Saturday, January 7, 2017

Debbie Reynolds Double Dose of Memoirs

Debbie and Carrie, mid-century movie star mother and daughter.
Debbie Reynolds, showbiz’ ultimate sweetheart, lived a dramatic life and made an equally dramatic exit on December 28, a day after daughter Carrie Fisher died at age 60. After the initial avalanche of stories on Debbie and Carrie Fisher, I wanted to read about Debbie Reynolds’ glory days as a movie star. So, I borrowed her two memoirs from the library, My Life and Unsinkable.

I had passed on her first autobiography when came out almost two decades ago. For one, I was always on Team Liz. If you have to ask Liz who, you’re reading the wrong blog! Also, Debbie’s memoir was titled My Life, a classic cliché show biz bio title—code for no dirt. The super-retouched cover photo was another red flag for star-filter stories inside.

Debbie plugging Debbie!
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” turned out to be the case with Debbie’s tome. Reynolds’ soap opera life is told straightforwardly, with the help of ghostwriter David Patrick Columbia, blog maestro of the nifty New York Social Diary.

Is it a tell-all? Just as daughter Carrie Fisher characterizes Debbie’s second memoir, Unsinkable, as a “tell-some,” so is My Life. Reynolds is a woman and a star of her era. What she chooses to discuss is direct and the stuff that she leaves out falls under the category of none of your business. Debbie Reynolds was never a wallflower, nor a “wallower.”

Backstory: I liked Debbie better as I grew older than my growing up years. In the ‘70s & ‘80s, Reynolds was already that fizzy showbizzy personality in sequined slit gowns, platinum slathered frosting wigs, and kewpie doll makeup. Her youthful image didn’t endear me, either. Debbie Reynolds on the afternoon movies always meant nostalgic musicals, with Debbie hyper and sugary sweet. Why were Hollywood’s wholesome blondes perkiness personified, like Betty Hutton, Doris Day, Sandra Dee, Connie Stevens, and Debbie, I wondered. On talk shows, Reynolds was always “on,” and came off like a phony for the “good old days” of Hollywood.

Debbie loved to perform and had exes' debts to pay!
Though Reynolds had mixed feelings at the time, I thought Debbie was a good sport when daughter Carrie satirized their relationship in 1990’s fictionalized Postcards from the Edge. I liked Debbie when she tweaked her sweetheart image with tartness in Albert Brooks’ Mother. The ‘90s were the first time Debbie Reynolds seemed like a real person to me, and not an aging Chatty Cathy Doll. The more I read about her, I empathized with Reynolds endless rounds of tribulations and admired her for surviving with sass.

What’s amazing about Debbie’s My Life and Unsinkable is not great writing or storytelling, but the long-lasting career and cray-cray life. Reynolds grew up in El Paso, Texas, raised by tough parents, with an especially steely Mom. Once they moved to California, Reynolds’ star was quickly on the rise at MGM, just as the studio’s was beginning to dim. Ironically, Debbie became a bonafide movie star in Singin’ in the Rain at 19, the same age daughter Carrie became Princess Leia in Star Wars. When Reynolds married teen idol crooner Eddie Fisher, they became America’s sweethearts. After three years together and two children, Eddie famously left Debbie for her MGM pal and his idol Mike Todd’s widow, Elizabeth Taylor.

Aba Daba Honeymoon! If only Debbie's marriages were this cheery!
Debbie’s second marriage to shoe tycoon Harry Karl ended when she found out that he not only blew through his fortune, but hers, too. My Life ends on a happy note when Debbie marries rich businessman Richard Hamlett—revealed as a sociopathic con artist in her followup memoir, Unsinkable. In both books, Debbie seems to be a magnet for mismanagement and rip-offs, from asshole husbands to business associates. When Debbie’s marriage to Karl ended, there was a point where Reynolds was reduced to sleeping in her car!

Tammy was Debbie's #1 hit...and Eddie Fisher was pissy about it!
Reynolds paid off his debts—that were unfortunately in both their names. A later Las Vegas hotel venture went belly-up, thanks to her crooked last husband. Debbie Reynolds worked like a rented mule from age 40 until she was nearly 70, paying off debts from two loser husbands. Reynolds’ dream of a Hollywood museum for her vast movie memorabilia faded, too…though its auction a few years ago finally brought her some millions back.

The Singing Nun. Bet there were times when Debbie wished it true!
In between all this, the pages fly by as Debbie dealt with her own issues: keeping Debbie Reynolds the performer relevant throughout the decades; aging parents and growing older herself; raising her kids in showbiz; and especially, daughter Carrie Fisher’s many emotional ups and downs.
How did Debbie survive all this? Reynolds credits her strict upbringing, strong faith, good humor and health, and children Carrie and Todd, for getting through all this, and most of all, putting one high-heeled foot in front of the other.

Despite fame and fortune, I found it fascinating that MGM girls Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor were essentially women of their era. Debbie thought she’d be a movie star a few years and then get married, start a family, and become a gym teacher—seriously! Fellow starlet Elizabeth Taylor just wanted to quit movies and marry a “big, strong guy who paid all the bills.” Yes, this was the ‘50s, folks. Ultimately, both women worked well into their older years, and basically supported themselves—and more than a few husbands!

Carrie once suggested Debbie title her first memoir "Singin' in the Pain!"
Debbie’s marriage to Harry Karl became surreal, him living in a fantasy world as the walls came tumbling down around them because of his gambling and big-spending. When Debbie finds out that Karl’s barber, who visited the house daily, was also his pimp, and the manicurists were actually hookers, it’s beyond anything a screenwriter could make up. Then Debbie makes the same mistake again, going from a dysfunctional spendthrift to a predatory con man, and Reynolds wonders when Eddie Fisher started looking like the good husband!

Debbie Reynolds, at the peak of her movie stardom!
Reynolds’ tale of woe emphasizes the shark mentality of Hollywood, as when she reveals how the estate of her late pal Agnes Moorehead—Endora of Bewitched—was “left” to her lawyer! Or how MGM’s drama coach and life-long mentor Lillian Burns got dumped and duped, after 30 years of marriage, by her famous director husband—and his next wife. No wonder stars become tough, a criticism leveled at Debbie over the years, and one Reynolds acknowledges.

In both books, Debbie’s direct about people who’ve disappointed her, but her dislikes are not dwelled on. Reynolds freely admits Gene Kelly was tough to work with, but ultimately worth it. Other stars or directors who were unkind or disloyal are dealt with pithy humor. The only exception is first ex-hubby Eddie Fisher. After reading Debbie’s side of the story, it confirmed Fisher as one of a long line of Hollywood Peter Pans, oblivious to the damage they did their families, such as Tony Curtis or Ryan O’ Neal.

Oh, yeah...there was that little Liz/Eddie/Debbie scandal that made Angelina/Brad/Jen look like a nursery school tussle!
The Debbie/Eddie/Liz triangle was essentially the Jen/Brad/Angelina scandal of its time. While Debbie is honest in recounting her naiveté and Eddie’s immaturity, Reynolds gives mixed signals about the state of their marriage when Liz came into the picture. Frankly, Debbie and Eddie sounded more like a PR story than a love story. The fact that Reynolds repeats her tale of getting Fisher drunk to get pregnant so she can salvage their marriage says more than Debbie intended.

Unsinkable, written 15 years later, picks up where the first memoir leaves off. The ongoing Reynolds saga shows Debbie less invested in being Hollywood’s perennial good girl. Reynolds became bawdier and sharp-tongued over the years. Debbie also writes candidly of making up with Elizabeth, and coming to terms with problem child Carrie.

Read about Liz and Debbie's escape from New York after 9/11!
Then there’s Debbie with the dish! Reynolds may not have been lucky in love, but Debbie’s lifelong career is fascinating—she’s got stories about everyone. Did you know that Liz helped Debbie escape the 9/11 aftermath by asking her ex, Senator Warner, to get them a plane out of NYC? Or that Michael Jackson practiced his dance moves for his Thriller album at her LA dance studio? Or that her first big romance was with Robert Wagner? Or that Debbie suggested herself for the movie star mom role in daughter Carrie’s Postcards from the Edge, only to have director Mike Nichols tell her she wasn’t right for the part! Or that Frank Sinatra tried to warn her off marrying Eddie Fisher, saying singers make terrible husbands? Or making Warren Beatty promise to be a gentleman when he cast daughter Carrie in her film debut, Shampoo?

Hollywood's most famous Girl Scout!
There’s tons of anecdotes in both books about Debbie Reynolds fabled and varied career. Personally, Debbie’s signature roles like Tammy and The Unsinkable Molly Brown are too sickly sweet for me. However, I think that Debbie Reynolds was the female Mickey Rooney: an energetic and charismatic performer who could sing, dance, plus play comedy and drama. Check out Debbie in lesser-known, but more substantial films like The Catered Affair with Bette Davis, The Rat Race with Tony Curtis, or What’s the Matter With Helen?, with Shelley Winters. Plus, there’s Reynolds’ latter day turns in Mother, In and Out, and Will and Grace.


My Life and Unsinkable are both highly entertaining reads about one of Hollywood’s true class acts. Debbie Reynolds is gone, but her story and screen performances live on.
Debbie Reynolds, the Unsinkable Star!


1 comment:

  1. Fantastic article, Rick, and I feel the same way you do about Debbie's film roles...pure treacle all the way. Tried to watch The Singing Nun a few months ago but just couldn't stomach it...the only film of hers I own is Singin in the Rain. But I did, like you, enjoy her in Mother with Albert Brooks and as Kevin Kline's mom in In and Out, and on Will and Grace. The female Mickey Rooney---the perfect way to characterize her appeal!
    Another great article on your wonderful blog, Rick!
    - Chris

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