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Debbie Reynolds, 1932-2016

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I’ve been fascinated by Debbie Reynolds for as long as I can remember.

One of my earliest movie memories involves sitting in my living room at age 5, watching Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, and Gene Kelly sing “Good Morning” on our VHS copy of Singin’ In the Rain, one that seems to have been worn from overuse even in my earliest youth.

As I watched the number, my eyes constantly drifted to Debbie Reynolds. She was smaller than the boys, clearly younger, and wore a dress and high heels as she danced. But dance she did–fearlessly, confidently, keeping pace with Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do, and as if there were no difference between them and her. In the years that have passed since, I have come to realize what a significant effect that scene had on me as an impressionable young girl. Debbie Reynolds showed me confidence, and inspired me to believe in my own capabilities as a female.

Her cheery, twangy Texas accent was roundly criticized in 1950s Hollywood, and was frequently an impediment to her ability to sing her own numbers in movies, but I always especially loved listening to her speak. Her voice seemed to fit her–an imperfect, no-frills soprano coming from a spunky, rough-and-tumble personality. Her voice deepened as she aged, but her personality, on and off the screen, remained larger than life.

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She was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932 in El Paso, TX. Her family moved to Burbank when she was 7, and at the age of 16 she won the Miss Burbank beauty contest, attracting the attention of Jack Warner. He gave her a contract in 1948, and she played a few small roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When Warner Bros stopped producing musicals, she moved to MGM. There, she continued to appear in supporting roles, including a memorable part in Two Weeks With Love with Carleton Carpenter.

Her performance in Two Weeks with Love so impressed Louis B. Mayer that he cast her in Singin’ In the Rain, a big-budget production about the coming of sound in movies. It would be Reynolds’ first starring role, and she would be acting with two dance veterans, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Reynolds was not a dancer, but Gene Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen both wanted her for the role. Kelly took her under his wing and taught her about film dancing. She later said about him “He made me a star. I was 18 and he taught me how to dance and how to work hard and be dedicated.”

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After Singin’ In the Rain, Reynolds was a sure-fire hit. She made a splash in Susan Slept Here in 1954, and fell in love with singer Eddie Fisher. She married him in 1955, and their first child, Carrie, was born in 1956. Their second child, Todd, came along in 1958. After Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor in 1959, Debbie’s relationship with her children, especially daughter Carrie, became the most lasting and meaningful of her life. She was an ever-present mother, advocating for her children’s welfare even when her constant attention was undesired by her teenage children.

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Reynolds’ role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and she followed it up with The Singing Nun. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, her career began to shift toward high-profile television appearances, but in the midst of this shift she also found time to provide the voice for the spider Charlotte in the 1973 version of Charlotte’s Web.

As her career moved toward television, her daughter Carrie Fisher’s own film career was on the rise. Carrie made her film debut in 1975 and in 1977 her career skyrocketed when she landed the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars. Even as Carrie was becoming a star herself, Debbie was omnipresent. She felt personally insulted when Star Wars producer George Lucas bought coach airplane seats for Carrie and the rest of the cast, so she called him herself to advocate for her daughter procuring a first class seat. As it turned out, when Debbie called, 19-year-old Carrie was sitting right next to Lucas. “Mother,” Carrie yelled into the phone, “I want to fly coach, will you kindly f– off?” Through her daughter’s myriad issues in life, through her own stardom and addiction and struggles with mental illness, Debbie was always by her side, whether Carrie liked it or not. She was a devoted mother, and Carrie’s 1987 book Postcards From the Edge, which became a 1991 movie, was based on her own unusual but deeply loving relationship with her mother.

As Debbie aged, she continued to work in television and appeared in documentaries and in small parts in movies, but began a new career on the Las Vegas circuit and in costume collecting. She rescued a huge number of costumes from the MGM lot when they liquidated their inventory to make space, and had dreams of opening a museum. Sadly, the plans fell through and she was forced to sell the costumes at auction, in a gigantic mass sale that took several years. Among her many possessions at auction were a pair of the ruby slippers, the Marilyn Monroe dress from The Seven Year Itch, and costumes from both the 1934 and 1963 versions of Cleopatra, the latter donated by her old romantic rival Elizabeth Taylor, with whom she had long since mended fences.

Her final significant role was a recurring one, as Grace Adler’s mother on Will & Grace. Debra Messing remembered Debbie Reynolds on her Facebook page as “pure energy & light when she came on stage. She was loving, and bawdy, and playful- a consummate pro- old school and yet had the work ethic and investment in her craft of a new fiery up and comer. She was always running off to Vegas or somewhere else ‘on the road’ to be a hoofer, to sing and dance and make people laugh. She performed 340 days out of the year. An inspiration on every level.”

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I had the great fortune to meet Debbie Reynolds briefly in 2012. I was covering the Cinecon classic film festival for the blog, where Debbie gave the keynote address at the awards dinner at which Carleton Carpenter received an award. She was exactly how I expected her to be onstage–playing the crowd, cracking hilarious jokes that left everyone in stitches, and all-around stealing the show. Afterward, however, when I went up to her to introduce myself, she was entirely different. Calm, sweet, and generous, she emphasized how much she appreciated being able to be there for Carleton Carpenter, who had been so instrumental in setting her on her course toward stardom. It was an eye-opening experience into who Debbie Reynolds was. Far more than the crowd-pleasing, show-stealing star that she was, she was a gracious human being who gave back to those to whom she owed her livelihood.

Debbie lived on a large estate in Los Angeles that once belonged to Edith Head, on which there were two houses–one belonging to Debbie, and one belonging to Carrie. Debbie’s health had been declining in recent years, and the day after Carrie died of a heart attack, Debbie went to the hospital with a stroke. Carrie died on December 27, Debbie died on December 28. The loss of a child is painful enough–Debbie’s loss of Carrie was a devastation from which she could not recover.

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6-year-old Carrie Fisher watches her mother onstage.

Debbie Reynolds was a force of nature whose energy will be terribly missed in this world. I am grateful to her for showing me a confident, courageous woman who could keep up with the boys, and for modeling offscreen what a strong woman and a devoted mother looks like. Her rich legacy lives on in her movies, her television appearances, and the larger-than-life humanitarian spirit that informed all she did. She was our lucky star.

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