Impervious on a fault line

Friday April 5, 2013

Alden Graves

I’m going to faint, Mr. Hathaway." -- Debbie Reynolds, a number of times during the making of "How the West Was Won"

Debbie Reynolds could hardly have come up with a better title for her recent memoir than "Unsinkable" (William Morrow), written with Dorian Hannaway. The word is, of course, a reference to her most celebrated role as Molly Brown, the feisty, nouveau riche Denver socialite who survived the Titanic disaster in 1912. If the ship didn’t quite live up to its promise as impervious to whatever fate might choose to lay in its path, Debbie Reynolds did, for more than half a century. At age 81, she is still plying the waters, still sparkling in the sun.

Mary Frances Reynolds’ credentials for a contarct at a major Hollywood studio were slight, to say the least. But, she had been crowned Miss Burbank in 1948 and MGM was always a sucker for a pretty face. Her first role was in a particularly unmemorable Bette Davis movie called "June Bride." Reynolds states that she has trouble finding herself in the movie, which is probably a good thing, and she didn’t receive any mention in the credits because the studio hadn’t settled upon a name for her yet.

The big break that every actor waits breathlessly for happened with a vengeance only four years later. Reynolds co-starred with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in what is still regarded by many as the finest musical ever made, "Singin’ in the Rain."

In a few short years, she had risen from being Miss Burbank to reigning as America’s Sweetheart. Reynolds never gives her readers the impression that she was contemptuous of the role she assumed in the public’s esteem, but, despite giving her the opportunity to warble (beautifully) the title song in "Tammy and the Bachelor," the designation limited the opportunities to expand her career as an actress. Debbie Reynolds fell victim to being a cliché of herself.

She never quite managed to shed the shiny MGM gloss that was liberally applied by the studio during the formative stage of her long career. Reynolds was passed over for roles she coveted in prestige films like George Cukor’s "The Actress," and humiliated by Richard Brooks, who thought that she was much to lightweight a talent to hold her own with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine in "The Catered Affair." (Davis, never one to mince words, comforted her young co-star with a one-word analysis of their director that will not be repeated here.)

She initially turned down Henry Hathaway when he asked her to play the Debbie Reynolds role (spunky, determined, yet oddly vulnerable) in "How the West Was Won" because of the veteran director’s reputation as a tyrant. She finally was persuaded to accept the part in the big budget epic when Hathaway assured her that he would treat her with the utmost respect, a vow that lasted about an hour after Reynolds started work on the movie. She promptly fainted and refused to be revived until an apology was offered. The tactic was successful a number of times after Hathaway began to rant, but, despite his exasperation with her, he developed such an admiration for his leading lady that he vastly expanded her role in the film, which became one of the biggest hits of 1964.

She nearly lost her signature, Oscar-nominated role in the good-natured, boisterous adaptation of Meredith WIllson’s Broadway musical, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," to Shirley MacLaine.

Fortunately for moviegoers, Fox wouldn’t loan MacLaine to MGM for the part. The movie features one of the most impressive dance numbers in movie history. Reynolds notes that "He’s My Friend" had to be shot in one day utilizing multiple camera set-ups because MGM was feeling the financial strains of completing "Doctor Zhivago" and wanted to cut the song entirely.

And, of course, it wasn’t all roses. She was the wronged woman in a scandal that relegated most other news items of the day to afterthoughts. She watched while one husband gambled away her life’s earnings and has seen her own dreams disappear into bankruptcy proceedings. Her witty and talented daughter wrestled with drug addiction and bipolar disorder. All of her three marriages ended very badly.

I don’t read a lot of books about famous performers, but"Unsinkable," like its author, has an endearing, never-say-die quality to it that is irresistible. It isn’t all sweetness and optimism, but the catharsis of forgiveness shines through all the darker aspects of both her personal life and her career. She ultimately proved her acting mettle in "Mother" and this book can stand as evidence that no matter what your opinion might be of Debbie Reynolds’ final place in the Hollywood firmament, she is the genuine article, a trooper in every sense of the word.

Alden Graves is a regular Banner columnist.


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