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There's nothing funny about a movie where a divorcee squabbles with her ex-husband over income tax receipts, unless the actress involved knows how to invest her character with the right dose of pathos and absurdity. Debbie Reynolds didn't realize it at the time, but her performance as one half of the estranged couple in the parlor farce Mary, Mary (1964) marks her transition from cutie-pie ingnue to a comedic actress with sardonic wit and emotional depth.
The original play by Jean Kerr (of Please Don't Eat the Daisies fame) opened on Broadway in 1961. When casting for the film version, producer/director Mervyn LeRoy wanted to keep actors who'd performed the role onstage, a group that included Barry Nelson as Mary's ex-husband, Hiram Sherman as their unflappable accountant, and Michael Rennie as their suave actor neighbor. Barbara Bel Geddes played the title role of Mary McKellaway, a sarcastic career gal with a knack for getting under her ex-husband's skin.
Jack Warner agreed to LeRoy's casting, with two exceptions - he wanted the role of Tiffany, delectable fiance to Mary's ex-husband, to go to new contract player Diane McBain, and he wanted the title role to go to Debbie Reynolds. LeRoy wasn't thrilled to cast Reynolds in the part, but allowed himself to be convinced.
Ironically, Reynolds didn't want the part, either. She'd recovered from the public humiliation of her husband Eddie Fisher leaving her for Elizabeth Taylor, had remarried (to wealthy shoe store magnate Harry Karl) and wanted to focus on raising her two young children and expanding her family. Suffering a miscarriage only deepened her resolve not to return to movies. "I did cute and adorable and called it acting", she admitted after reading the challenging script and assessing her own talent. "At age thirty . . . my first thought was to get out."
But Jack Warner refused to release her from the picture, convincing her she was ideal for the role. Still uncertain, Reynolds sought the advice of Lillian Burns Sydney, MGM's legendary acting coach-in-residence. Sydney's no-nonsense tutelage was exactly what Reynolds needed. She spent long hours in preparation with her mentor, shooting scenes during the day on the Warner Brothers backlot in Burbank and driving to Sydney's house in the evening to spend another five hours dissecting what made Mary tick. (The other side effect of her preparation was learning how to smoke, a "vile habit" that Reynolds found difficult to kick after the shoot wrapped.)
Translating a one room parlor comedy for the screen proved challenging, but LeRoy had some ideas. Although Jean Kerr didn't supervise the adaptation to screen, she approved of the script and added a few notes. LeRoy and cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. honored the story's theatrical origin by mostly choosing static camera angles mimicking the point of view of a seated audience, while incorporating some sweeping camera moves for dramatic effect, especially once Reynolds appears as Mary. And costume designer Travilla (whose claim to fame was the white dress that blew up around Marilyn Monroe's waist in Some Like It Hot (1959)) dressed Reynolds in serviceable beige suits that reflected her new, grownup persona. (Wittily, Travilla also dressed Diane McBain's "other woman" character in a tight white sweater adorned around the shoulders with a semicircular pattern that evoked the broad beaded Egyptian necklaces worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the expensive flop Cleopatra (1963))
Mary, Mary was not well-received, with critic Bosley Crowther griping in the New York Times about the static quality of the action and how Reynolds played "her usual pint-sized hothead." The movie enjoyed a short run but couldn't compare to the success of the original play that was still going strong on Broadway. But the fruits of Reynolds' labor under Lillian Burns Sydney's tutelage paid off the next year, when a newly confident Reynolds successfully lobbied for the lead in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). She beat out slam-dunk casting choice Shirley MacLaine for the role and earned an Academy Award nomination - her sole Oscar® nod - for her performance.
Producer: Mervyn LeRoy
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Richard L. Breen; Jean Kerr (play)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: John Beckman
Music: Frank Perkins
Film Editing: David Wages
Cast: Debbie Reynolds (Mary McKellaway), Barry Nelson (Bob McKellaway), Diane McBain (Tiffany Richards), Hiram Sherman (Oscar Nelson), Michael Rennie (Dirk Winston).
C-126m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Violet LeVoit
Reynolds, Debbie (with Columbia, David Patrick) Debbie: My Life. 1988, William Morrow and Co.
Leroy, Mervyn (with Kleiner, Dick) Mervyn Leroy: Take One. 1974, Hawthorn Books
Jean Kerr Obituary
Harry Karl Obituary http://www.nytimes.com/1982/08/10/obituaries/harry-karl-former-husband-of-two-movie-actresses-dies.html
Mary, Maryreview NYTimeshttp://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D02E4DB113DE63BBC4D51DFB6678388679EDE