Whether on stage or screen, a Debbie Reynolds entrance makes you sit up and take notice. She bursts into a scene with a contagious joie de vivre, as if the backstage wings or the side of the frame can’t contain her.
In 2008 she kicked off a solo evening of songs and reminiscences in Hollywood wrapped in a green lame gown cut higher up the left leg than any grandma of 76 could be expected to pull off. The roaring standing ovation set her off into hopeless laughter. “Isn’t this great?” she exclaimed. “We’re still alive! We fooled ’em all!”
The Screen Actors Guild’s 2015 Life Achievement honoree isn’t fooling anyone. Not only is she alive, but also no one today holds a better claim to the phrase “legendary star.”
Profiles routinely dub her “unsinkable,” playing on her iconic, 1964 Oscar-nominated role as spunky heroine Molly Brown, who famously survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. But another adjective, heard often this awards season, seems just as apropos: Debbie Reynolds, make no mistake about it, is unbroken. A roller-coaster, 65-year (to date) show business career — legendary roles alternating with tabloid scandals, disastrous marriages, bankruptcies and business disappointments — hasn’t laid a glove on her humor or her heart.
“Look at the history I’ve had,” she marvels. “All the stars I’ve met, all the talents who helped me and taught me along the way. Where in the world would Miss Burbank be afforded such a glorious life?”
Winning that title in 1948 brought the Texas native to the industry’s attention at age 16, and within four years she was tapping, leaping and warbling through the female lead in what’s generally considered among the greatest of movie musicals, “Singin’ in the Rain.” She went on to topline box office smashes iincluding “How the West Was Won”; take Broadway by storm and win a Tony nom in “Irene”; score a No. 1 hit recording with “Tammy”; and charm contempo fans as the flamboyant, Emmy-nominated Bobbi Adler on “Will & Grace.”
“I loved it all,” she says. “It was creation. It was fun.” You wait in vain to hear about any heartbreak, as she cracks wise about ex-husbands who drained away her earnings, and pooh-poohs any worries that Gene Kelly, demanding star and co-director of “Singin’,” might have felt the youngster unequal to the task.
“I never knew the word ‘replaced,’ and I don’t think of fear,” she says. “Fear is something you create, not something you’re born with. My minister, my family, didn’t teach fear. … We were taught love, friendship, companionship. In fact, you can’t learn without failing. You learn by having problems with achievement, and it takes time. I never was afraid, and I’m not now.”
Doesn’t it rankle that a storybook marriage to crooner Eddie Fisher, after yielding cherished children Carrie and Todd, crashed and burned at the hands of glamorous Elizabeth Taylor, to gossipmongers’ glee? “Oh, no, I hold no bitterness,” she swears, adding wryly, “Eddie had great taste. He picked me. And Connie Stevens. And Elizabeth was the most beautiful woman, and turned out to be the most charitable woman in the world as well.” The violet-eyed diva was an MGM pal, she points out; a fellow student at the studio’s little red schoolhouse.
“I don’t forget the hurt that occurrences in life give to you. It hurts your children when your husband leaves you. But when your husband leaves you for someone who turns out to be a fine human being, you’re really not angry at all.”
There will likely be another standing O when daughter Carrie Fisher hands her the Life Achievement statuette on Jan. 25, in part honoring her decades of work with the Thalians, a Hollywood charitable organization she helped to found, focused on mental health. (“I still feel it doesn’t receive the money or attention it needs.”)
Applause should also greet Reynolds’ pioneering efforts in protecting the industry’s ephemera: set pieces, props and costumes she spent many years and thousands of dollars amassing and preserving. The publicity she garnered helped to make memorabilia collection fashionable. “I know I played a role in it. I loved it so much. I saved what I saw, and thank God I was there.”
Perhaps the greatest peer affection on awards night will go to the star as survivor extraordinaire — the wide-eyed workhorse who insists, “I never studied to be ‘the greatest.’ I just studied to be better.” She professes to have been “stunned, surprised and pleasured” to learn of the Guild honor, bemused that a new generation is aware of her as anything but Princess Leia’s mother.
“Most of my friends have passed on to a heavenly place. Well, as far as I know they’re there; they didn’t get back to tell me. So yes, I was surprised. My films are about yesterday, not tomorrow.”