Debbie Reynolds and Me
|December 29, 2016||Posted by Jess under Adventures in Real Life, Celebrities, Movies, Musicals|
She was 84. It wouldn’t have been a shock, especially in a year that’s taken so many famous names from us – except that her daughter Carrie Fisher died the day before, at the much more shocking age of 60. Without that, Debbie Reynolds’s death would have meant clips from Singin’ in the Rain on the news in a brief, 30-second announcement, and a few longer retrospectives on her scandalous 1959 divorce from Eddie Fisher and her incredible collection of classic film memorabilia, auctioned off a few years ago. With Carrie’s death, though, a dimly-remembered celebrity’s passing becomes an unbearable tragedy for a family that we all know, thanks to the public nature of their lives since Debbie’s adolescence, has already suffered so much.
Over the past two days I’ve seen my friends who imprinted hard on Leia Organa at an early age grieving for their princess and their general, and for the fierce and witty woman behind her. I like Star Wars and Princess Leia too, of course, because I’m a human being in the world, but for me the ache of a childhood hero gone out of this world came a day later.
Singin’ in the Rain has been my favorite movie since before I can remember. I wore out not one but two VHS copies of it before it became the first DVD I ever owned (before I even owned a DVD player!). The soundtrack was the first CD I ever bought.1 I didn’t know that it was widely considered the greatest movie musical ever made when I fell in love with it; I just loved it.
And I love Debbie in it. She’s not even twenty and it was one of her first films, but she holds her own opposite her significantly older and more seasoned costars (and despite Gene Kelly making no secret of the fact that he didn’t want her in the film). She’s bubbly and vivacious and magnetic, but her inherent cuteness doesn’t detract from Kathy’s backbone or dignity2 or ability to be magnificently withering when she feels like it. Kathy could so easily be a reward for Don, a younger woman with no agency handed to him after the trials of dealing with an older one who knows what she wants (see the grossness of An American in Paris for how this plays out), but she’s not – she’s vibrant and clever and ambitious and won’t sacrifice her pride or her career for romance. Part of that is the sparkling screenplay by Betty Comden (another classic Hollywood heroine of mind) and Adolph Green, but a lot of it comes down to Debbie’s sheer strength in the role.
When I was seventeen, Debbie did a combination concert and career retrospective at Montclair State University, about fifteen minutes away from where I was living at the time. She played clips from her films, sang a selection of standards, and chatted conversationally in between them about her life and career. She was still magnetic, as bubbly and adorable at 69 as she had been at 19 but with a lot more salt in her.
At the end she took questions and I stood, trembling, my Singin’ in the Rain soundtrack clutched in my hands.
“Singin’ in the Rain is my favorite movie, and I just wanted to tell you how much it means to me, and to thank you for it, and to ask if you would sign these liner notes?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said, and asked me my name and how old I was, and said she was just about my age when she made the movie. “Do you want to be an actress?”
“Yes,” I said, because I kind of did, at the time.
“Well, I hope you make it,” she said. “I’m sure you will, because you’re very pretty.”
I’m sure it was one of her stock, charming answers to young fans and had been for decades. (Also, it turns out I’m not an actress.) But I’ve never forgotten it. Debbie Reynolds told me I was pretty!
There’s more to both Debbie’s career and to her life than Singin’ in the Rain, or being Carrie Fisher’s mom, or the other thing she’s most famous for – Eddie Fisher leaving her for a recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor in 1959 – but that’s largely what she’ll be reduced to in memoriam, as her hit singles and Oscar-nominated performances and long-running Vegas revues are all decades in the past. I don’t mean to do the same thing, to boil her down to one movie she made when she was really just a kid. But it’s where I first discovered her, and it’s what means the most to me.
And our relationships with stars are personal things – one-sided, of course, but deeply felt just the same. My friends lost Leia Organa this week. I lost Kathy Selden.
I don’t have a good way to end this, so here are a few clips that hopefully capture her vivaciousness, her brassiness, and her warmth better than someone who only met her for a few treasured seconds. I’ll start with one I posted on Twitter yesterday, of a deleted scene from Singin’ in the Rain that I discovered as a bonus feature on my second VHS copy of the movie. Debbie was dubbed in her biggest vocal performance that remained in the film – “Would You?” – but I love her voice, and I love it here, teenage and shy and aching:
Here she is in her breakout role in Three Little Words (dubbed again, but that’s because it was a biopic and she was playing Helen Kane, who had a very distinctive voice and provided the vocals for the film). But look how adorable she is!:
Will and Grace is not a show that has aged well, but it was groundbreaking at the time, and I loved Debbie as Grace’s loving but narcissistic mom. She insists on being the center of attention at all times! She sings every time she enters or exits a room! She stars as “Harriet Hill” on Broadway in a revival of The Music Man! Take note, friends: this clip is short but it is me in forty years:
And finally, Debbie voiced Charlotte in the animated Charlotte’s Web, and perfectly embodied all of Charlotte’s tartness, intelligence, and warmth. Here’s her singing one of the loveliest reflections on the passing of time that I know:
How very special are we
For just a moment to be
Part of life’s eternal rhyme