Both Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, the late Carrie Fisher, both achieved stardom at 19 years old. For Fisher it was as Princess Leia and for her mother Reynolds it was lading the lead female role in the iconic musical ‘Singing in the Rain’ despite the objections of its star Gene Kelly a seasoned and highly skilled dancer who did not believe that an untrained dancer could do justice to the role. She proved him wrong.
It was not the only set back she overcame in her life. Born Mary Frances Reynolds on 1st April 1932 in El Paso, Texas but in 1939 the family moved to California. Inevitably in a state that has Hollywood she began her first tentative steps into showbusiness when she was spotted at a beauty pageant in 1948 and landed a contract with Warner brothers where she had two minor roles before moving across to MGM where she appeared in three further minor roles.
Her girl next door look was a reassuringly safe and wholesome one for the studios and it was the fearsome boss of MGM, Louise B Mayer, who singled her out for the lead role, at only 19 years of age, in ‘Singing in the Rain’. Gene Kelly, the male lead, was far from happy about it and was highly vocal in his objection to her getting the role. He was arguably justified in his concern as he, along with co star Donald O Connor were rightly regarded as two of the screens greatest dancers and both had been learning their craft since they were children ( O’ Connor had been dancing since he was a baby! )
“I had to learn everything in three to six months!’ said Reynolds and Kelly was hard on her throughout the shoot with his exacting standards. Widely regarded as one of the greatest musicals ever made it led to further musicals and light comedies none of which were ever in the same league as the film that had made her name.
Her wholesome on screen appearance belied a troubled private life. Married three times, first to Eddie Fisher (with whom she had Carrie Fisher) he then went off with her best friend Elizabeth Taylor. It was scandal writ large but the public came down on her side and for some while she would be cast as the sweetheart of America. Though Taylor and Reynolds did reconcile she did tell the press, ‘I forgave but I don’t forget’.
Her second marriage to a millionaire ended in 1973 but his gambling landed her in financial problems for years afterwards and in 1997 she was declared bankrupt. In fact her third marriage to a property developer hardly helped and she blamed her second and third husband to have ‘robbed me blind’.
Her career was given a lift when she was nominated for Best Actress Oscar in 1964 in another musical ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ which ironically was a rags to riches story and even took in the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately she didn’t win and it wasn’t until 2015 when she was awarded an honorary Oscar but by then she was too ill to attend and her granddaughter ( Carrie Fisher’s daughter) Billie Lourd accepted it on her behalf. The same year she was also awarded a lifetime achievement by the Screen Actors Guild.
Though the screen was where she made her name she also had several hit records which included the hit Tammy. What was equally unknown was that she was an avid collector of classic movie memorabilia which included a pair of ruby slippers from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ as well as Orson Welles coat from ‘Citizen Kane’ all of which was kept in a purpose built museum which due to financial difficulties she was forced to sell in 2011.
Her big screen film roles dried up as she got older and much of her work was in TV in series such as Will & Grace and The Love Boat or providing voices for Family Guy & Rugrats with only the occasional film and even appeared as herself in 1992’s ‘The Bodyguard’.
Her relationship with her daughter Carrie was notoriously rocky but each came to an understanding and by the end Fisher regularly spoke of her unending respect for her mother and what she had achieved in life. The feeling was reciprocated and Reynolds was devastated at the recent death of her beloved daughter and died the following day unable to cope with the grief with her last words to her son Todd ( Carrie’s brother) being, ‘I want to be with Carrie’.