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Interview: Debbie Reynolds Dishes on Her Lucky Star Career
CHICAGO – Debbie Reynolds, who began her movie star journey as a teenager during another show biz era, made her big splash in 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” What followed was a long and varied career as a singer, dancer and respected film actress.
Born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas, she lucked into her career by winning a beauty contest, which included a contract with Warner Brothers. Making her debut in “June Bride,” she also scored a charted hit with the song “Aba Daba Honeymoon.”
Following her big break in Singin’ in the Rain, she worked steadily for the next several decades in film, stage and Las Vegas revue. Notable films include “Tammy,” The Tender Trap,” “The Catered Affair,” “How the West was Won,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Mother.”
Besides her long run in the movies, Reynolds is prominent as the mother of “Star Wars” Princess Leia – Carrie Fisher – through her first marriage with singer Eddie Fisher. She has also helped preserve Hollywood history with one of the largest private film memorabilia collections in the world.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
HollywoodChicago caught up with the legendary star as she made an appearance at the Hollywood Palms in Naperville, Illinois, introducing Singin’ in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She spoke candidly about the films, the husbands and the litany of family secrets through the filter of daughter Carrie Fisher.
HollywoodChicago.com: You were thrust into the spotlight at a very early age. Was that a natural place for you to be or did it take awhile for you to catch up with it?
Debbie Reynolds: Goodness, it took me awhile to catch up with it, because I began as a true beginner, not knowing how to dance or perform. I just entered a local contest in town as a joke, because if you entered you got a free blouse and scarf. We were rather poor back then so those things were great to get if I just entered, I never expected to win. I did, thank God, make a very big mistake and did win. And that started me on a new path and into show business.
HC: You were literally a teenager when you joined the storm front of Gene Kelly and Singin’ in the Rain. Looking at it today, which scenes in the film do you make Gene Kelly look better?
DR: (Laughs) I don’t think anything I could ever do could make Gene Kelly look better than he was. Gene Kelly was a great dancer and I was lucky to be in Singin’ in the Rain. He was my teacher when I was 17 years old, when he was a man of 37. He taught me everything.
Donald O’Connor was in the film also, and he was only 27 years old. So we were closer in age and had more fun together on the set. Gene was more my teacher and mentor.
HC: I’ve read that Frank Sinatra was infamous for only wanting to do one take. Did you experience any of that method during the filming of ‘The Tender Trap?’
DR: Yes, one take, so you better be ready and you better be good. One take and that was it. It was something that was spontaneous. Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason was like that as well.
HC: Did you have a good relationship with Frank Sinatra?
DR: Very much so, I love Frank, he was wonderful. Just don’t get on his bad side (laughs). I wouldn’t have wanted to marry him. But I probably should have since I married idiots anyway (laughs).
HC: You co-starrred with the legendary Bob Fosse the 1953 film ‘The Affairs of Dobie Gillis.’ What did you think of his later and more notorious success, including his style of choreography and the way he directed film?
DR: Well, Bobby was very difficult to work with, he wanted to be a big star at MGM, but it was the end of making musical movies then. So the heads of the studios, like Louis B. Mayer, were not of the mind to create another star.
So Bobby left and went to New York City to be a choreographer and created brilliant work. But he was a temperamental fellow, it was his way or the highway. I always found that kind of hard, and even though Gene Kelly was also a taskmaster, Bobby was tougher.
HC: How difficult a challenge as an actor was it to do the Cinerama film ‘How the West was Won?’ Were the technical aspects of camera placement and movement hard to get used to?
DR: Yes, very hard, because it was a three cameras technique, meaning three cameras wide. Therefore you’re not speaking to your fellow performer, you are speaking to a camera, or a line next to the camera. It was difficult to do, because its not real acting. You had to pretend that you were ‘seeing’ Agnes Moorhead or Jimmy Stewart or Carroll Baker. You were not, you were seeing a line.
It took me personally two years to make the film, because my character starts at age 16 and I end up being 92 years old in the film. By the end of that production, I was ready for bed (laughs).
HC: You’ve had some experience on the Broadway stage. What do you appreciate about the live stage and how does doing live performance differ from screen acting?
DR: Live is exciting, live is real, the people are there. It is very rewarding to walk out on stage and feel love and reception. I still perform live primarily. I just keep traveling and doing live shows.
The main difference in film, you know in your mind that you are doing it for posterity, you are doing for the eventual audience and it will be around forever. But when I was around doing theater in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s you weren’t allowed to film any of the plays that you did, it was against union rules. It was a stupid law, because so much is lost. We now have no recollection of these famous plays, it was very narrow-minded thinking.
HC: When you were appearing in Las Vegas in the early 1960s, besides the smaller size of the town itself what was different about the experience and atmosphere of Vegas in those days?
DR: Thrilling, exciting, it was very Parisian. For example, years ago nudity was not done in the United States. But during that late 1950s era in Vegas it began at the Tropicana, and spread to the other venues. Now the showgirls are going away again and Cirque du Soleil, the magic acts and the beasty acts reign in Vegas. But I don’t think you’ll completely lose the boobie shows (laughs). I think men like the boobie shows. Vegas will always be Vegas.
HC: You are a consummate collector of Hollywood memorabilia.. What was your personal favorite piece and why? Did you save anything from ‘Singin’ in the Rain?’
DR: I have the largest private collection in the world. I have over 5000 costumes, and the furniture and memorabilia that goes with them. Singin’ in the Rain I bought most of the costumes – the ‘Fit as a Fiddle’ costumes and the ‘Make Them Laugh’ Donald O’Connor outfits and the ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ clothes we danced in.
My favorite is the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in the subway breeze scene in “The Seven Year Itch.” But I also have a pair of ruby red slippers from the “Wizard of Oz’ and Dorothy’s gingham dress…and on and on.
I saved as much as I could and still do, because people are interested in it.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com
HC: Did you have a relationship with Marilyn Monroe? Was she as difficult as she has been made out to be?
DR: You only know what you read. You didn’t know her. The people who talk about her didn’t know her either. She was a very sweet girl, she was a very innocent girl. She was taken advantage of by most of the men that knew her, including Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, whom I also knew very well. DiMaggio was quite mean to her when they were married. But after she died, he did tend to her grave, which made up for it.
But Marilyn was really mistreated. Near the end, she was badly treated by Fox Studios, during the ‘Let’s Make Love’ film shoot in 1960, they threw her off the set because she had a cold. She was a bit temperamental, a little diva-like, but she didn’t deserve what she got.
And certainly not at the time of her death, because I’m a big believer that she was killed. My belief also is that she actually passed away long before she should have left us. She was a great talent who didn’t deserve what she ultimately got.
HC: Tell me about playing the title role in Albert Brook’s ‘Mother.’ Were you modeling the character after someone you knew or through Brook’s interpretation of his story and life?
DR: I think it was Albert’s mother and everyone else’s mother, including myself as a mother. I’m not a cook and I always stick everything in the freezer and then I leave things out, saying ‘if it’s good today it will be good tomorrow.’ (laughs)
Albert wrote the script and Albert interpreted everything about it. I hope I did well by the role. I loved doing the part.
HC: Your daughter Carrie Fisher is currently in a one woman show talking about herself in relationship to your family. Is her type of honesty the best policy for sharing family history?
DR: Well, you don’t tell Carrie a secret, because it will in a script or a book. So if you have a secret, keep it to yourself. But she is a great writer and very funny, and she takes things that are funny and makes them funnier.
Every secret gets known to the world. The show she is doing now, ‘Wishful Drinking’ is very funny and a huge success on Broadway. It’s very sophisticated show, it’s about family and Hollywood, about Hollywood ‘royalty’ like Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, all that nonsense. And all the other gossip.
It’s a kick of a show, great fun and highly entertaining.