When Debbie Reynolds died on Wednesday at the age of 84, she had been famous for more than 65 years. A multi-talented star who fixed her place in the Hollywood firmaments when she was just 19 years old (the same age that her daughter, the late Carrie Fisher, was introduced to the world as Princess Leia), Reynolds’ life was the stuff of Tinseltown legend, and she never seemed to grow tired of the spotlight. On the contrary, she was a force of nature until the bitter end, brightening almost every corner of showbiz at one point or another during her decades on stage and screen.
A hit recording artist, an Oscar (and Tony)-nominated leading lady, a Las Vegas lounge sensation, and a dedicated collector of movie memorabilia (some of her most heroic efforts were dedicated to the preservation of the Hollywood she helped to create), Reynolds was the rare kind of performer who could sing for Liberace in 1978, and then play his mother in the movie HBO made about him 35 years later. She’s the only person whose IMDb page lists both “Singin’ in the Rain” and a guest judge spot on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Reynolds meant something to everyone, but never quite the same thing to anyone. In order to honor the peerless dynamism and creativity of such an iconic figure, the IndieWire team has collected some of our favorite moments from Debbie Reynolds’ long life in front of the camera.
“And what a lovely morning!”
Debbie Reynolds was only 19 when she was given her first crack at a leading role, and it would be the understatement of the century to say that the actress made the most of it. Her winsome performance as plucky chorus girl Kathy Selden in “Singin’ in the Rain” is the stuff that Hollywood dreams are made of. Already on the rise thanks to her hit song “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” Reynolds’ breakthrough was the perfect venue for her to showcase her talents — watching her tap, belt, and smile her way through exuberant musical number “Good Morning,” upstaging super famous co-stars Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in the process, it was gobsmackingly obvious that the doe-eyed girl from El Paso was going to be a star. Audiences at the time, however, couldn’t have known just how long she’d shine. — DE
“We Have Never Met As Yet”
When it comes to Debbie Reynolds / Donald O’Conner musicals, everyone understandably thinks of “Singin’ in the Rain,” but the chemistry between the two stars — and the friendship blossoming between them — demanded a repeat performance. Made only a year after their first collaboration together, 1953’s “I Love Melvin” reunited Reynolds and O’Conner for a movie that was totally ignored by audiences of the time, but should be more appreciated by audiences of today. A fluffy and featherlight musical about an actress and the low-rent photographer’s assistance who falls in love with her, the film might add up to less than the sum of its parts, but its parts are strong.
The best number of all is the meet-cute where Reynolds and O’Conner, walking along opposite sides of a tall shrub in Central Park, croon about their ideal romantic partners, oblivious to the fact that they’ve just crashed into them. Buoyant, dreamy, and just grounded enough to feel real, “We Have Never Met As Yet” is the kind of song that almost no one could pull off, but that Reynolds made look as natural as a smile. — DE
“The Tender Trap”
The Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn pop standard has endured longer than the 1955 Charles Walters screen version of the Broadway musical romance. Few remember that Debbie Reynolds introduces the song as stage actress Julie Gillis, performing it with “schmaltz” for songwriter Charlie Reader (Frank Sinatra). He comes up to the stage piano and croons it the way it should be sung, watched adoringly by Gillis. When she reprises the number, she does it his way, with feeling — which makes Reader fall for her. The song was nominated for the Oscar, but lost to the spectacular “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” — AT
The great heartbreaker of my childhood was Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 animated take on E.B. White’s classic children’s book of the same name (itself a tremendous heartbreaker), a sensitive and lovingly made examination of the seasons of life and the passage of time. I distinctly remember watching the film, around age six or seven, and being so overcome with grief that I tried to bury my head in between a pair of particularly overstuffed couch pillows. I couldn’t watch it for years.
Voicing the charming spider Charlotte A. Cavatica — the kind of wise, kind and pragmatic friend anyone (especially a lonely pig) would love to have — is no easy feat. Charlotte has to be soothing and smart, motherly and warm, occasionally sharp and short, a real character, all wrapped up in one tiny, ever-spinning package. Charlotte has to seem like sheÂ knowsÂ things, with a good singing voice to boot.
What better choice than Debbie Reynolds? Charlotte is both the source of the story’s most satisfying moments (not just her prodigious, word-laced web-spinning or her clever plans or her desire to raise Wilbur above his station, but her very aura and expression, and this is an animated spider we’re talking about) and its most wrenching turns (again, the seasons of life and the passage of time), and Reynolds pulled it all off with so much warmth and realism that it still pops off the screen.
And, of course, it’s a role filled with life lessons small and large, including perhaps the most applicable: Chin up. — KE
“The Unsinkable Molly Brown”
Reynolds beat out Shirley MacLaine for the juicy lead role in Charles Walters’ 1960 MGM musical version of Meredith Wilson’s Broadway hit and scored in the seventh-highest grosser of the year, landing her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. (The Academy Governors awarded her the Jean Hersholt honorary Oscar this November.) Wearing improbably teased wigs, Reynolds brought athletic tomboy spunk to the wide-ranging role of the rough Colorado rube turned gold-digging saloon singer who lands lucky silver miner Johnny Brown (Broadway holdover Harve Presnell) and survives the Titanic, delivering seven rousing song-and-dance numbers. Due to budget cutbacks, the cast and crew agreed to shoot in one long day, with multiple cameras, the high-kicking “He’s My Friend,” in which Reynolds steals the show (as she did in “Singing’ in the Rain”) from vets Parnell, Ed Begley and Hermione Gingold. — AT
“Behind the Candelabra”
One of Debbie Reynolds’ last credited screen roles, what stands out about her work in Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic is how unshowy it is. We hear a fair amount about Frances Liberace before she appears — largely about how she drove the famous pianist to pursue his craft — but once we meet her, expectations are circumvented. When we see Reynolds take on the role of famous showbiz mother (albeit in a fictional context), she’s almost completely unrecognizable as the “Singin'” showgirl we once loved. Seemingly mild with her soft voice and Polish accent, Frances still proves to be formidable enough to make clear why she was such a domineering force in her son’s life. But in no way does she play on her public persona — instead, Reynolds plays a fully realized character, and truly proves how deep her talents lay.
It’s hard to single out just one moment from her performance, so we’ve shared a related clip that reflects Reynolds real-life friendship with Liberace. Watch the video and enjoy this rendition of “Your Love,” which Reynolds performed as part of 1978’s television revue, “Leapin’ Lizards, it’s Liberace!”. — LSM
One of Albert Brooks’ lighter crowdpleasers, Debbie Reynolds expertly toed the line between overbearing and warm in 1996’s “Mother.” Earning her a Golden Globe nomination in a role that could have been hackneyed, Reynolds plays Beatrice, a tough matriarch who lets her grown son move back in with her so he can pinpoint his troubles with women.
Rising above sitcom fare, Beatrice is a woman of pride and complexity. Check out Reynolds’ excellent range above, as she comes to terms with putting her life on hold for her children. — WE
When Reynolds recorded “Tammy” in 1957, she probably didn’t realize that she’d be singing it for the rest of her life. The song was a hit right off the hop, earning her a gold record, and it would later become the cornerstone of her Las Vegas lounge act (forthcoming documentary “Bright Lights” makes it clear just how inextricable she and that song would eventually become). But, of all the testaments to the power of that swooning ballad and the place it would come to occupy in the hearts of those who heard, the greatest can be found towards the end of a film in which Reynolds herself never appears.
A heartbreaking reverie of his Liverpool childhood, Terence Davies’ “The Long Day Closes” is a stream-of-consciousness autobiography that flows with the soft logic of a memory and the formal rigor of a master. Its signature sequence — one of the most beautiful passages in modern cinema — Davies uses “Tammy” to blur together a movie theater, a church, and a classroom, the song galvanizing the holy trinity of the filmmaker’s existence into one coherent whole. It could be a painful recollection, but Reynolds’ voice graces it with ineffable beauty. In turn, Davies’ montage affirms the song’s timelessness. — DE
“In & Out”
The first mainstream Hollywood comedy to feature a gay character showcased a delightful supporting performance from Debbie Reynolds as the mother of Howard (Kevin Kline), whose unclear sexuality jeopardizes his upcoming wedding. As seen in the clip above, that’s an unacceptable situation for her. Reynolds brought a perfect mix of sweetness and edge to the role, finding the comedy in a situation that for some families, might not have seemed so funny. — LSM
“Will & Grace”
Playing Grace’s fabulous mother Bobbi in 10 episodes from 1999-2006, Debbie Reynolds was always a burst of energy able to out-ham the wonderfully loose cast. Check out this vibrant mini-performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” standout “Good Morning” with the accompaniment of a giddy Megan Mullally. It was a perfect introduction of this wonderful actress to many ’80s babies, and what a wonderful late-career splash it was. — WE