Greatish Performances #55

#55 — Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)

When Adolph Green and Betty Comden wrote the script for Singin’ in the Rain, an MGM musical conceived as little more than a vehicle to recycle a bunch of largely forgotten songs in the studio’s back catalog, they had a certain actress in mind for the role of Lina Lamont. Because most of the tunes the screenwriters were charged were stringing together were from the era when silent movies gave way to talkies, they decided that would drive the plot. For the character of Lina Lamont, Green and Comden took inspiration from Hollywood lore about performers whose careers were thwarted by their unappealing voices, a demerit hidden when dialogue was delivered through title cards. As the penning partners cooked up Lina, they thought of Judy Holliday, a cohort from their days more than a decade earlier in a performing troupe called the Revuers.

By the time Singin’ in the Rain was ready to go before the cameras, though, Holliday was an Oscar winner, claiming the lead actress trophy for her daffy comic turn as Billie Dawn in the 1950 comedy Born Yesterday. Securing Holliday for a relatively small supporting part what was thought to be something of a throwaway musical seemed unlikely, so the team being the film started looking around for a different solution. Luckily, someone who was literally a backup to Holliday was available. When Holliday originated the part of Billie Dawn in the 1946 Broadway production of the play Born Yesterday, Jean Hagen was her understudy. So when she was brought in to read for Lina, aware of its genesis, Hagen deployed her well-honed approximation of Holliday’s high-pitched voice. With little further deliberation, the part was hers.

Earning the part is one thing. Making it into a true triumph is a whole other feat. Hagen might have started with an approximation of Holliday’s tone and cadence, but she decisively made Lina her own. That’s not to say the voice isn’t a major factor in Hagen’s strong presence on screen. She practically rattles the frame with her intonations, coaxing splendid comedy out of Lina’s inability to speak the line “And I can’t stand him” as anything other than a mushed-together bleat. A character that could easily turn into a pleasurable enough one-joke diversion is given real life by Hagen, though. She gets past the surface affectations to bring Lina’s abrasive personality to the fore. It’s the energy of her bull-headed brashness more than the grating register of her line readings that makes Hagen’s Lina memorable. Hagen shows how Lina’s unrelenting need is the foundation of all the wrecking-ball behavior and scowling surliness that defines her on set and off. To a degree, Lina is written as a gag. Hagen acts her as a person, albeit a person most wouldn’t want to spend a whole lot of time around.

Singin’ in the Rain co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen clearly know they’ve got gleaming gold in Hagen’s performance, demonstrated by the joyful way they follow the narrative’s swing back around to one of Lina’s brattish tirades whenever a laugh or three would comes in handy. They light her fuse and stand back to beam in the bursting light of her firework burst. It’s true that Hagen wasn’t the first choice for Lina Lamont, but she asserts herself as the only choice worthy of consideration.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers
#48 — Mila Kunis in Black Swan
#49 — Sidney Poitier in Edge of the City
#50 — Lee Grant in The Landlord
#51 — Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut
#52 — Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus
#53 — Jenny Slate in The Obvious Child
#54 — Ray Liotta in Something Wild

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