The 'Unsinkable' Debbie Reynolds Looks Back On Life, Love And A Boozy Busby Berkeley
Debbie Reynolds has been in show business for more than 60 years — beginning as an ingenue chirping a novelty tune called "Aba Daba Honeymoon" in one of her first films, a Jane Powell/Ricardo Montalban vehicle called Two Weeks With Love. That was 1950. Today, she's indisputably a grand dame of show business, working with names like Matt Damon and Michael Douglas.
Reynolds has made some legendary films along the way, including Singin' in the Rain, with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, and big hits, like The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Her foot- and handprints are preserved at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
She's had three marriages that gave her a great son and daughter, but as she says in her new book, she's "kissed a lot of frogs," and she knows what it's like to have your personal life thrown open in the headlines like a cheap suitcase — most famously in 1959, when her husband, crooner Eddie Fisher, left her for her friend Elizabeth Taylor. The book is called Unsinkable, and Reynolds looks back with a laugh when discussing Fisher and Taylor with NPR's Scott Simon. "Elizabeth fell in love with ... Richard Burton, and I warned Eddie that she'd kick him out in a year and a half — and that's exactly what happened, which gave me at least a little comfort."
Reynolds says she knew Taylor's relationship with Fisher would never work out. "He's not a strong enough personality for Elizabeth, who preferred her men to be, well, Richard Burton," she says. Fisher, she says, "lucked out" for the year and a half he spent with Taylor. And she eventually patched up her friendship with Taylor, after the two of them found themselves on the same cruise ship. "We decided, being bright girls ... we would get over the problems that existed, and we sent each other a note saying, let's move on with our life, and let's get onto the happy side. So we did, on that trip."
Moving on to her film work, Reynolds recalls that the shoot for Singin' in the Rain was exceptionally difficult because Kelly and O'Connor were such talented dancers. "And I had to learn all of that in six months, and I had never danced before," she says. "So I had to keep up with the boys, but I learned a great deal from Mr. Kelly." Fred Astaire helped, too — and Reynolds recalls him as "the sweetest man, other than Jimmy Stewart. I was crying under the piano on one of my breaks, my feet were killing me and my back was like it was broken — after all, I was only 17 — and Fred Astaire came by and he reached down, and he said, 'Now, who is that?' " Reynolds recalls that Astaire encouraged her not to quit. "And he invited me in to watch him rehearse — nobody got to watch him dance, and he let me watch him until he was just red in the face, and it showed me, even the greats find it hard to be really excellent, but you have to keep striving."
Reynolds first captured the public imagination with "Aba Daba Honeymoon," from Two Weeks With Love; she says the money she made from that movie — $1,500 — seemed like a fortune at the time. Legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley worked on the picture, "and he would drink a little bit, to say the least," Reynolds remembers. "He'd shoot these wonderful shots where they'd put him on a camera and send him 100 feet in the air, and they would tie him on, because he often fell off, and of course almost killed himself. But he'd get back up and have another bottle, and get back up, and so we finally learned to sing, we'd say, 'Somewhere there's Busby, how high the boom!' So it just became a joke, after a while. We didn't pay any attention to him. If he fell off, we'd just run forward and catch him."
A few years later, in 1955, she made a film with Frank Sinatra, called The Tender Trap, and Sinatra gave her some sage advice about her relationship with Fisher. "Frank Sinatra always gave people advice ... and he said, 'Now, I know you're engaged to Eddie, but I don't want you to marry a singer, because none of us are faithful, and he won't be, and I'm not. We're just awful,' he said, 'so don't do it.' And of course I didn't mind him, and I had a lot of problems because I didn't mind him, but Eddie and I were very young and very much in love at the time, but I guess he falls in and out of love."
Reynolds was not particularly lucky in love — after Fisher, she was married to two men, both wealthy, who essentially robbed her. She calls them "scoundrels" and says she doesn't really have an explanation for being taken in twice. "I really can't give you an answer, other than to say financially I'm very Victorian, I believe the man is supposed to run the business downtown, and the woman takes care of the family uptown. I always turned my money over to the husband. Shows you how dumb you are, and that's why I don't date or go out, and I would never marry again."
"I don't carry any guilt feelings," she continues. "I feel that I'm very fortunate, I have many good friends in my heart, I have my religion — and you can have whatever kind of religion; as long as you try the best you can, and you're a good person, that's all you can do."
If you want to see more of Debbie Reynolds, she's playing pianist Liberace's mother in a new biopic coming to HBO in May — Michael Douglas stars as the flamboyant musician and Matt Damon as his lover. "I'm working all the time; I've never stopped working," she says. "This is a really good picture. They dwell a lot on sex, which I didn't love, but it is part of any single man's life. But he was a great entertainer, great pianist, good friend and a wonderful person, and I enjoyed playing his mother," complete with Polish accent, "because I knew her in person, in life, and I put a prosthetic nose on so I could look just like her. I think everyone'll enjoy it. Just close your eyes at some scenes that are kinda sexy."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Debbie Reynolds has been in show business from the time she was a young ingenue to now, when she's a grand dame. Or should that be great dame? More than 60 years - beginning with a duet called "Aba Daba Honeymoon," and as current as the film she has coming out later this year, with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas - Debbie Reynolds has made legendary films, including "Singin' in the Rain," with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor; and big hits like "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Her foot- and handprints are preserved at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. She's had three marriages that gave her a great son and daughter, but as she says in her new book she's kissed a lot of frogs. And she knows...
SIMON: ...she knows what it's like to have your personal life thrown open on the headlines like a cheap suitcase. Debbie Reynolds's new book is a memoir - "Unsinkable" - and Debbie Reynolds joins us - the former Miss Burbank joins us from Beverly Hills. Thanks so much for being with us.
DEBBIE REYNOLDS: Well, thank you. My goodness, that's quite an introduction.
SIMON: Well, I'd say you're due a great introduction. You've had quite a life. I - Let me get something out of the way first.
SIMON: Everybody's going to want me to ask you about Elizabeth Taylor...
SIMON: ...or more to the point, Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor.
REYNOLDS: Well, I don't keep them together because they're gone their separate ways now, anyway. Eddie, you know, left with Elizabeth many, many years ago. We were married about five years - I think it was - when he decided to take a hike, and with Elizabeth. And we were good friends 'cause we were at MGM Studios and school together. And we were friends.
SIMON: Mike Todd was married to Elizabeth Taylor. You were good friends - Eddie Fisher and you, and Mike Todd and...
REYNOLDS: Yes. Mike Todd, unfortunately, had a terrible plane crash. And then when Mike died, she left with Eddie. So my husband did console her - very well, I'm sure. And then she met Richard Burton, as everybody knows. It's many years ago, of course; people don't really care anymore. But everybody read about it, in its day, and they kind of want to know the inside story. And the inside story is true. It's just he's not a strong enough personality for Elizabeth, who preferred her men to be - well, Richard Burton. He was pretty gorgeous. I warned Eddie that she'd kick him out in a year and a half. And that's exactly what happened, which gave me at least a little comfort.
SIMON: Well - and of course, I have heard over the years that you and Elizabeth Taylor became friends.
REYNOLDS: Yes. We decided, being bright girls, we would get over the problems that existed. And we sent each other a note saying let's move on with our lives, and let's get onto the happy side. And then to the end of her life, we were together. I mean, together doesn't mean everyday lunch. You know, I'm not a lunch girl, and neither is Elizabeth. But as far as being friends, we were. Yes.
SIMON: Let me ask you about a few movies, then we'll get back to personal.
REYNOLDS: Yes - made a lot of pictures.
SIMON: "Singin' in the Rain" - was that a tough shoot?
REYNOLDS: Oh, very tough shoot because, you see, Gene Kelly was the choreographer as well as the star. And he was great dancer. So everything was hard. And I had to learn all of that in six months, and I had never danced before. So I had to keep up with the boys. But I did it; God was with me. And I learned a great deal from Mr. Kelly.
SIMON: Fred Astaire helped you out, too.
REYNOLDS: Fred Astaire was the sweetest man, other than Jimmy Stewart. And I was crying under the piano on one of my breaks 'cause my feet were killing me, and my back was like it was broken. After all, I was only 17. And Fred Astaire came by and he reached down; he said, now, who is that? And I said, oh, it's Debbie. And he said, what are you crying about - what are you sniffling about? So I said, well, this is too hard; it's just too hard. I think I should quit. He said, you never quit, and dancing is hard, and there is no easy way. If you want to be good, you have to suffer through it. And he invited me in, to watch him rehearse. Nobody got to watch him dance. And he let me watch him until he was just red in the face. Then it showed me, even the greats find it hard to be really excellent. But you have to keep striving.
SIMON: Made a film called "The Tender Trap," with Frank Sinatra.
SIMON: Frank Sinatra gave you some advice about Eddie Fisher, I gather.
REYNOLDS: Well, Frank Sinatra always gave people advice. Well, everybody did everything his way; he was the boss. But one day, he said to me while we were shooting - he said, let's have lunch. And he called me sweetie. For some reason, he liked that name - sweetie. And he said, now, I know you're engaged to Eddie, but I don't want you to marry a singer because none of us are faithful, and he won't be, and I'm not. We're just awful, he said, so don't do it. And, of course, I didn't mind him, and I had a lot of problems because I didn't mind him. But you know, Eddie and I were very young and very much in love, at the time. But I guess he falls in and out of love.
SIMON: May I ask you about your marriages again? You were married to two men of means who - I won't try and dress this up - who robbed you.
REYNOLDS: (LAUGHTER) Well, it's hard to dress up scoundrels, isn't it?
SIMON: With respect, Miss Reynolds.
REYNOLDS: Yes. How dumb can you be? (LAUGHTER)
SIMON: Took the words out of my mouth.
REYNOLDS: I don't know. Just me, I guess. I really can't give you an answer other than to say financially, I always - I'm very Victorian. I believe the man is supposed to run the business downtown, and the woman takes care of the family uptown. I always turned my money over to the husband. Shows you how dumb you are. And that's why I don't date or go out, and I would never marry again.
SIMON: You've just finished this film with Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe - the Liberace film, much awaited, that's coming out sometime this year.
SIMON: Are you happier when you're working?
REYNOLDS: Well, I'm working all the time. I've never stopped working. And I'm in the theater, as you know; I work nightclubs. And I've had a little illness, so I haven't been as active. I'm still as busy, you know, with shows like yourself calling and asking about Elizabeth - which is always a pain.
SIMON: It's in the book. I wouldn't have asked if - you know, that's your personal business, but you did put it in this book.
REYNOLDS: Oh, of course, I put everything. I'm just out there. I don't care. But I did love making this movie. This is a really good picture. They dwell a lot on sex - which I didn't love but, you know, it is part of any single man's life. But he was a great entertainer, great pianist, and a good friend and a wonderful person. So I enjoyed playing his mother. (Speaking with accent) And she was from Poland, and so I did an accent because I knew her in person, in life.
And I put a prosthetic nose on, so I could look just like her. I think everyone will enjoy it. Just close your eyes at some scenes that are kind of sexy.
SIMON: OK. Do you have a song you've sang over the years, that you identify with?
REYNOLDS: Well, I sing "Tammy" in my act, always, because people ask me to sing it. (Singing) Away, away, come away with me, where the grass grows wild and the winds blow free. Away, away, come away with me - now, that's "I'll Build You a Home in the Meadow," which was from "How the West Was Won." And "Tammy's" a little like that. (Singing) I hear the cotton birds whisperin' above. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love. So you get two songs for one.
SIMON: Boy, I love to hear you sing, Miss Reynolds.
REYNOLDS: Well, thank you very much. And I've had a wonderful visit with you.
SIMON: Debbie Reynolds - her new book, "Unsinkable."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAMMY")
REYNOLDS: (Singing) I hear the cotton words whisperin' above. Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love...
SIMON: What was your favorite Debbie Reynolds movie or song? You can tweet us @NPRWeekend or @NPRScottSimon - all one word. This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.