Like you, I have been crying since I learned the news that Debbie Reynolds died the day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, passed away, for all intents and purposes of a broken heart. “She wanted to be with Carrie,” her son, Todd, told Variety. I mean, my god. I’m crying right now.
And, like you, I’ve spent the hours since the news broke revisiting the icon’s best work—Does anyone even know how many views “Good Morning” got on YouTube last night? Or how many episodes of Will & Grace were downloaded?—while also uncovering what was, for me, a treasure trove of achievements and performances I never knew existed.
There was this one, a duet with Carrie Fisher on the Oprah Winfrey Show of “Happy Days” and “You Made Me Love You” that made me weep to the point that I think at one point I actually honked.
But then—then—came the discovery of a lifetime: an exercise video that Reynolds made in 1983 titled “Do It Debbie’s Way.”
It gave me so much joy.
There’s a sequel titled “Couples Do It Debbie’s Way.”
That about made my heart explode.
I—again, like you—tend to wallow in self-pity and sadness when these wonderfully talented celebrities die, somehow crassly turning a life of talent and spirit into a tragedy that is all about me. It’s wrong. And I didn’t know how wrong it was until I discovered Debbie Reynolds teaching Teri Garr how to do casual leg lifts while tossing off one-liners in ‘80s-style leotards.
Every single second of it is quintessentially Debbie Reynolds. I can’t think of a way to better revisit her singular personality and joie de vivre than by watching it.
The clip begins with the blaring trumpets of swing classic “In the Mood”—of course it does—while Reynolds’ voice over kicks in over footage of she and Shelley Winters laughing their asses off while doing the Charleston. “Shelley and I are just funning around before we all begin our first class,” she says.
Funning around. I can’t even.
Reynolds and Winters join a troop of classy dames including Dionne Warwick, Garr, and Virginia Mayo—like, what?—as Reynolds just sort of monologues, wildly gesticulating her hand in the air in that grand way she does, simultaneously being self-aggrandizing and adorable and nonsensical and fabulous.
“I never really thought I was going to do a program like this,” she says, talking, somehow to you. For all her glamour, she’s somehow, now, in her maroon spandex, plunged for maximum décolletage, not Hollywood’s Debbie Reynolds. She’s just Debbie, chatting about exercise, helping you lose weight, too.
“You know what happened to me? I went out and bought all these other tapes, which are excellent, but I found out I really couldn’t keep up with them!” she says. Us either, Debbie! “Well maybe I didn’t I want to keep up with them, because they’re really fast. I like to do everything kind of stretched out and easy. As easy as I can for me to accomplish what I want to do.”
She then starts patting her hips, thighs, and bust and talking about maintaining her “39 and holding” size at her age, before interrupting herself: “Oh! My set. I hope you like it.”
The camera then pulls out to reveal, I kid you not, two Greecian columns, a chandelier, and a soft pink wall with vanity lights spelling out the word, “DEBBIE.”
I, with greater volume than ever before in my life, gay-gasped, and I like to think that, at that moment, our angel Debbie got her wings.
“I was at MGM studios for years in musicals,” she says, “so I thought we’d do it up pink, not brown.” Fair.
Then she gets serious: “Now girls.” Yes, Debbie? “No matter what shape you are. No matter what age you are. We can still look better. We can feel better! So why don’t we?”
The tape then cuts to Reynolds and the girls reclined on the floors, looking ever-dainty, doing leg lifts, as Reynolds literally starts belting a made-up song. “You’ll feel good, you’ll feel sad / This is the lousiest exercise I’ve ever had!”
And as they point—No, flex! Debbie got the order wrong—they start gossiping about men. “Do you think you’re the only blonde Marlon Brando went with?” one girl asks. Shelley Winters kind of rolls over in the back and barks: “How many girls here slept with Howard Hughes?” Reynolds promptly raises her hand.
It is probably one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
Reynolds chastises them all for making her laugh. She can barely keep order in the room. Teri Garr loses her place doing neck rolls. Reynolds sings the instructions: “Down and out and up and back,” laughing, “Down and out was where I was a few years ago.” Ba-da-bum.
Then at one point she just bellows: “I hate exercise!” Later: “If I only had a hit record I wouldn’t have to do this.”
You get the sense that, for her, it’s not about exercise. It’s about “working on the figure.” It’s about performing, and having fun. Probably a quick cash grab, for sure.
But watching it the day after her death, it’s uncanny how the silly little tape really just embodies everything wonderful about Debbie Reynolds.
She was an accomplished actress, but once the director yelled “Cut!” one imagines that Reynolds would have been incapable of walking into a room without being utterly and completely herself.
That meant self-deprecation and one-liners and drawing attention and, most importantly, considering it somewhat of a duty to ensure that everyone in the room with her was having the time of their lives.
“Do It Debbie’s Way” explodes with camp, gossip, and put-on-a-show ambition—which ain’t easy when you’re doing pelvic lunges. It might actually be a good workout, too. My abs certainly hurt from all the laughter while watching it.
The name fits, then. That’s Debbie’s way. The consummate entertainer, down to the “can you believe what I’m doing?” hustle. It’s fabulous, and I’m thankful that this ridiculous little three-minute video brought all of that back into focus.