Unlike most of us, Debbie Reynolds never seemed to question her luck. If she hadn’t become a movie star, who knows what would have happened to her? Can you imagine her waiting tables or teaching school? I can’t. Reynolds was one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system, making her greatest mark in cinema when she was only 19 years old, and she spent the rest of her life celebrating her stardom.
If she ever gave an interview when she wasn’t “on,” I haven’t seen it, and most of her appearances in sitcoms were merely variations on the character Hollywood created for her, out of the raw materials she supplied: forever the energetic innocent. Even when times were tough, she seemed to enjoy her lot in life, as few people do. She might be broke, she might be down and out, but she was always a star.
Reynolds returned the favor, though Hollywood didn’t seem to care. Recognizing that Hollywood movies are an essential part of our culture and our history, she set about collecting memorabilia that no one else seemed to value at all. We’re going to be very sorry, one day, that we didn’t hold on to Reynolds’ prizes, and keep them in one place, as she tried to do. Her own museum failed, and the Hollywood studios declined to establish another museum to take its place. She wound up selling the stuff at auction, and her life’s work went scattering to the winds.
Maybe Reynolds understood the value of Hollywood better than other people did because, as a girl, movies were forbidden to her, considered profane in the Nazarene church. But oh, what wonders of magic the movies could perform! Not least transforming a poor girl into America’s sweetheart. She’d lived the legend, and she knew it was real.
Hollywood didn’t seem to appreciate Debbie Reynolds nearly as much as she appreciated Hollywood. For two of her best-known roles, she wasn’t the first choice: Gene Kelly wanted a real dancer to play Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, and just about everybody involved in The Unsinkable Molly Brown wanted Tammy Grimes to repeat the role she’d created on Broadway. When Reynolds made Mother with Albert Brooks, returning to the big screen after nearly a quarter-century, she delivered her best performance, by turns funny and exasperating and dear.
Somehow the Academy didn’t reward her with what would seem to be a reflex, a nomination for an older actress in a good part, a highpoint in a long career. She went unnoticed that year, and Dan Rather and I took to the pages of the Los Angeles Times to protest. Reynolds wrote Dan a sweet note, declaring that the essay was “the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
Now she’s gone, upstaging her daughter one last time — in perhaps the most flattering way, and certainly the most show-biz. Hers was a grand exit, one that we’ll be talking about for years, and one that left us wanting more.