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Entertainer Debbie Reynolds embodied the cheerful bounce and youthful innocence of the post-World War II era, enetergizing her films through 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 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 rather than 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 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...
Entertainer Debbie Reynolds embodied the cheerful bounce and youthful innocence of the post-World War II era, enetergizing her films through 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 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 rather than 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 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), hysterical guest appearances as the over-the-top mother of Grace Adler (Debra Messing) on "Will & Grace" (NBC, 1998-2006), and a clever turn as Frances Liberace in Steven Soderbergh's biopic "Behind the Candelabra" (HBO 2013). Reynolds brought both self-deprecating wit and nostalgic charm to these and other well-received comedic outings, using her persona as a perennially perky throwback to mine genuine laughs into her 80s. Tragically, Debbie Reynolds died on December 28, 2016, only one day after the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher. She was 84 years old.
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; 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" (1950) 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 classic 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 onscreen with the buoyant 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 such as "Give a Girl a Break" (1953), "Athena" (1954) and "Hit the Deck" (1955), but rarely hit the critical and commercial success of her breakthrough. The lively and playful comedienne played a boisterous teen in "Susan Slept Here" (1954), and showed a more mature flair for romantic comedy with "The Tender Trap" (1955). A standout was her most sober film of the period - one of only a handful of dramas she ever acted in - "A Catered Affair" (1956), where Reynolds provided tender and quietly touching work. 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 this 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 musical "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964), 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, began to slow down. At the same time, the new frankness in films began to date her image. When she finally did try 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 an 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 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 the Ann Jillian vehicle "Jennifer Slept Here" (NBC, 1983-84). She tried her hand at helming another series with the unsuccessful "Aloha Paradise" (ABC, 1981), 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 about their actual relationship. 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 "Rugrats" (Nickelodeon, 1991-2004), "Kim Possible" (Disney Channel, 2002-07) and "The Penguins of Madagascar" (Nickelodeon 2008-2015). Well past the normal retirement age, Reynolds maintained a busy stage schedule as a song and dance gal on the casino and resort circuit, and appeared frequently in documentary films about the Golden Age of Hollywood, including "The Brothers Warner" (2008) and "The Jill and Tony Curtis Story" (2008). Her final big screen role came in the Katherine Heigl action comedy "One for the Money" (2012), although the following year, she played doting mother Frances Liberace in Steven Soderbergh's quirky biopic "Behind the Candelabra" (2013). Reynolds and Fisher were the subject of a feature-length documentary, "Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds" (2016) that was co-produced by Todd Fisher. The film premiered at Cannes in 2016, but tragedy struck prior to its showing on HBO in early 2017. Carrie Fisher suffered a heart attack while on a Los Angeles-bound flight on December 23, 2016; she died four days later on December 27 at the age of 60. Debbie Reynolds, who had been taking part in the preparations for her only daughter's funeral, died of a stroke the following day, December 28, 2016, in Los Angeles. She was 84 years old.
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