In Memoriam: Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood Legend, 1932-2016

by Yoram Kahana December 28, 2016
Actress Debbie Reynolds

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Debbie Reynolds, America's sweetheart of the 1950s, and a five time Golden Globes nominee, died at age 84, a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher. Her Golden Globe recognition spans almost half a century, reflecting the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's love affair with the bubbly actress.

She was first nominated Most Promising Newcomer (a discontinued Golden Globe category) for her role in the musical comedy Three Little Words (1950), her second movie, when she was barely 18 years old. Her last nomination was in 1997, for acting in the comedy Mother. Her other nominations traced her career, from the comedy Bundle of Joy  (1956), with her first husband and Carrie's father, Eddie Fisher, to her starring role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), a western musical -perhaps her career's peak which also earned her an Academy Award nomination - and her brief foray into television, as the star of The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969).

Born Mary Frances on April 1, 1932 to a poor Texan family, she moved to Burbank, California when she was seven. The future star grew up in a Nazarene Baptist family that considered movies sinful. She wanted to become a gym teacher, but winning the Miss Burbank title in 1948 put the athletic Reynolds on another career path: movies. She held her own in the exuberant musical comedy Singin' In the Rain (1952) costarring with veteran singer-dancers Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. That role of a naive and sweet ingénue led to a string of similar co-starring roles, soon rising to the lead in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957).

The plot of  that film was rather close to her personal life. Young and naive, she married a boyish singer and teen idol, Eddie fisher in 1955. The fresh young couple, was soon dubbed "America's Sweethearts" and featured on every fan magazine. It didn't hurt that Fisher was the star of a top rated TV show, Coke Time (1953-1957), which earned Fisher his only award ever, a Golden Globe for Television Achievement in 1958.

Reynolds’ movies, meanwhile, perfectly fit the zeitgeist: she was an all-American girl, pursuing marriage and family in The Tender Trap opposite Frank Sinatra (1955), and a young married with kids in the musical Bundle of Joy (1956) with her own husband, Fisher. A daughter, Carrie, was born in 1956, and a son, Todd, in 1958. He was named after Reynolds and Fisher's best friend, movie mogul-producer Mike Todd, who died that year in a plane crash, leaving a young widow, Elizabeth Taylor. Reynold's dream marriage collapsed when Fisher divorced her to marry Taylor, after their affair became the scandal of the decade. As daughter Carrie Fisher would later famously put it, “my parents were the Brad and Angelina of their day”. Some four decades later Reynolds herself looked back on the episode with humor: "Taylor (...) probably did me a great favor," she said in an interview. Her marriage to Fisher, she wrote in her autobiography, was a failure from the start. "He didn't think I was funny. I wasn't good in bed. I didn't make good gefilte fish ... (I was) a cute little girl next door with a little turned up nose ... The children, he said, better have your nose. That was ... all he ever wanted from me".

But, like her Molly Brown character, Debbie Reynolds proved to be unsinkable. She wed and divorced two more times, made millions and lost them, but always performed, successfully, and never lost her audience or popularity. Right after the Taylor scandal, Reynolds appeared in a string of lightweight comedies and musicals, such as The Singing Nun (1966) where she played the title role, or the apt Divorce American Style (1967). Her television career was short lived, her eponymous show lasting just one season. She did better on stage, garnering a Tony nomination for the musical Irene, mounting a solo show (Debbie) on Broadway and touring with musicals such as a stage version of her Unsinkable Molly Brown. Reynolds was also active in Las Vegas, appearing on stage in comedy and musicals, and, with her third husband, owning a hotel, a casino, and a museum for her extensive collection of movie costumes and other memorabilia.

The unsinkable Ms. Reynolds continued working into her late 70s, in movies, voice-over (including a stellar turn as the voice of the spider in Charlotte's Web, her favorite book) and TV (as the uninhibited, song-belting mother in Will & Grace). Her last role was, appropriately, in the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. It was produced by her son, Todd Fisher, and shown at the New York Film Festival in October of this year.

On Tuesday Carrie Fisher died, age 60. Reynolds wrote on Facebook, "... thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter".

The following day Debbie Reynolds passed away too.

WATCH: Debbie Reynolds speaks to the HFPA about her collection of movie costumes. 


Debbie Reynolds at the Golden Globes

Debbie Does the Globes, in style. Clockwise from top: with Shirley McLaine, in the 1960s; in 1960 with William Wyler, Haya Harareet and Glenn Ford; in 1962 with Judy Garland; and in 1976, with George Burns, presenting a Golden Globe to Walter Matthau for The Sunshine Boys.

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