Debbie Reynolds in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"
Lost the Best Actress Oscar in 1964 to Julie Andrews in "Mary Poppins"
Somewhere in the annals of Oscar history lies Debbie Reynolds, neither completely shunned by AMPAS nor fully embraced; ignored for arguably her best performance (in "Singin' in the Rain") but rewarded for playing Denver's illustrious millionairess, the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown. Having earned that moniker for surviving the Titanic's fateful journey across the Atlantic, Brown is a role that most (including I) likely associate with Kathy Bates, who took it on for James Cameron's record-breaking 1997 blockbuster. In actuality, it stretches way back to 1964, a good thirty-two years after Molly herself passed away.
At the risk of disappointing those hoping for a slice of genuine action from Charles Walters' film, the sinking of the Titanic takes up less than five minutes of this already-bloated two hour biopic. The rest is dedicated to charting Molly's journey from Brash Missouri Upstart to Cultured Society Dame, beginning in the vein of Calamity Jane, with its brutishly technicolour approach to musical showpieces and reinforcement of rural community. Reynolds handles the goofiness of these early scenes by emphasising the raw, barely-civilised farm girl in Molly with all the subtlety of a newly-hatched pterodactyl, and doesn't much deviate from this technique for the first hour of "Unsinkable." To criticise Reynolds is to criticise Walters; slapping this much tedious, blue-collar theatrics onto the film feels like a vastly unnecessary way to colloquialise Molly, and one that Reynolds understandably struggles to involve herself with. Of the two opportunities she's afforded in this period, she doesn't manage to deepen Molly during either, first extending her wide-eyed shtick to accommodate faint joy in acquiring a dream house with fiancée Johnny. The second - and by far the most embarrassing scene in the film - sees her search tirelessly for a place to hide the couple's $300,000 worth of bonds, only to settle on laying them to rest at the bottom of the gas stove. Inevitably this does not end well, and the farcical nature of the situation leads Reynolds to regress into her munchkin version of vaudeville as she and her husband play a domestic version of Tag.
When Molly and Johnny move to Denver's lavish neighbourhood the central issue of its heroine is eventually revealed, as she willingly attempts to educate herself in social etiquette to fit in with the snobby society folks actively snubbing the Browns. At last a chance for Reynolds to document something less definite about Molly! As the couple venture through Europe in the hope of gaining valuable cultural knowledge, Reynolds gains figurative weight, excising the impulsiveness of Molly and revealing her heightened sense of self-awareness. A scene in which European friends celebrate her birthday is Reynolds' highlight, as she swigs a glass of champagne with visible glee, and sways it like a sceptre as she addresses them at the head of the table, inherently more careful about the grace of her actions than she ever has been before. She still has that inkling of the tearaway about her, but is using it to her advantage rather than exposing it as a stamp of who she is. Reynolds fares better in this period because she's able to hold the character in a more suspended state, but doesn't really carry this level of incisiveness over to the film's final act.
Reynolds' nomination feels particularly strange considering the striking parallels between the arc of Molly Brown and My Fair Lady's Eliza Dolittle, and the mild success of that film in coaxing a performance out of Audrey Hepburn that can detail the transcendence of social boundaries with patience and some finesse. Perhaps the crux of it was that Reynolds did her own singing? Either way, the diaphanous politics of Molly's quest for graces doesn't quite coax Reynolds out of becoming a passive figure for this greedily sprawling musical biography. The Titanic may not have been able to sink her, but I have no reservations about dropping this particular anchor at the one-star mark.