The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds

 

Debbie Reynolds and Adam Sandel

Debbie Reynolds and Adam Sandel

She may be best known to recent generations as the mother of everyone from Grace Adler in Will and Grace, to Kevin Kline in In & Out (and as the real-life mother of Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher). But Debbie Reynolds’ career as a film, television, Broadway, Las Vegas and recording star spans six decades.

Reynolds made her first big Hollywood splash at age 17 in the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain, and went on to star in dozens of films over the next few decades. She recently shared some of the highs and lows of her extraordinary career with me.

Which three films is she most proud of? “The Unsinkable Molly Brown [which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination], Singin’ in the Rain and How the West Was Won,” she says. “Goodbye Charlie with Tony Curtis was great fun, and I still love Tammy because it was so sweet,” she adds.

But does one specific memory stand out from each of her most memorable films?

 

 

Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain

 

 

Singin’ in the Rain: “Surviving all the dance numbers! I’d never danced before in my life, so studying and trying to keep up with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor was very tough. Mr. Kelly worked us 14 hours a day. My favorite line was Jean Hagen [as the braying silent film star] saying, ‘I kee-ant stee-and him!’”

How the West Was Won [the 1962 all-star western epic]: “I loved working with Robert Preston. I had to use a bullwhip and accidentally hit him across the face. It was terrifying. They had to break the ice for us to go into the river [when the pioneer family crosses a river of raging rapids] and it was freezing. We wore rubber pants but it didn’t help – I was blue. Two stuntmen drowned making that scene.”

The Unsinkable Molly Brown [1964]: “I tried hard to get that part. They wanted Shirley MacLaine but she was in a lawsuit with producer Hal Wallis and he wouldn’t give her up. We filmed the song ‘He’s My Friend,’ a big Irish jig, in one take with two cameras, then we all passed out.”

with Harve Presnell in "Molly Brown"

with Harve Presnell in "Molly Brown"

Mother [1996]: “Working with Albert Brooks was wonderful. He used one camera, on the cameraman’s back, and it could be a five minute scene but he wouldn’t do any cuts. I loved playing that role.”

In & Out [1997]: “We all had a lot of fun. Kevin Kline is a sheer genius. I can rehearse and do a scene maybe four different ways. He can do a take 40 different ways, all of them brilliantly.”

Reynolds’ rivals

There have been roles that Reynolds wanted but didn’t get. “I wanted to do The Turning Point and I love all the parts Shirley MacLaine gets.” One of them was the movie star mother in Postcards From the Edge, based on daughter Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel. “I wanted to play the part but everyone thought it was me because Carrie wrote it.”

You mean it wasn’t? “Well I can be bossy and a bit outrageous at parties. I’m a performer – when I open the refrigerator and the light goes on I start to sing. But [unlike the character] I don’t have to be drunk to do it. I’m not an alcoholic. I can party when I want to.”

Reynolds was at the center of one of the biggest tabloid scandals of the ‘50s when Elizabeth Taylor stole husband Eddie Fisher from her in 1959. “Liz and I had been friends since we were teenagers at MGM, but unfortunately she picked Eddie – when he was married to me. It was a mistake for her and a mistake for me. We made up many years ago, before Burton’s death, and we’re very good friends. We talk on the phone about work, kids, and complain about old age.”

What advice does she have for today’s tabloid stars? “Liz, Eddie and I were like Angelina, Brad and Jennifer today. I had 100 reporters in my front yard for months. I’d tell them not to be reclusive, just be honest with the press and they’ll leave you alone. I’d tell them, ‘this too shall pass.’”

Debbie Reynolds’ rivalries have indeed passed. She starred with Liz Taylor and Shirley MacLaine (along with Joan Collins) in the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads, written by her daughter Carrie.

When asked if she has a favorite vice, she quickly responds: “Work. I love to dance, sing and perform, and I’m going to work ‘til I drop dead. I’ll be like Trigger, I’ll be stuffed and mounted in a museum and you’ll put a quarter in me and I’ll sing ‘Tammy.’”

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3 Responses to “The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds”

  1. Laura Cruz Says:

    I love the “Good Morning” number in Singing in the Rain. I can watch it over and over. 🙂 I ended up here looking for information on the dress Debbie wore in that scene (the lightning bolt dress). I think it’s simply amazing. Great post.

  2. V.E.G. Says:

    Debbie Reynolds is a beautiful woman. She is the distant cousin of Russell G. “Blinky the Clown” Scott, due to Scott’s mother’s maiden name, Reynolds. Both Debbie and Scott are direct descendant of Christopher Reynolds! Debbie Reynolds has a successful movie career, while Russell Scott has the longest running television clown in the world!

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