Lina Lamont Dances For No One
by Charlotte Shane
Singin’ in the Rain is one of greatest films of all time, due in no small part to Jean Hagan’s performance as Lina Lamont, the clueless, “slut-voiced” silent film actress. Yes, Gene Kelly stomps in the water. Yes, Donald O’Connor runs up a wall. But while she doesn’t appear in any of the musical numbers, Lina has the film’s best lines, best costumes, and best attitude. Whether she’s stubbornly pronouncing “can’t” as “cain’t” or dressed like a glamorous swimmer who just skinned a yeti, Lina delights as only a hardheaded, self-assured woman can.
Yet most commentary on the film treats her as something of a footnote, focusing instead on ingénue Debbie Reynolds — it was her first role — the almost oppressively hammy Gene Kelly, and the slapdash circumstances around the film, which was conceived as a dumping ground for previously written songs. The movie itself smears her as a catty airhead, and she has only one friend, the jealous one-line Zelda, in the entire cast. For a modern young woman reflecting on Lina Lamont, the question is, “Can I reconcile Lina’s greatness with her villainy towards Kathy Selden?” I am here to tell you: yes we can.
Let’s look at the cold facts. From the start, viewers are led to regard Lina as vapid and vain. We see her, solidly established as a celebrity, rolling her eyes at pre-fame Don (Gene Kelly), who approaches her on the set to make small talk. It’s not until the director reveals Don will be playing opposite her in the next film that Lina begins to treat him warmly. “What a bitch,” the movie wants us to think, like each and every last one of us wouldn’t be pissed by a random guy bothering us on our lunch break. The implication is that Lina is Machiavellian and calculated when it comes to her time and attention. Oh heavens, anything but that! I love that in a dame; it’s a sign of knowing her own value and what she wants. Any woman as driven, canny, and uncompromising about her career as Lina proves to be, would be lauded in the 21st century. That it’s a component of this 1920s-era character makes it all the more impressive.
These early scenes keep Lina from talking so as to heighten the dramatic reveal of what she sounds like. Once she speaks, her voice confirms our worst suspicions; she’s definitely a woman. Her high-pitched, unapologetically feminine tone means she is literally silenced by Don whenever she takes the stage of a movie premiere without being prepped for his railroading in advance. “Can’t a girl get a word in edgewise?” she asks the head of the studio afterwards. No, sister, she can’t.
That Lina is oblivious to her ridiculous voice is the film’s longest running joke. (This chick is so stupid she doesn’t even know how stupid she sounds!) Her refrain of, “Am I dumb or something?” is never answered by the men around her who condescend to her and treat her like a child. They repeatedly indicate they want her to shut up and look pretty, which she is unwilling to do. Boss.
Watching Lina be bullied and disrespected by men is one matter, but the reality of her getting Kathy fired is another. Kathy, an aspiring film actress, has a quality Lina doesn’t: a melodious speaking and singing voice, and that circumstantial conflict forms the film’s most crucial plot point. Lina doesn’t know that at first, though. She’s introduced to Kathy when Kathy, angered by the entitled and obnoxious Don (Gene Kelly), accidentally throws a pie in Lina’s face at the party celebrating Don and Lina’s most recent film. Kathy is an inspiring and spirited character in her own right, but Lina has the higher ground in this situation. Who cares if it’s accidental? Getting a pie in the face, publicly, would probably make anyone cranky, regardless of whether it were thrown by a woman and meant for a man.
Lina later says she pushed for Kathy to be fired mainly because Don liked Kathy, which is supposed to be unjustifiably cruel and catty. But here’s the thing; Don is a dick to Lina. He’s on board with the studio’s efforts to minimize her participation in her own career, he doesn’t respect her, and he lets his best friend mock her constantly. He even immediately abandoned her at the party while she’s pie-blind to chase after Kathy.
This is the indictment of patriarchy at the heart of Singin’ in the Rain: in order to exert power over the men who control her career, Lina uses another woman as a tool for leverage. This sucks, but it is her version of leaning in, not a pointlessly mean character defect. When Lina finds out the studio is conducting a weeks-long, large-scale deception to keep her from knowing Kathy will provide her voice in the film, she goes gloves off, calling her lawyer and combing over her contract. Would any of us argue that, for the sake of sisterhood, Lina should allow the studio to use and discard her, illegally at that? When Lina says she has plans to force Kathy to keep being her voice for the next five years, the studio head responds, “You’d be taking her career away. People don’t do that.” But of course, ruining Lina’s career was what the studio had planned to do.
A capitalist patriarchy pits women against each other in a zero-sum game that keeps bumbling, manipulative dudes on top. When Don laments, after their first awful talkie attempt, “Lockwod and Lamont are ruined!” it’s a tacit acknowledgement that his rise to stardom was dependent on Lina’s allure. Yet he has no compunction about jettisoning her in the cruelest, most self-serving way possible. Why should Lina play nice when a cadre of men, for whom she’s made a lot of money, are conspiring against her? Her methods are far from perfect, but Lina is a sharp business woman who doesn’t take anybody’s crap. No wonder she’s exempt from all the musical scenes. Lina Lamont dances for no one.