Critic's Notebook: Debbie Reynolds Was More Than the Sum of Her Musicals

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The late actress and singer is best remembered as an iconic star of MGM musicals, but her career endured thanks in large part to her undersung skills as a comedic and dramatic performer.

Fans around the world are reeling from the shock of losing both Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds during one 24-hour period. The mother and daughter represented two different periods in Hollywood, and older film lovers and Hollywood history buffs may find themselves particularly saddened by Reynolds' passing: After all, she was one of the last survivors of the great era of MGM musicals.

Singin' in the Rain, frequently cited as the best of all Hollywood musicals, remains the high point of her career. It's worth remembering that she was playing against Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, two dancing marvels, and she held her own when she was just 20 years old. Reynolds combined innocence, vulnerability and dynamic energy in a way that put her on the map. Her performance of "Good Mornin'" with Kelly and O'Connor stands out as one of the film's most memorable sequences.

She had a number of other musical highlights. Two years before that, her duet of "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" with Carleton Carpenter in Two Weeks With Love became an often excerpted standard. And she went on to star in several charming movies — Give a Girl a Break, I Love Melvin (which reunited her with O'Connor), Athena, Hit the Deck — before the MGM musical danced off into the sunset. By the 1960s, the only musical films still being produced were translations of Broadway stage hits. In 1964, Reynolds earned her one Oscar nomination when she starred in the screen version of Meredith Willson's The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the whimsical saga of a dirt-poor girl who rose to wealth after a Colorado gold strike and later became one of the survivors of the Titanic (thus the title).

But Reynolds had the chops to stay on top even after musicals faded from prominence. (She also survived one of the first tabloid feeding frenzies, after hubby Eddie Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor.) She proved adept in comedy and matched up well with co-stars Dick Powell (Susan Slept Here), Frank Sinatra (The Tender Trap), Tony Randall (The Mating Game), Tony Curtis (The Rat Race) and Glenn Ford (It Started With a Kiss). She snagged the leading roles in film versions of hit Broadway comedies The Pleasure of His Company, Mary Mary and Goodbye Charlie.

Although she didn't make many dramatic films, Reynolds gave deeply sympathetic performances in a few of them, beginning with 1956's The Catered Affair in which she played the sensible daughter of Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine. The Oscar-winning How the West Was Won (1963) was an epic featuring an all-star cast, but Reynolds had the central role of a pioneer woman who spans the entire history of the West, and she delivered with great grit and tenderness.

A decade later, when the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? led to a string of horror movies that teamed aging actresses, Reynolds co-starred with Shelley Winters in one of her most underrated films, What's the Matter With Helen? While Winters chewed the scenery, Reynolds gave a performance of understated dignity and charm as a woman with a sordid past trying to start a new life in Hollywood in the 1930s. The 1971 movie was a bit late in the cycle of a genre nicknamed "Grande Dame Guignol," so her fine performance didn't earn the accolades that it deserved.

Much later Reynolds proved that her comic timing remained intact when she played Albert Brooks' overbearing mother in Mother and Kevin Kline's mother in In & Out. She never stopped working, but she became even more well known for her charitable deeds and offscreen sass. I saw her at an AIDS benefit in the 1990s, a star-studded gala that also highlighted Elizabeth Taylor as one of the featured guests. Reynolds could not resist poking fun at her own scandal-ridden past when she joked, "Elizabeth and I are sharing something again." And at a revival screening of Singin' in the Rain at the American Cinematheque several years later, she went off on a freeform riff that included jokes about her marital mishaps as well as her many famous co-stars.

Reynolds also has to be remembered for her devotion to Hollywood history, which led her to assemble a massive collection of costumes and other artifacts from classic films. She was one of the few survivors of the studio system who remained an unpretentious cheerleader for the Golden Age right to the end of her life. Indeed, she embodied the very spirit of that dynamic era.

 

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