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 Tonight’s 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.”
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.
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.