Identity

The Unstoppable Drive of the Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds

Conquering grueling dance scenes, tabloid scandals, and Hollywood's ageism, Debbie Reynolds was much more than the wholesome ingénue who stole hearts in classic films like "Singin' in the Rain"—though she was great in those, too.

by Kristin Hunt
Dec 30 2016, 4:16pm

Photo by Loomis Dean via Getty Images

Debbie Reynolds was often described as a "living legend"—and like most living legends, we preferred to think of her in the past, through very specific images. Bursting out of a cake in Singin' in the Rain, a fresh-faced teenager in a pink chorus girl uniform. Or kicking up her heels alongside Donald O'Connor, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse, or her many other iconic costars who always seemed to be men, and always seemed to get far more credit than she did. Or beaming with her young children, one of whom would grow up to become Princess Leia.

So much of Reynolds's star persona was firmly stuck in the 50s, when she was a reliable studio musical player with squeaky-clean sensibilities. After she died following a stroke on Wednesday at the age of 84, the New York Times called her a "wholesome ingénue" in its obituary headline. This simplification doesn't just erase her later work—and she never stopped working—it also ignores her surprising sass, her lifelong philanthropy, and her tireless perseverance in the face of personal and professional setbacks.

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Known as Mary Frances Reynolds before she got to Hollywood, Debbie Reynolds was a consummate professional who worked herself ragged. Her showbiz career began in 1948, when she entered the Miss Burbank beauty contest "as a lark... to get a blouse and scarf they were giving away to all the contestants." She won, but ended up getting much more than free clothes. Two of the judges happened to be movie studio scouts, and Reynolds was quickly under contract with Warner Brothers. The studio decided to rename her Debbie. She was only 16 at the time.

After appearing in several smaller roles, her major break came when she played the lead in Singin' in the Rain. As the story famously goes, teenage Reynolds had just three months to learn the moves her costars Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor had been practicing for years. The pressure—and Kelly's supposed cruelty—quickly got to her, which is how she wound up crying under a piano when none other than Fred Astaire walked by. He offered to give her dancing lessons, and pretty soon, she had caught up with her costars.

Reynolds in "Singin' in the Rain." Screengrab via YouTube

That story is often presented as a showcase of Astaire's generosity, but it's also one of the earliest examples of Reynolds's insatiable drive. In just a few months, she went from an untrained dancer to a headliner in a Kelly and O'Connor musical. That work ethic would set the tone for her entire life. When she was seven months pregnant on the set of Bundle of Joy, she still insisted on doing every step in her dance numbers. And when she broke her ankle in the middle of a live performance, she simply went backstage, found a bucket of ice, and returned to sing her smash hit "Tammy" from the 1957 musical Tammy and the Bachelor. As her daughter Carrie Fisher observed, "If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it. She would go through these amazingly difficult things, and the message was clear: Doing the impossible is possible. It's just not fun." It's little wonder why 1964's The Unsinkable Molly Brown, with its opening song "I Ain't Down Yet" became one of the defining roles of her career.

Reynolds' survival instinct would serve through her marital and financial struggles. She became the unwilling star of a tabloid scandal when her husband, Eddie Fisher, left her for her best friend, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1959. Husband #2 was even worse. Harry Karl began his marriage to Reynolds as a wealthy businessman, but he quietly gambled away his fortune—and hers—when he wasn't busy rushing "manicurists" (who were actually prostitutes) into the couple's home. Her final marriage to real estate developer Richard Hamlett resulted in more financial woes, as he pushed her into ill-advised ventures like the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel, which quickly went belly-up. Although Reynolds lamented her "very poor taste in men," she never let her horrible husbands defeat her, or let the tabloids pin her down as an object of pity. Especially later in life, Reynolds showed a wicked sense of humor about her romantic disasters. She and Taylor would reconcile and star in a TV movie (scripted by Carrie Fisher) mocking their rivalry. Reynolds's incredible 2011 Oprah interview with her daughter is also a master class in quietly savage jokes. Her silent reaction to Carrie's recap of the affair nearly made Oprah fall out of her chair.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

No matter how low she got, Reynolds was always looking out for people who were in an even worse spot. Reynolds was an early celebrity AIDS activist, hosting two fundraisers for the National KS/AIDS Foundation in 1983, years before President Ronald Reagan would even publicly name the disease. In his book And the Band Played On..., Randy Shilts wrote that the first fundraiser, held in June in San Francisco, "brought out the first array of big names to work a crowd for an AIDS benefit." By his account, it also "had all the raciness of a true San Francisco event." After surprise guest Shirley MacLaine pulled down the top of her strapless gown in front of the crowd, Reynolds matched her by briefly flashing her underwear. One guest quipped, "Debbie's Tammy image is blown forever."

Reynolds was also a founding member and long-time president of The Thalians, an organization that aims to spread awareness of mental health issues and help those who suffer from them. The group had a particular resonance for Reynolds, given her daughter's bipolar disorder.

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Reynolds and Carrie Fisher's relationship was one of the most discussed aspects of her later life, and their dynamic was a fascinating, even important one. Fisher, who died just a day before Reynolds, has already been (rightfully) remembered as a mental health advocate who made it a little less scary to talk about depression, bipolar disorder, and so many other conditions. And while both she and her mother have been candid about the rocky relationship they had in the years following Fisher's diagnosis, Reynolds's unwavering support and frank discussion of mental illness gave other parents in her situation a blueprint to follow. "My daughter is a manic-depressive bipolar," she once said. "That's an illness, something you can't help. Eddie [Fisher] 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."

Throughout her life, Reynolds was constantly knocking down obstacles in her path, whether they were daunting dance lessons or depleted bank accounts. Hollywood ageism was no match for her, either—even when her usual movie musical work dried up, she kept busy with Broadway shows, TV roles, classic Disney Channel Original Movies, memoirs, and her own dance studio, which is still open today. (She also became a dedicated historian of movie memorabilia.) She may have been an ingénue once, but she grew up to be a tough, fearless woman whose legacy proves you can always bounce back from a bad business deal—or a self-pitying cry under a piano.