Debbie Reynolds – R.I.P.

It seems like only yesterday that we were bidding farewell to our favorite galactic princess, Carrie Fisher.

 

Wait a minute – it was yesterday.

 

A day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died of a sudden heart attack, on Dec. 27, Debbie Reynolds collapsed at her son Todd’s home from what was assumed to be a stroke on Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles. They were planning Carrie’s funeral and her son, Todd Fisher, told reporters that Reynold’s last words were that she wanted to die and be with Carrie.

 

Reynolds was 84. Experts generally concur that Reynolds died of what is known as “Broken Heart Syndrome”; there’s no blockage, but the heart fails and seizes all the same.  Not unlike, somewhat ironically, what happens to Star Wars character, Padme, Princess Leia’s mother at the end of Star Wars III.

 

This would be the second time Reynolds’ heart would be broken by her daughter. Fisher, riding high on her new-found fame with her role as Princess Leia disowned her famous mother when she was in her twenties.  Disparaging her mother’s name – and the virtue that rightly went along with –  Fisher launched on a career of drugs and wild parties that would leave her ultimately broken down and the resident of rehab clinics and mental health facilities.

 

Perhaps it’s unkind to speak so poorly of Fisher, who recovered from her various drug addictions and treatment for bipolar disorder. The star went public about her mental illness, shedding daylight on mental illness for many patients who hid in the shadows of stigma.  As Princess Leia, she was a role model for many young girls growing up during the Star Wars era.

 

However, there was no Princess Leia with Fisher’s real mother, Debbie Reynolds. The inspiration certainly didn’t come from the characters Anakin and Padme, certainly, meaning no disrespect to those actors.  Fisher brought a feisty verve, nerve, and dry humor to the role that just couldn’t be found in acting school.

 

Debbie Reynolds was born in El Paso, Texas, on April 1, 1932, the daughter of a carpenter for the Southern Pacific Railroad. She got her start in show business when she won a beauty pageant at the age of 16, impersonating Betty Hutton.  Her first credited movie role was in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady, about a vaudeville family whose father refuses to allow the daughters to go into show business after their mother dies an early death.

 

She was 18. Two years earlier, she’d landed her first movie role, uncredited, in June Bride (1948).  She was 16. Debbie was 5’2”; her daughter was 5’1”. Carrie was 17 when she began working in her first film, Shampoo, with Warren Beatty.  At 19, Carrie auditioned for Star Wars; by the time the film came out, she was 20 and a star.

 

Debbie went on to appear in a number of small films before getting her big break as the female lead in Singin’ in the Rain in 1952.  She wrote that the dancing wasn’t easy:  “Donald O’Connor began dancing at two months, Gene Kelly began dancing at three years.”

 

Kelly was upset when he found that studio boss had contracted Reynolds, a non-dancer, for the movie. Reynolds told the UK’s Sunday Express in 2013 how Kelly fumed at her lack of experience and showed little sympathy when she danced so much during filming that her feet bled:

 

“My feet were bleeding from all that dancing and when I point it out, Gene would say, ‘Clean it up!’ He was very sentimental like that.

 

But Reynolds was undaunted by Kelly’s perfectionism, nor was she unnerved by the prospect of starring in big-time musical with a skimpy. She told the American Film Institute in 2012, “I was so dumb that I didn’t feel you could fail.  I felt [the part] was me and I marched straight ahead.”

 

Reynolds was pushed to extremes by the grueling rehearsal schedule for Singin’. She was left so weak that her doctor demanded that she be given a break from filming.  But the studio chief at the time had other ideas.  He told her to report to work and that the studio doctor would give her “vitamin shots.”

 

“These were possible the same ‘vitamins that ruined Judy Garland,” Reynolds wrote in her 2013 memoir, Unsinkable.  “My doctor insisted that I stay in bed.  That decision may have saved me from a life on stimulants.”

 

In spite of Kelly’s incessant criticism and unaware of the challenge ahead, Reynolds wrote, “I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it. So I did it, and I was terrific.”

 

Kelly also gave Reynolds her first on-screen kiss. When the time came, though, Kelly, who’d taken a shine to Reynolds after all, went a bit too far.

 

“The camera closed in. Gene took me tightly in his arms…” Reynolds wrote, “and shoved his tongue down my throat.

 

“’Eeew! What was that?!” I screeched, breaking free of his grasp and spitting.  I ran around frantic, yelling for some Coca-Cola to cleanse my mouth.  It was the early 1950s and I was an innocent kid who had never been French-kissed.  It felt like an assault.  I was stunned that this thirty-nine year old man would do this to me.”

 

The film shoot for the song “Good Morning,” took 15 hours to complete, leaving Reynolds physically exhausted. “My feet were bleeding from hours of abuse,” she wrote.  “I couldn’t move.”

 

However, Fred Astaire came to her rescue. He found her hiding under a rehearsal piano, sobbing.

 

“You’re not going to die,” he told. “That’s what it’s like to dance.  If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right.”

 

Following Astaire’s rehearsals, Reynolds realized Astaire’s effortless-looking dancing was not so effortless on closer inspect.

 

“I watched in awe as Fred work on his routines to the point of frustration and anger. I realized that if it was hard for Fred Astaire, [then] dancing was hard for everyone.”

 

Reynolds married singer Eddie Fisher in 1955. The couple was immediately proclaimed “America’s Sweethearts.”  Carrie Frances followed the next year, and Todd (named after family friend and show businessman Michael Todd) in 1958.  But Todd died in an airplane crash that year.

 

Todd was married to film superstar Elizabeth Taylor. The two couples were friends.  Taylor was devastated by the death of the love of her life (she would have six or seven more).  The ever-generous, if somewhat naïve Reynolds took care of Taylor’s children and sent her husband, Eddie, to actually live with Taylor until she could recover.

 

Todd was barely in his grave when Fisher left Debbie for La Liz. Fisher’s musical career basically ended, and within five years, so did his marriage to Taylor, who left him for Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton.  Taylor’s career didn’t suffer, although her reputation did.

 

Reynolds went on to two more disastrous marriages and the other really big movie in her career, The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964.  She already had some other successful films under her belt: The Tender Trap, Tammy and the Bachelor, and How the West Was Won.

 

Molly was actually the more defining role of her career.  Based on the real-life story of Molly Brown, a gutsy Titanic survivor, the movie was a showcase for Reynolds’ guts, gusto and lusty voice.  The scene leading up to the first number, “I Ain’t Down Yet” is simply priceless as Reynolds, face down in the dirt, spits the sand out and blinks her twinkly baby blues to prove that she (or rather, her character) is still in the running.

 

A strong woman portraying another strong woman who would give birth to another strong woman who would portray a fictional strong woman.

 

Reynolds would need all that strength to survive three husbands, the latter two of whom left her bankrupt. In spite of the financial ruin, Reynolds kept on going, touring, starring in countless television shows and keeping the roof over her and her children’s heads.

 

Daughter Carrie would prove the greatest challenge to Reynolds. Flush with her own success and enamored of Sixties and Early Seventies immorality that sneered at the kind of virtue her mother represented, Carrie began doing drugs at least as early as the Star Wars films, if not sooner.  By her twenties, she was no longer speaking to her mother.

 

“I didn’t want to be the daughter of Debbie Reynolds,” Fisher wrote in a later memoir.

 

Too bad for her. The estrangement broke Reynolds heart.  Fisher gave birth to her own daughter, by agent Bryan Lourd, Billie, in 1992.  By 1998, she went into rehab and eventually reconciled with her own mother.  Carrie lived in a house next door to her mother’s and her mother was there to nurse her through her difficult times with mental illness.  The pair became inseparably close until Fisher’s death this week, followed by Reynold’s own death the next day.

 

Fisher was also known for her writing abilities, with great humor and insight, another talent she apparently acquired from her famous mom.  Debbie was very proud of Carrie’s success, introducing herself as “Princess Leia’s mother.”  Indeed.   Debbie even coaxed Carrie into singing a duet with her (a slow version of “Happy Days Are Here Again) and like any mother would, as soon as she got Carrie to sing, she deferred to her daughter, stroking her cheek fondly.

 

Here are a few witticisms from Debbie:

 

“Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life.”

 

[Asked what her favorite film is] “I think one of my favorite films is Dark Victory (1939) with Bette Davis. Why? She was so wonderful in that film. And . . . maybe I just want a good cry once in a while without having to go through a divorce.”

 

As for her daughter, this is what Carrie said:

 

“I always wanted to do what my mother did – get all dressed up, shoot people, fall in the mud. I never considered anything else.”

 

Larry King, appearing on Fox News this evening, said of Carrie that she was “a chip off the ol’ show business block.”

 

Debbie Reynolds was among a bevy of 1950s Hollywood stars who made the cinema glorious – Debbie, Doris Day, Grace Kelly – they were ladies in every sense; a generation that is, if not completely gone, at least missing one more jewel in its crown with the passing of Debbie Reynolds.

 

She was the girl-next-door, even when she was down in the dirt with the boys of Unsinkable Molly Brown. She was a role model for my generation of girls, those of us of the Sixties playground who still believed in ladies, femininity…and princesses, and yet also admired strong women who didn’t need a man’s help – or the government’s – to make it in the world.

 

Carrie Fisher died too soon of a heart attack or heart failure, likely from overwork. Her mother, Debbie Reynolds died too sadly of a broken heart.

 

God bless Debbie Reynolds and all the beautiful ladies of the Fifties cinema. Never again will such ladies grace the silver screen with their modesty, their femininity, and their grace and charm.  Debbie Reynolds was a burst of sunshine from a time when the world still believed in happy endings and bursting out in joyful song.

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Published in: on December 29, 2016 at 10:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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