Kathy Selden is a serious actress—you know, a real actress, who performs on the stage. At least that's what she tells Don when he falls out of they sky and into her convertible. While it's not long before Don discovers that Kathy's full of it, it's also not long before Don is thoroughly smitten by her modern combination of selflessness and self-awareness.
Like Two Sides of a Pathologically Lying Coin
Kathy's the female version of Don. He lies about his pre-Hollywood background. She lies about her career as a serious stage actress. He may be a massive celebrity, and she may be a nobody, but both fabricate their credentials to try to ratchet up their respect and reputation. The problem is, at the time they tell their tall tales, neither one has really earned it.
Just like her main man Don, Kathy longs to be seen as a legitimate talent. And, as the narrative eventually reveals, she is one heck of a performer. However, at the start of the film, she's all aspirations and no credentials. When Dons calls out her lie about being a stage actress, Kathy stammers,
KATHY: Well, I'm not in a play right now, but I will be. I'm going to New York.
As if ambition is a stand-in for an actual résumé. It's not. If it were, Don wouldn't have started his career as a human crash test dummy, and Shmoop would play point guard for the Golden State Warriors.
More Than Meets the Eye / Robots Morals in Disguise
Fortunately, there's way more to Kathy than her movie star dreams and fondness for fibbing. For starters, she's selfless. When Don and Cosmo's hope for saving The Dueling Cavalier by turning it into a musical is momentarily thwarted by the memory of Lina's terrible voice, Kathy saves the day, the movie, and Don's whole darn career by generously agreeing to dub Lina's vocal track. How cool is that?
We'll tell you: It's super cool. After all, this is Hollywood we're talking about. Kathy acts altruistically in a cutthroat industry infamous for its selfish, dog-eat-dog mentality and massive egos. (Ahem, Lina.)
In fact, Kathy's generosity saves R.F.'s executive hide not once, but twice. First, when she initially agrees to let Lina lip sync to her voice. Second, at the Dancing Cavalier premiere when she helps expose Lina as a fraud, thereby freeing R.F. from Lina's increasingly tyrannical grip on Monumental Pictures. Kathy is everything that Lina isn't, which makes the end of the movie mega-satisfying. Self-sacrifice triumphs over self-serving spite.
Perhaps even more impressive than Kathy's selflessness is the fact that she stays true to herself over the course of the movie. She's incredibly balanced. For a woman in Hollywood in the '20s, that's no small feat. She may put her own interests to the side for a minute in order to help Don and R.F., but she won't sacrifice her entire career for them.
In this respect, Kathy's unlike most female characters in musicals of the era. As Deidre Crimmins points out in her examination of women and gender in musicals, the first time we spot Kathy, she's driving herself to a dancing job at R.F.'s party. We therefore immediately view her as independent. She's able to hang with Don and Cosmo, but she never ditches her femininity for the sake of being "just one of the guys." When it's time to put on her dancing shoes, she's Don's equal partner, not a set of legs and a fancy dress there just to make him look good. Kathy knows who she is and she's not waiting around to be wooed.
Along those same lines, Kathy refuses to sacrifice her personal life for the sake of her job. She wants the guy and the gig. "It is this intersection of career and love which makes the final scene in the film heart wrenching," Crimmins asserts. "…Kathy knows that what Don is asking her to do is selfish, and goes against what her desires are. She is clearly pained by the decision, which is refreshing to see. She wants both love and career, and knows that she should not be forced to choose between the two."
So she doesn't. And, ultimately, Kathy's levelheaded self-awareness pays off, as we see her and Don admiring a billboard for the new film in which they co-star. Sure, it's kind of weird that the two of them are just hanging out in a field, admiring their own enormous mugs on a billboard, but whatever. Kathy gets what she wants in the end: Don Lockwood and a legitimate, respectable acting career where she no longer has to jump out of cakes.