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|Also Known As:||Mary Frances Reynolds||Died:|
|Born:||April 1, 1932||Cause of Death:|
|Birth Place:||El Paso, Texas, USA||Profession:||Cast ... actor dancer singer hotel owner museum operator|
Entertainer Debbie Reynolds embodied the cheerful bounce and youthful innocence of the post World War II era, buoying the genre's goodnatured hokum with her sincere charm and energy. One of a long line of girls-next-door like Doris Day and June Allyson, Reynolds was never as sultry as Day could be, and was more of a showbiz cheerleader and less of a tomboy than either. In her most successful films like "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957) and "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), she was often cast as a sincere young adult in the throes of puppy love – never the virgin chased by rogues like Day or the placid housewife like Allyson. Her squeaky clean image came in handy when, in the biggest Hollywood scandal of the 1950s, her then-husband, crooner Eddie Fisher, left her and their two children, Carrie and Todd, for sultry screen goddess, Elizabeth Taylor. Not surprisingly, the public was more than on Reynolds' side as the jilted wife. Once that furor died down, Reynolds was left to reinvent herself. In the late 1960s, when new sexual mores suddenly rendered the docile suburban female image a thing of the past, Reynolds shifted her focus to nightclub and theatrical stages. She was absent from the big screen for decades but settled into a comfortable presence in the American fabric by returning to film in the 1990s with funny mom roles in films like "Mother" (1996) and "In and Out" (1997) and hysterical guest appearances as the over-the-top mother of Grace Adler (Debra Messing) on "Will & Grace" (NBC, 1998-2006). Reynolds brought both self-mocking and nostalgia to these and other well-received comedic outings, using her persona as a perennially perky throwback to mine genuine laughs well into her 70s.
Mary Frances Reynolds was born in El Paso, TX, on April 1, 1932. Her railroad worker father moved the family to Southern California when Reynolds was young, and growing up in Burbank, Reynolds performed with the town symphony and was active in school plays. When she was 16, she was crowned Miss Burbank in a beauty contest and subsequently MGM and Warner Bros. courted her for a movie contract. The latter won out, but Reynolds mostly treaded water there for two years, playing only a modest part in "The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady" (1950). She moved to MGM in 1950 and made an instant impression in small roles in her first two films, impersonating 1920s "boop-oop-a-doop" singer Helen Kane in the biopic "Three Little Words" (195) and teaming with equally cute boy-next-door Carleton Carpenter in "Two Weeks with Love" (1950), which included a high-speed rendition of the novelty song "Aba Daba Honeymoon" that hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts. The studio and directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen responded by casting her in a leading role, complete with star billing, in the brilliant musical, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952). Her pleasant alto sold several old-time song standards and Reynolds, not a trained hoofer, literally danced her feet raw to keep up buoyantly onscreen with Kelly and Donald O'Connor. Best of all, her acting conveyed the sincerity of the aspiring neophyte that was both the role and the performer. Just like her role in "Singin' in the Rain," a star was born.
During her tenure at MGM, Reynolds performed primarily in musicals; none of which approached the landmark status of her first big success. The underrated "Give a Girl a Break" (1953) was full of ideas and energy, but as was typical of MGM and the studio system, "Athena" (1954) and "Hit the Deck" (1955) were too formulaic. The lively and playful comedienne overdid the teen boisterousness in "Susan Slept Here" (1954) but had a more successful foray into romantic comedy with "The Tender Trap" (1955). A standout was her most sober film of the period – one of only two or three dramas she ever acted in – "A Catered Affair" (1956), where Reynolds provided tender and quietly touching work that her sis-boom-ba roles rarely called upon. As the studio system disintegrated, Reynolds turned to freelancing, enjoying a big hit with "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957), whose theme song, the highly sentimental but equally memorable "Tammy," gave Reynolds a second smash hit single (five weeks at No. 1). The film also marked one of the occasional "country girl" roles which she would also play in "The Mating Game" (1958). Reynolds had begun appearing on TV by this time, and was a semi-regular on "The Eddie Fisher Show" (NBC, 1953-57), starring the popular crooner Reynolds had wed in 1955. Together, Reynolds and Fisher were second only to Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh as "America's Sweethearts."
The first of several unsuccessful marriages showed its sour side in 1958, when Fisher announced that he was leaving Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, the widow of his recently deceased best friend, producer Mike Todd, who had perished in a plane crash. The attendant public sympathy for Reynolds – now a single mother of two – meshed well with her wholesome screen persona, which had fully matured by the time of "This Happy Feeling" (1958). At the time of the scandal of all scandals, Reynolds ranked as one of the top ten box office stars in both 1959 and 1960. In 1962, she joined the all-star cast of the Oscar-nominated epic "How the West Was Won" and two years later starred in the screen adaptation of the aptly titled musical, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964), one of her best vehicles, and one which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Raising her two children, future director Todd Fisher and future actress and author Carrie Fisher, kept Reynolds busy; her screen career, which relied to some extent on her youthful, girlish qualities, slowly began to decline. Worse, the new frankness in films began to date her image. When she finally did try a Doris Day-style sex farce with "Divorce American Style" (1967) and "How Sweet It Is" (1968), even that vogue was waning. A few TV spots and a first try at a series, "The Debbie Reynolds Show/Debbie" (NBC, 1969-1970) did little to stem the tide. Her last feature acting for over 20 years, though, was striking. "What's the Matter with Helen?" (1971), a late entry in the often unpleasant "aging female star" horror subgenre, was redeemed by a very offbeat story, Curtis Harrington's directorial flair, and fine acting.
Effectively out of films before age 40, Reynolds enjoyed smash success on Broadway with a revival of the old musical chestnut "Irene" in 1973, played the London Palladium in a 1975 revue, and polished to a lively sparkle the nightclub talent she had first tested earlier in her career. Live performing kept Reynolds busiest for the next 20 years, though she occasionally surfaced in a the recurring role of the title character's acerbic mother on the sitcom "Alice" (CBS, 1976-1985) and did likewise on "Jennifer Slept Here" (NBC, 1983-84). She tried her hand at helming another series with the unsuccessful "Aloha Paradise" (ABC, 1981), a "Fantasy Island/Love Boat" rip-off with Reynolds as a female Ricardo Montalban, and enjoyed a feisty role as a woman cop teamed with her son in the TV movie, "Sadie and Son" (CBS, 1987). She also basked in the boom of nostalgia for her studio heyday when she purchased a Las Vegas hotel and casino and added a Hollywood Movie Museum packed with the memorabilia she had been collecting for decades. The largest collection of its kind in the world, Reynolds' memorabilia included over 40,000 costumes including Dorothy's ruby slippers and the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in her infamous 1952 LIFE magazine photo spread. Ever the hard worker, Reynolds performed constantly at her own hotel's nightclub to make the enterprise fly, and her love of the work and her finely honed presence kept her venture afloat.
After being known for decades as "the mother of Princess Leia" after daughter Carrie struck iconic status with her role in "Star Wars" (1977), Reynolds blithely withstood gossip surrounding her daughter's 1987 novel, Postcards from the Edge when wags assumed it was actually about their actual relationship. Even Mike Nichols' 1990 film version made the mother into something of a attention-craving gorgon. Fisher always said it was an homage to her mother, not an exact portrait of their sometimes strained relationship. The ensuing decade saw Reynolds own return to the big screen, first in Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth" (1993). Her renaissance really began when, at her daughter's suggestion, Albert Brooks cast Reynolds in the title role of his critically acclaimed "Mother" (1996). Reynolds received raves for her rich characterization of a sunny and loving but subtly disapproving and forbidding parent. The widespread attention she received helped pave the way for her casting as Kevin Kline's mother in "In and Out" (1997). The following year, she starred as a magical matriarch in the Disney Channel Original Movie "Halloweentown" (1998) and went on to make regular guest appearances on the hit sitcom "Will & Grace" as Grace's highly critical entertainer mother. She worked steadily as a voice actor in family fare, including "The Rugrats" (Nickelodeon, 1991-2004) and "Kim Possible" (Disney Channel, 2002-07) and well past the normal retirement age, Reynolds maintained a busy stage schedule as a song and dance gal on the casino and resort circuit.
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