One summer night when I was around 11, a bunch of kids and I stayed over at the house of a friend who had a SelectaVision player. We all pulled our sleeping bags around the family's 1981-model projection TV to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and then after that was over (and more than half the room was asleep), my friend's dad put in Singin' In The Rain, which conked out pretty much the rest of the room. Except me. I don't know whether it was the early Hollywood milieu or the cocky charisma of Gene Kelly–neither of which I'd been exposed to before–but I was still awake and engaged when someone switched the movie off about an hour into it. I finally got to see the rest on VHS four or five years later, and it instantly became one of my favorites. Which it still is. As is It's Always Fair Weather, another Kelly collaboration with director Stanley Donen. In fact, if you'd asked me a year ago, I'd probably have called Kelly one of my four or five favorite Hollywood stars of all time.
But about a year ago, when TCM made Kelly their "Star Of The Month," I filled up my TiVo with Kelly movies–musicals, melodramas, war pictures and so on–and as I ground through them, I came to a realization. As an actor, Gene Kelly is awful.
Now when Kelly is dancing, he's still great, because even though Kelly's self-consciously athletic style doesn't contain a lot of fine shading, he's so restlessly inventive that it's just fun to watch his mind work. In Summer Stock for example, Kelly turns a newspaper and a squeaky board into a pure expression of the joy of movement and sound.
But when Kelly's not dancing in Summer Stock, he's like some kind of nefarious actor-bot, turning on the smarm when he's supposed to be witty, and popping in his bedroom eyes when he's supposed to be romantic. And when he's supposed to be indignant, or self-righteous? Ye gods. There's an undertone of contemptuous misanthropy to many of Kelly's performances, and never moreso than when he's trying to be sympathetic and relatable. When he's acting "human," part of him is mocking the very idea of humanity, as though he were saying, "I know how you rubes behave."
In some ways Kelly reminds me of Doris Day, who had the similar habit of playing a distractingly mannered version of recognizable human behavior. Day's just ducky as a singer, and arguably peaked as a movie star in films like 1948's My Dream Is Yours, where her fresh-faced persona and mellifluous voice fit into likeable, frivolous stories about young singers trying to catch a break, But the blockbuster romances she made with Rock Hudson–while a triumph of style–are so gratingly coy, as Day sputters helplessly at every narrative complication or mention of sex, like some kind of theoretical conception of womankind. Even worse is the 1963 domestic comedy The Thrill Of It All, in which Day plays a housewife who becomes a superstar pitchwoman because of her appealing sincerity–a quality that Day can't even fake. Like Kelly, Day was acting in quotation marks.
In a way, Day was the perfect actress for those early '60s sex farces, which tried so hard to be knowing without being revealing. And unsurprisingly, Kelly finessed the genre well from behind the camera, in the late-in-the-game 1967 sex farce A Guide For The Married Man, which deconstructs the form's clichés while staying resolutely PG. Kelly was a smart guy and a hard worker, but there's a reason why–dancing aside–he's never been an iconic star like Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart. (And it's not just because Kelly was a prickly perfectionist who was reportedly a gentleman off the set but a tyrant on it.) In the pre-method era, stars like Grant made a career out of creating and repeating an on-screen persona, such that they were effortlessly playing "themselves" while also inhabiting a character. I love those stars, and those performances, because of the incredible sense of command that Hollywood's old guard had. Spencer Tracy expected you to watch him being Spencer Tracy. In contemporary American movies, the best at this may be George Clooney, whose performance in the current Michael Clayton is like a case study in how to submerge into a role without losing that star quality.
But nothing about Kelly was effortless. Even as "himself" he was fussy, making every gesture and smile part of his personal choreography. Maybe what makes Singin' In The Rain so terrific is that it represents a rare moment of penetrating self-analysis for Kelly. Really, he is Don Lockwood, that movie star out of time, incapable of stepping in front of a camera without putting on "a lot of dumb show." In Singin', he saves his career by turning an overwrought melodrama into a musical. Oh why couldn't Don Lockwood have stepped off the screen to knock some sense into his alter-ego?