Thursday, February 25, 2016

Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown ( 1964 ) - An Oscar Snub

"I Ain't Down Yet!"

Molly Brown hollered and bucked like a wild bronco anxious to jump the rural fence and prance into Denver society, but she was constantly being reined in by discouraging circumstances. She lost a fortune, lost her friends, lost her husband, and finally found herself sailing on the doomed ship Titanic, but each time you think circumstances would get her down, she would rise again shouting "I Ain't Down Yet!". Indeed, she was unsinkable. 

In her role as Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Debbie Reynolds gave it her all in a bravado performance that breathed life into a woman that would have become just another obscure character in history. She justly deserved her Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1964. But she didn't win the golden statuette that year...and that surely must have got Debbie down. 

Who were her competitors for the Best Actress award? 
  • Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater 
  • Kim Stanley in Seance on a Wet Afternoon
  • Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins
  • Sophia Loren in Marriage Italian Style

Let's take a look at these performances. Sophia Loren had earned her first Best Actress Oscar just three years prior for her portrayal of an Italian widow who gets raped in Two Women. Another Oscar-winning actress, Anna Magnani, was intended to play the part but turned it down. Loren proved that she had acting talent in addition to a busty figure and that made quite a large splash in the Hollywood scene. Also Italian films were all the rage during the late 1950s-early 1960s so, while Loren did a great performance in Marriage Italian Style, getting a nomination may have also been the "in" thing for the voters to do.

Anne Bancroft's performance in the highly-depressing The Pumpkin Eater, was not nearly as good as her portrayal of Helen Keller's teacher Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker ( 1962 ) for which she did win the award as Best Actress. End of that argument. Kim Stanley did a really good job in Seance on a Wet Afternoon, and she had plenty of laurels for that part - she was nominated for a BAFTA award, won the New York Critics Circle award and won Best Actress for the National Board of Review. She could have gone for a sweep with the Oscar too, but compared to Debbie Reynold's part, it just didn't cut the grade. 

That leads me to the final competitor, and the winner of the 1964 Best Actress Award - Julie Andrews. You won't find a more devoted fan of Mary Poppins then myself but, as much as I loved Julie Andrews performance, it wasn't Oscar-worthy. Her singing was beautiful, as was Julie herself; her comradery with the children adorable, and her final-parting look touching....but it still wasn't a performance that would make you say "I hope she won an Oscar for this, because she was fabulous!". 

But that's exactly what would be said about Debbie Reynolds' performance as Molly Brown. Debbie raised a ruckus in one hell of a great performance. She hollered till her voice went hoarse, swung from a tree, was bellyed up to the bar in a rousing dance sequence, was stomped on, kicked about, and shouted at, and yet she still managed to give a touching and sympathetic performance of a rough country bumpkin. She transformed Molly from being a young illiterate backwoods girl into a glamorous world-travelling society woman with backbone. 

Molly Brown was a part that Tammy Grimes had made popular in the Broadway version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, co-starring with Harve Presnell. Presnell reprised his role in his screen debut, but Grimes did not have a name with movie audience drawing-power. Producers Roger Edens and Laurence Weingarten wanted Shirley MacLaine for the part, but Shirley was locked in a contract at the time for another film, so Debbie was offered it. However, director Charles Walters was hoping Debbie would turn it down and even asked her to decline it. When she asked "Why?", he commented that she was too short. Like Molly Brown would have done herself, Debbie retorted "Just how short is the part?" and ended the discussion. 

Throughout the film she fought to prove the part suited her, and did it ever! Even non-fans of Ms. Reynolds can't help but agree because Debbie and the real Molly Brown share a lot in common: they are both hard-working, tough-as-nails, glamorous, spunky women, and when the going gets tough that's when they really shine. Debbie considered this her favorite film and, after she lost the Oscar to Julie Andrews, you can imagine her telling herself "I Ain't Down Yet"  

This post is our contribution to The Oscars Snubs Blogathon being hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and yours truly, Silver Scenes. Click here to read more posts on films, stars, and craftsmen who have been snubbed at the Oscars. Enjoy! 


  1. Wow, you're so right -- Debbie Reynolds was robbed!

  2. Great entry. Mine will be up in the morning. Meanwhile I've got a new post to direct people to the entries we are getting for our blogathon. That's the one that will have links to the actual blog entries.Thanks ladies.

  3. I don't agree - I think Debbie's role was OK but not great in Molly Brown. The play on Broadway had been much better. And Debbie was greatly compared to how the role was done by Tammy on Broadway. Debbie was a real ham and it came across in that film - the film was not great in my opinion - she was better than just OK, but times were changing and those musicals were on the skids. I can recall many folks saying at the time, she played a musical version of the role she had in How The West Was Won. I think doing those 2 films so close to each other hurt her. I NEVER was a fan of Mary Poppins - I know, most folks today think it is a fun film - I was the wrong age for it then - with civil rights, French Films, rock and roll and college all calling my name. Mary Poppins was so far from my realm then, I didn't even see it until the 80s! I was rooting that year for Ann Bancroft!

    1. Beachgal, thanks for your comment. Her part was indeed a lot like the character she played in How the West Was Won ( Thelma Ritter was even slated to play in Molly Brown along with her ), but I felt that her part in How the Wes Was Won was a much more mature woman. Debbie did a great job in leaving Molly Brown "rough", even when she thinks she is a society woman. That must have been special seeing Tammy Grimes on stage....but film/stage performances should not be compared. I found the same holds true with books and film, because it usually ends up boiling down to which performance ( or medium ) you saw first. Not always, of course.

  4. I'm a big fan of Debbie Reynolds both on and off the screen, and this is indeed her greatest role. I agree with beachgal that she rises above her material; the movie ain't that great but Debbie is winning.

    I still think Julie's an enduring classic as Mary Poppins, and that film is pretty much a masterpiece. But if Julie had been given her Broadway role of Eliza Doolittle in the movie of My Fair Lady, Julie may have won the Oscar for that. Or the year after, for that matter, for her equally iconic performance as Maria Von Trapp.

    But yes, by all means, let's give the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds that Oscar!!
    P.S. Thannks for cosponsoring this awesome blogathon!

    1. Yes, Julie was a charmer in Mary Poppins and, like Sally Ann Howes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all the copy-cats in all the stage productions the world over can't seem to mimmick their appeal. I can't help wondering if Julie's Oscar was awarded to her because Hollywood was so grateful she moved from the stage to screen. ;-)

  5. You raised a lot of good points – and have added some films to my Must Watch List! The only film I've seen all the way through is Mary Poppins and only bits & pieces of Molly Brown. But the next time I see Molly Brown, I'll keep your post in mind. Like you said, Debbie Reynolds held nothing back in her performance.

    1. Seance on a Wet Afternoon is well worth taking a look at. I'd like to know your thoughts after comparing Mary Poppins and Molly Brown. Poppins is the better film, but Reynolds gave the better performance.

  6. Funny how it all work out. But, if the awards represent not just a single performance but a nod to a body of work - give Debbie the gold! You've convinced me!

  7. I am not a huge Debbie Reynolds fan but she always seems to give it her all. I do think she should have won the Oscar for Molly Brown.

  8. I can't believe Ms. Reynolds didn't win the Oscar for her outstanding and brilliant performance of Molly Brown. She definitely was robbed. Her amazing and exceptional performance made this movie. It's my all-time favorite movie to watch.