain itself, though its subject matter was about a young ingénue finding power with her voice, typically for 1952, put Gene Kelly firmly at centre stage.
Additionally an important difference between this film and the Screwball comedies that I love so much, is that the punch line of the narrative has a divergent gender message: her fulfilment isn’t ultimately dependent on him. This equality is reflected in the fact that unusually both Stone and Gosling won Golden Globes for best actor/actress and have also both been nominated for Oscars. More commonly the actress would be the regarded as supporting his starring role. It’s hardly a seismic change but perhaps it is a tremor that indicates Hollywood’s tectonic plates are making a gradual, and welcome, shift.