Two things immediately surprise me about Debbie Reynolds. The first is when she picks up the phone at her Beverley Hills home and says “Hello Paul, thank you for calling”, before I’ve even introduced myself. The second is when she launches into an apology for something – a mix-up over interview slots – that wasn’t her fault. For any journalist familiar with the bruising PR machine of today’s movie industry, this throwback to a gentler, more courteous Hollywood age is disarming. But then, Hollywood did everything differently in Reynolds’ day.
“I was lucky to live in the golden age of Hollywood,” says the 78-year-old. “We had great studios behind us and we had people producing a variety of great films for us; we had gangster films, westerns, comedies... They weren’t all just science fiction and shoot ’em ups. We had more romantic films – more beautiful films.”
The Debbie Reynolds Story would have made quite a picture in itself, back in those days when Hollywood loved nothing more than a rags-to-riches tale, preferably with a built-in songbook. Born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas, in 1932, she endured hard times after father Raymond, a carpenter, lost his job and the family home at the height of the Great Depression. Having found work on the Southern Pacific Railroad, Raymond moved the family to California, where 16-year-old ‘Frannie’ entered the Miss Burbank beauty pageant, wowing the judges by lip- synching to Betty Hutton’s I’m A Square in the Social Circle.
This being California, two of the judges happened to be talent scouts for Warner Brothers and MGM. A coin was tossed in order to decide who would be the first to screen test the new Miss Burbank; the Warner’s scout won, and Frannie signed a $65-a-week contract with the studio, where Jack Warner changed her first name to Debbie (she adamantly refused to give up her surname).
Debbie Reynolds made her screen debut as a teenage extra in June Bride (1948). Further supporting roles followed but, when the studio decided she was too young to be properly developed, MGM stepped in and signed her to its standard seven-year, $300-a-week contract.
“Everything happened like a story – like a fairytale,” she recalls. “And then I fell into this fast lane of showbusiness. I was only 16; I knew nothing about showbusiness – nothing about acting and nothing about dancing or singing. To go from nothing to something glamorous and fabulous, I had to immediately study very hard.”
Then, even more than now, Hollywood stars were the envy of the world. But how did the studio system treat those on the inside?
“For me, it was exciting and wonderful,” says Reynolds. “For Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor... they overworked them. But they built my career slowly, I had an easier time of it. It was quite wonderful – a new adventure.”
The adventure intensified in 1951 when studio head Louis B Meyer instructed director Stanley Donen to cast Reynolds as the female lead in a new musical, Singin’ In The Rain, alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Half a century later, the film stands as one of the most successful, best- loved movies of all time.
“Gene Kelly says he insisted on having me, but I don’t believe that story,” says Reynolds. “I remember Mr Mayer pushing me. He was the man who put me in Singin’ In The Rain. But Mr Kelly taught me. He taught me everything – how to act, how to dance, how to turn and face the camera, how to smile for the camera. He had a microphone and he used to yell at me: “Smile! More energy! Bigger! Give more!” He was quite a disciplinarian but he was a great teacher and I’m still around because of him.”
By the mid-1950s, Reynolds was one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. Her romance with pop idol Eddie Fisher captured the imagination of the world; the Brangelina of their day, the couple married in 1955 and, the following year, Reynolds gave birth to a daughter, Carrie, followed in 1958 by a son, Todd.
Shortly afterwards, Eddie Fisher’s best friend, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash. The singer spent a lot of time comforting Todd’s widow, Elizabeth Taylor, and the couple’s subsequent love affair became one of the biggest showbiz scandals of the age. Thus 1959 proved a year of extraordinary personal and professional contrasts for Reynolds: she was ranked fifth among the world’s top box office stars, yet had to suffer losing her husband to “the most beautiful woman in the world”. How would she describe her life at that time?
“Turbulent!” she laughs. “It was a hard time. I had to grow up – I had to face challenges I had not known and I think I did that quite well, in a mature way. I have a very good family background and a religious background, and I drew on all that. My family were close by my side, my brother moved in with me and I had a girlfriend move in with me, so everybody helped me get through. I also had a lot of movies to make. My father raised me never to give up, always to fight to the finish; don’t give in and don’t give up.”
And she never did. While the 60s saw her moving into television, she continued her film career with the likes of historical epic How The West Was Won and then, in 1964, she received an Oscar nomination for her title role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a musical biopic of the American socialite and Titanic survivor.
“They didn’t really want me in it,” admits Reynolds. “They’d already booked Shirley MacLaine, but she got into a lawsuit with Paramount, so they decided they’d better go with me. I said to them, “I think I’m more perfect for the role than Shirley” and I really believed I would do that role as good as it could ever be done. I’m very proud of that movie.”
As the 60s turned into the 70s, Reynolds could see Hollywood’s golden age slipping away, and hit upon a plan to try to preserve a piece of it, purchasing thousands of items from an MGM auction with a view to building The Hollywood Motion Picture Museum. But disaster struck when her second husband, shoe store millionaire Harry Karl, was forced to file for insolvency.
“When my husband went bankrupt and lost everything, in California it’s community property so they fined me $10 million and it took me 10 years to pay off that debt,” says Reynolds, matter-of-factly. “So I’ve had to work constantly to survive and rebuild my own financial situation.”
That bankruptcy has come to define Reynolds' life, to a greater or lesser extent, ever since. As well as appearing in films, on television and on Broadway, she has spent many years tirelessly performing her one-woman variety show at venues across the States. “In America, I travel 42 weeks of the year,” she says. “I’ve been on stage 62 years: movies first and then nightclubs and theatre.”
And now, for the first time in almost four decades, Reynolds is bringing her latest show, Alive and Fabulous, to the UK, including a date at Cambridge Corn Exchange later this month.
“I first came to London with Eddie Fisher,” she recalls. “We sang for The Queen and we met her. That was exciting. Then I did my show at the London Palladium in 1974, and I haven’t been back to entertain in all these years, so I thought it was about time, while I’m still alive, to come back.
“It’s a variety show. I do a little bit of everything – we run clips from my films and I sing along. We do a tribute to Judy Garland, who was a great friend of mine, and I do impressions. I was lucky to get to meet all the great stars – I worked with Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn and Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, and I do impressions of all of them.”
She even promises to treat us to her Jimmy Stewart. “I loved Jimmy Stewart. I would always call him on the phone after work and he always said (slips into uncannily accurate impression) ‘Oh Debbie, sing me a song...”. And Bette Davis I do because, when I worked with Miss Davis, she’d always say (adopts Davis’ trademark haughty staccato) “Do me BIGGER. You’ve got... to... do... me... BIGGER!”
With a third marriage – and a third divorce – to real estate developer Richard Hamlett under her belt (“I have no taste in men,” she tells me, “so I’ve married badly and made unfortunate choices”), and the Motion Picture Museum still on ice, Reynolds is nothing if not a survivor. But of everything she’s done, everything she’s achieved and endured, everyone she’s loved and lost, she says she is most proud of her children – especially Carrie, who enchanted a generation of little girls and boys as Princess Leia in Star Wars, and has since fought a public battle with drugs, alcohol and mental illness.
“She’s a manic depressive – bipolar – and that’s a difficult disease to have,” says Reynolds. “I admire her because she’s overcome that problem and is still creative.” Indeed, Carrie – who lives next door to her mother – has just completed her own one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, on Broadway.
But it’s clear that Reynolds is also still in thrall to the golden age of Hollywood, and the dream that took an ordinary Texan teenager and, through the magic of the movie lens, turned her into America’s sweetheart.
“It was a wonderful era,” she says, wistfully, “I’m just so glad I got to be a part of it.”
Published in Cambridgeshire Journal magazine, April 2010 (c) Cambridge Newspapers Ltd