The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds: On Carrie Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor, and Her Wild Hollywood Ride
From ‘Singin in the Rain’ to heartbreak and financial ruin, Debbie Reynolds, who died Wednesday, remained a great, old-school Hollywood star. In 2011, she spoke candidly to Tim Teeman.
To watch the movie star Debbie Reynolds work a room, as I once did, was to watch a stately exemplar of old-school Hollywood, old-school grace, and old-school razzle-dazzle-‘em.
She also had just the right amount of self-knowledge and wit to speak freely—and make jokes—about the rollercoaster of ups and downs she herself had endured.
Her sharpness and wit made one thing immediately clear when you met her: yes, she was Carrie Fisher’s mother. And now mother and daughter are dead, Debbie dying the day after Carrie. It is tragic, terrible, and yet perversely befitting of the dramatic life trajectories of both mother and daughter.
Carrie died on December 27, aged 60, and Debbie died on December 28, aged 84, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles after suffering a suspected stroke at her son Todd Fisher’s house.
In 2011, I interviewed Reynolds and Todd—how must he be feeling, having lost mother and sister like this?—at the Paley Center in Los Angeles for the London Times, where we talked about…well everything: Reynolds’s career (among the 30 movie-musicals she made between 1950 and 1967, she appeared in Singin’ In The Rain opposite Gene Kelly in 1952 when she was 19, and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964), her marriage to Eddie Fisher in 1955, his leaving her for Elizabeth Taylor in 1958, and about Carrie, born in 1956, and their own thorny, though loving, relationship.
“She's an immensely powerful woman, and I just admire my mother very much,'” Fisher told NPR last month.
Besides Fisher, there were two other husbands, financial ruin, and heartbreak. Reynolds even chose our meeting to wish her third husband dead, and she wasn’t joking. But the smile she sported with me and with her fans that day—genuine, life-quaffing, a survivor and a victor’s smile—stayed in place.
In recent weeks, Debbie supported Carrie first as she promoted her latest book, The Princess Diarist, rolling a Twitter eye as the headlines roiled after Carrie wrote that she had slept with Harrison Ford as they made the first Star Wars movie.
Reynolds thanked fans and elicited their prayers when her daughter was rushed to hospital.
And then when her daughter died yesterday, Reynolds via Facebook gracefully thanked her daughter’s fans for their support. “Thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter. I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop. Love Carries [sic] Mother.”
And now, one hopes, someone is guiding Debbie Reynolds to her next stop—maybe it will be her daughter herself. If they’re together, one hopes they’re both shaking their heads, and making some gallows humor, over the craziness of it all.
When we met on a sunny June day in 2011, Reynolds was resplendent in a glitter-trimmed red trouser suit and honeycomb bouffant, and the fans were gathered for a viewing of the first of four planned auctions of her astonishing archive of Hollywood costumes and memorabilia.
The items included the “subway” dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch, hats worn by Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra headdress, Barbra Streisand’s gowns from Hello Dolly!, Ingrid Bergman’s suit of armor from Joan of Arc, and a car driven by Laurel and Hardy.
She told me she would have been happier if we were meeting at her own costume museum, which she had twice tried and failed to build. “I tried to get a museum built. I didn’t buy it all for me. I bought it to preserve it. I couldn’t find a husband that had money. All mine took my money.”
As I wrote, in person, despite the dimpled cheeks and outward sunniness of her personality, Reynolds—like her daughter—had a sharpness; she was more steel than magnolia. Todd, who seemed an extremely loyal and protective son, bemoaned the lack of industry support to safeguard his mother’s collection.
“I couldn’t believe it when they were selling everything,” Reynolds said of the studios divesting themselves of all the treasures she herself had scooped up and was now selling. “It was terrible, disrespectful and not very bright. It should be saved, like architecture. It breaks my heart, but my husbands have broken it before.”
The auctions of Reynolds’s costumes and memorabilia would bring in more than $25 million; Monroe’s white dress sold for $4.6 million.
In later years, Reynolds appeared in Will and Grace, but no one role defined her. “I’m Princess Leia’s mother,” she once deadpanned.
Prior to Singin’ In The Rain, her first movie role was in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950). In 1973, she earned a Best Actress (Musical) Tony nomination for her role in Irene; Glynis Johns was triumphant in her role as Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. Reynolds appeared in well-known movies like How the West Was Won (1962) and Divorce American Style (1967).
In the late 1960s, Reynolds had her own TV show, and later a headline act in Las Vegas. She returned to the big screen in 1996, playing the title role in Albert Brooks’s movie, Mother, receiving critical and award-winning acclaim. On Wednesday night, Brooks paid his own tribute on Twitter.
In 2014, she appeared as Liberace’s mother in HBO’s biopic Behind the Candelabra. As well as her Oscar nomination, she earned five Golden Globe nominations, and in 2015 Carrie presented her mother with the Screen Actors Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
At the 2015 Oscars, Reynolds was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her advocacy around mental health issues. Reynolds’s granddaughter, Billie Lourd, accepted the award on her behalf as she wasn’t well enough to attend the ceremony.
Reynolds’s many personal dramas eclipsed her on-screen roles. In the late 1950s Fisher ran off with Taylor. She and Taylor then became friends, after Taylor left Fisher for Richard Burton.
Indeed, Reynolds told me, Taylor bought Burton’s costume from Cleopatra for her costume collection, “because I was so hard up and she wanted to save it and help me out. But she thought I was crazy. Everyone did.”
Taylor had died the previous March, a death Reynolds knew was coming. “I was grateful she was not ill anymore: she was in a lot of pain,” Reynolds told me. I asked how they had become friends, given her husband had left her for Taylor. “Once she met Richard Burton, she adored him and he her,” Reynolds told me.
A few years later, when both women had remarried, she and Taylor reconciled on a cruise ship. “Elizabeth said, ‘I made a foolish mistake and I’m very sorry if I hurt you in any way.’ I said, ‘Well, you did, but it’s past now and we’re going to go on,’ which we were adult enough to do. You have to let go of painful situations and I always liked Elizabeth. We had been at school at MGM together.”
Taylor, she told me, “made an error. It wasn’t really her fault. Eddie wanted to leave. I didn’t chase him out. I was absolutely heartbroken. This was the father of my two children, my first marriage, my first love. But I had to accept it and I did after a couple of years.”
In 2001, Reynolds and Taylor starred in—alongside Joan Collins and Shirley MacLaine—These Old Broads, written by Carrie Fisher, which sends up the original love triangle. “I was with Freddie because I was in a blackout. What's your excuse?” Taylor’s character tells Reynolds’.
Reynolds’s father, Ray, worked on the railroads in Texas, a man “so honest and straight he wouldn’t drive his car the day after its tax disc had expired,” Todd told me. Reynolds, who was born Mary Frances Reynolds in 1932, was 7 when the family moved to Burbank (Mary Frances was later deemed too old-fashioned by studio bosses; ironic when you consider her early, apple-pie public image).
She told me she hadn’t dreamt of stardom, and that the family could barely afford “good food.” She said that, despite her dream of becoming a PE teacher, “fate stepped in and life took a new course, as I hope it will now.”
Having won a beauty contest at age 16, a contract with Warner Brothers followed and her career began. She didn’t seem that nostalgic. “I feel more shaken with every passing year,” Reynolds told me. “It comes upon you very quickly. One minute you’re 50, the next you’re 70. I think about mortality. One of the reasons for doing the auction is to pass it safely into other hands while I’m still here.”
Even then, aged 79, she worked 42 weeks a year, she told me, and planned to return to the UK to perform in a stage show (after 2010’s Alive and Fabulous).
Reynolds was never reconciled with Fisher, who died in September 2010. He trashed her in his 1999 memoir, Been There, Done That, as “the iron butterfly” and wrote: “Debbie's whole life has been an act...When I left her for Elizabeth Taylor, she should have won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the wronged woman.”
On Oprah, Reynolds made a gesture implying that Fisher was not well endowed. “Yes, and besides that his brain wasn’t that big either,” she told me archly. “Carrie says he turned out to be the nicest of my husbands. But he didn’t support the children. He didn’t call them or send Christmas or birthday presents, or cared about their education or their lives. Why should I respect that? I married very poorly. If I knew why, I would go back and redo it all.”
Her second husband [Harry Karl, married 1960-73] was “a very sweet man but didn’t have any sense about money,” she said. “He was a gamble-oholic, so he lost all of his money, which was millions and millions, and all my money which was millions. My third husband [Richard Hamlett, married 1984-96] was a tragedy.”
She financially supported Hamlett in opening a small hotel and casino, which went bust, rendering her bankrupt. “I’m waiting to read that somebody runs him off a cliff somewhere.”
She told me she had miscarried twice. “That was the most painful thing that ever happened to me. But my faith meant I felt one day God would send me an answer.”
I asked Reynolds if God had. “If you behave well during a painful time in your life, I believe your life will turn around. You have to be courageous, keep going forward. It’s hard. You have to be an adult, grow up.”
I asked if Reynolds was seeing anyone, or desirous of getting married again. She said she wasn’t. “I don’t even date. I’m 79. I have no reason to. I have many wonderful, bright and intelligent friends. We go to plays and have fun. The ideal is to be with someone to hold and to share life with. Now I’m past it; that train has left the station.”
Reynolds also revealed to me she had arthritis and osteoporosis, “but I deal with it because I have to. I have good people who keep me going down the railroad track. If you look through a tunnel at the end is light. Whatever troubles you’re having, remember that.”
Carrie Fisher once said that it was painful to watch her mother fade from “celebrity to obscurity,” but Reynolds told me she didn’t see it like that. “My life has always been in show business and always active. Stay interested in whatever you’re doing whether it’s writing, roller-skating or mountain climbing. Don’t give up.”
This led us to talking about her relationship with Carrie. Carrie said Debbie would call her every day and say, “Hello, dear, this is your mother Debbie,” as if her daughter needed continual reminding.
Todd told me that Carrie, who went on to make books and stage performances out of her demons (such as Wishful Drinking), first rebelled against Reynolds when mother tried to give daughter advice about her career. Then came Carrie’s various addictions.
“My daughter is a manic-depressive bipolar,” Reynolds told me. “That’s an illness, something you can’t help. Eddie was manic-depressive; it’s genetic. But she has great doctors and is mindful of her illness. For her to be as functioning as she is shows great courage.
“In the past our relationship was like many mothers and daughters: I told her the truth and maybe she didn’t want to hear it or maybe I was wrong.” Carrie, Reynolds told me, had asked her to play herself in an autobiographical movie she is making. “I said: ‘Oh my goodness, I had to live my life and now I have to live it again.’”
When Carrie’s then-partner (and father of her daughter Billie), Bryan Lourd, turned out to be gay, Debbie told her daughter: “You know, dear, we’ve had every sort of man in our family—we’ve had horse thieves and alcoholics and one-man bands—but this is our first homosexual!”
As to the rumors Reynolds was a lesbian, Carrie said, “My mother is not a lesbian! She’s just a really, really bad heterosexual.”
The flapping, demented, deeply intrusive and self-involved movie star played by Shirley MacLaine in the movie of Carrie’s semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge was not her, Reynolds told me. “Mike Nichols [the director] wanted the mother to be as cuckoo as the daughter and an alcoholic, which I am not. How could I have been and functioned all these years? I haven’t missed two days’ work in 65 years.”
Unlike her daughter, harmful addiction had evaded her. “I saw a lot of it but never wanted to,” Reynolds told me. “I remember being sick all night after drinking sweet sherry.” She recalled stars having shots—“they called them vitamins, but it was speed.”
That day at the Paley Center, Reynolds told me that her ambition was “to remain happy,” to carry on performing live shows “as long as they’ll have me.” At home she sat on the porch “and listens to the trees. I’ve learnt to be grateful for what one has.”
Her final project—oddly apposite now—was a documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, with Todd Fisher both in it and listed as one of the producers.
Before I left her that day, I watched Reynolds meet and greet fans, with a smile as warm and welcoming as it was somehow commanding. “Hello, folks… Oh, you’re too young to remember Rudolph Valentino…Thank you, I appreciate it…” Debbie Reynolds was playing to an adoring crowd. She was on show. She was in her element.