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The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds

This is a sad time…sadder than words can easily express. But when I think of Debbie Reynolds, it’s hard not to smile. One time she agreed to come to Entertainment Tonights offices to shoot an interview. I didn’t want her to be kept waiting and told our receptionist to call me the instant she arrived. Unfortunately, that receptionist had no idea who she was, so this didn’t work as smoothly as I had hoped. Our conversation went well and as she left Debbie made a grand exit, smiling and waving, saying to everyone within earshot, including the young woman at the front desk, “Goodbye…nice to meet you… I’m Princess Leia’s mother, you know.”

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She always seemed to have a solid sense of who she was, except perhaps when she chose her husbands. While I was interviewing her after a showing of The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2011 she asked how long I had been married. There was no way of wriggling out of this—there never was with Debbie—and I told her we’d been together 36 years. She chortled and started making self-deprecating remarks about the brevity of her marital unions. At the end of our chat, security guards were in place to escort her out of the theater but she was in no hurry, lingering to blow kisses, shake hands and smile for her adoring fans.

As her daughter Carrie explains in the recent documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, she was a people-pleaser. It was in her nature. And the quick-wittedness we associate with Carrie was clearly inherited from her mom.

She also had no illusions about herself. When archivists located a number that had been cut from Singin’ in the Rain, of Debbie singing a solo rendition of “You Are My Lucky Star,” she was the first to say that dropping it from the movie was a good decision. She strained to hit the high notes and it didn’t show her to good advantage.

Debbie was the youngest of the MGM musical stars but shared their upbeat outlook--and work ethic. I got to pose with June Allyson, Debbie, Esther Williams, and Ann Miller at a video dealers' convention circa 1990.

Debbie was the youngest of the MGM musical stars but shared their upbeat
outlook–and work ethic. I got to pose with June Allyson, Debbie, Esther
Williams, and Ann Miller at a video dealers’ convention circa 1990.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. No one worked harder than Debbie, as anyone who has seen The Unsinkable Molly Brown can confirm. Yet she wasn’t MGM’s first choice for that role, or director Charles Walters’, and made that film knowing it. Imagine trying to do your best work under those circumstances. What’s more, she had just lost a baby in a nightmarish situation—the second time this happened to her. (She reveals the details in her autobiography.)

No wonder people who knew her started to think of her as they did the woman she portrayed: unsinkable.

Debbie was a survivor. She survived health crises, bad marriages, embarrassing headlines, and so much more. She never got to realize her dream of opening a museum to house the Hollywood memorabilia she purchased with her own money.
But she never gave in or gave up. And she never stopped performing, soaking up the love of audiences who came to see her. I think she was taken for granted until recent years, when both the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored her. She had talent and guts in equal measure. And she was always, unfailingly funny. Like millions of her fans, I will miss her very much.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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