Always the Entertainer: Debbie Reynolds at the Egyptian
December 22, 2016
This article was originally written for the American Cinematheque. They graciously let me re-print it here, in edited form.
Apologies for the lack of content, dear readers. I’ve recently taken on a freelance writing gig for TCM, which has taken up much of my spare time. I frequently pen mini essays for their Tumblr page, if you’d like to take a look.
The below is a throwback post from April 2013, when Debbie Reynolds spoke in between screenings of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) at the Egyptian Theater.
Debbie Reynolds during her Q&A. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
The theater that evening was packed, and Reynolds walked in to a warm, loud round of applause and a standing ovation. She shared candid stories of working in Hollywood when the studio system ruled the industry and held an extremely high-spirited Q&A afterwards, complete with considerable audience interaction. To say she brought down the house is almost an understatement.
Reynolds began the evening reminiscing on the making of the classic Singin’ in the Rain, which she made when she was only 18 years old. Signed at the time with MGM, she admits the stories differ on who wanted her cast in the film, but she believes it was MGM head Louis B. Mayer as opposed to Gene Kelly. When Kelly asked Reynolds if she could dance, she truthfully answered "no"; consequently, she had an “impossible” three months to learn how to look like a pro alongside choreographers Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. I’d say she did a pretty good job.
Back when the film was produced in 1952, the industry still operated within the famed studio system. Reynolds admitted she felt like a “prizefighter” in that environment, because if she ever fainted or felt sick, she’d be given smelling salts and told to get right back up! This was part of the challenge working under contract, she recalled; actors had to do everything they were told to do, whether they wanted to - or if they were ready to - or not.
Gene Kelly and Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain.
Reynolds is a true performer at heart. At times, she stopped mid-sentence to examine cameras in the front row, all of which were aimed steadily on her the whole evening, and promised to put on a show, which she definitely did (yes, some leg was shown). Her professed love for show business, an industry she has been honored to be part of for so many decades, radiates through her. From her many comedic imitations (including: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Louis B. Mayer, and Bette Davis, who played her mother in 1956’s The Catered Affair and told her never to turn her back to the camera) to her insistence that there will hopefully be an Academy Museum some day (and there will be in only a few years now!), Reynolds’ vast knowledge and dedication to entertainment is not only evident through her hard work in the business but also her efforts off-screen.
A well-know collector of memorabilia, the star is something of a curator of film history as well; over the years, she's amassed a very famous and impressive array of costumes and props, from The Maltese Falcon to Dorothy's ruby red slippers to Marilyn Monroe’s infamous white dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955), and her mission is to make these historic pieces available to the public to view. (Note: I'm not sure how many of these items she still owns.) Of course, this was all before the announcement of the Academy Museum, so it will be interesting to see if any of the objects in her collection end up there.
Reynolds also touched upon her charity work, particularly with the Thalians Club, an organization dedicated to helping those with mental illnesses. For the past several decades, she has been involved with setting up fundraising parties in which the public, for the price of a ticket, can steal a glimpse of movie stars in action at Hollywood events. Quite casually, Reynolds mentioned she's helped raise more than $50 million for the Thalians over the years!
Reynolds at the Thalians 50th Anniversary gala.
At the time, Reynolds showed no signs of slowing down or loosing enthusiasm. In fact, she had recently appeared in Behind the Candelabra (2013) as Liberace’s Polish mother, a woman she actually knew in real life. Seamlessly slipping into character, she launched into comedic stories about staying with Liberace in Vegas.
For the audience Q&A portion of the evening, Reynolds took to the masses, literally. She stood up with the microphone and handed it off to audience members, even allowing one man to give her a hug when he asked if he could!
Reynolds taking the Q&A into her own hands, which included hugging one audience member, below. (Pictures by Kim Luperi)
Reynolds also briefly touched upon her relationship with her famous daughter, Carrie Fisher, shared her disappointment regarding those she missed out on working with, like Jack Lemmon, and spoke frankly of those she didn’t like as much. An old high school classmate of hers even showed up, and their warm familiarity made it seem like they were back in school chatting in a hallway. The fact that a legend, one who has touched millions of lives, would casually conduct a Q&A with 600 people like it was an intimate one-on-one was rather surreal, but I guess that's just how Reynolds makes everyone feel. Such an incredibly down to earth, sincere and personable woman.