Occasionally, an actor will be typecast by one standout role, leading to an inevitable downward spiral. They are not allowed to grow as performers or prove their merits, but are both stymied by and confined to their proverbial wheelhouse. There is, however, a happy medium between a one-trick showhorse and a perfectly versatile entertainer; the actor who is so representative of their trope that they can make an entire career of it. Shirley Temple will always be the child, John Wayne will always be the cowboy, and Debbie Reynolds, the musical star who passed away on December 28th, will always be the fresh-faced, all-American girl.
Reynolds, even in her later years, brought a youthful vitality to every role she played. She made no cringe-worthy attempts to cling to her youth, but rather let her inner child radiate outwards in a way which, though occasionally grating, was thoroughly entertaining and believable. Her death, only one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher's, is both tragic and wholly representative of the notoriously tempestuous relationship between the mother and daughter; Reynolds, the consummate performer, made the grand exit, overshadowing Fisher, the sardonic intellectual.
Carrie Fisher (1956 - 2016) and Debbie Reynolds (1932 - 2016)
Fisher's Princess Leia achieved a rare kind of cultural iconography, and her notorious bouts with bipolar disorder and substance abuse, coupled with her razor sharp wit, intellect, and candidness about her own problems make her mother's legacy, public persona, and filmography seem even more dated and vaguely gauche, yet Reynolds was undeniably a first-rate entertainer in the old-fashioned, vaudevillian sense. Fisher was the acerbic actress and the devastatingly funny author, Reynolds was the "hoofer," the kind of triple-threat entertainer who was more concerned about making sure you got your money's worth than making you think. And while it is easy (and common) to dismiss her as a performer of all flash, no substance, she leaves behind a number of roles which together form a legacy of genuine, unquestionable talent.
10. Doris Mann in "Postcards From the Edge" (1990)
I know, I know, this isn't a Debbie Reynolds role, but only in the most technical sense. In the film adaptation of Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical novel, Shirley MacLaine's overbearing, attention-hogging mother is so reminiscent of Reynolds that, over time, the two have become irrevocably linked. MacLaine plays this exaggerated role with obvious relish, and it isn't any great stretch of the imagination to picture Reynolds using these lines or basking so obviously in the public adoration which Mann regularly receives.
9. Sister Ann in "The Singing Nun" (1966)
In this quasi-autobiographical account of Jeanine Deckers (whose 1963 song "Dominique" became an international sensation), Reynolds plays the cloyingly sweet titular nun who (spoiler alert - oh who the hell am I kidding, you're never going to watch it) renounces her fame to work with needy children. Despite the efforts of heavy hitters/histrionic workhorses Agnes Moorehead and Greer Garson, the film overall is treacly and inconsequential, but Reynolds offers a decidedly feel-good, spirited performance.
8. Jane Hurley in "The Catered Affair" (1956)
In 1955, "Marty," a brilliant screenplay by that late, great genius Paddy Chayefsky, won a slew of prestigious awards, including the Palme d'Or and an Academy Award for Ernest Borgnine's role as the titular Bronx butcher. This film, also set in the Bronx, based on another teleplay written by Chayefsky, and again starring Borgnine, is ultimately an exercise in futility. The incessant feuding between Borgnine and Bette Davis fails to register on an emotional level, invariably striking the viewer as shrill and superficial. This, coupled with Reynolds' trademarked apple-cheeked charm, leaves the audience with no choice but to sympathize and connect with the epicenter of this ongoing battle; their daughter, Jane, a tangible symbol of hope for the Hurley family (and for the film overall). Reynolds carries this load well and is a perfect balance to the heavily-dialected shrieking of the two Academy Award winning leads.
7. Adelle Bruckner in "What's the Matter with Helen?" (1971)
From the early 1960s to the early 1970s a vast swath of former A-listers, for one reason or another, ended up starring in cheap horror movies. "Helen" stands out among all of these, and among every horror film in general, for having the worst advertising campaign in Hollywood history; Reynolds' character's lifeless body, featured on every poster, completely ruined the "surprise" ending. And yet, despite the distinct lack of thrills, Reynolds' portrayal of what is essentially a corrupted, delusional version of her own public persona is enthralling (given the viewer is familiar with her body of work).
6. Lilith Prescott in "How the West Was Won" (1963)
The grand Hollywood epic is a long-dead art form (excluding certain notable revivals, all of which are few and far between in the modern age) which was already on its last legs by 1963. "How the West Was Won," however, is by no means inhibited by the antiquated mode, which is largely due to the immeasurably talented cast; Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, Jimmy Stewart, Carolyn Jones, and Carroll Baker are but a few of the outstanding performers which makes this such an incredible film, and Reynolds' ability to keep pace with these actors (who are traditionally taken more seriously) is a testament to her serious talent. While her role as Lilith the showgirl doesn't exactly force her into unknown territory, Reynolds (very smartly) plays to her strengths and proves herself to be more than the usual lovesick teenagers she found herself playing.
5. Tammy Tyree in "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957)
Speaking of Reynolds playing lovesick teenagers, in what is arguably the role which cemented her status as America's Sweetheart, Reynolds makes the most of what is essentially a two-dimensional part. She plays a Mississippi girl who lives with her moonshiner grandfather and, against the backdrop of the fine ol' South, employs the full gamut of folksy language, from "reckon" to "yonder" to "kin," all with a syrupy-sweet twang. While it may not be a milestone in American film history, Reynolds plays her part to the hilt with sincerity and charm.
4. Kathy Selden in "Singin' In the Rain" (1952)
When, at the end of the film, it is revealed that the young Kathy Selden has been dubbing over the great star Lina Lamont's crass Brooklyn voice with her own, Gene Kelly's character introduces her as "the real star of the film." The film, a multilayered musical satire regarding the fickleness of Hollywood, has gone on to be regarded as one of the greatest American movies of all time, and Debbie Reynolds, in her first leading role as the squeaky-clean ingenue, truly was the film's real star. She was sweet, but unlike later venture not overly saccharine. She was iron-willed, yet not in the tomboyish way which would mark some of her other iconic roles. Most importantly, she demonstrated her ability to sing, dance, and act concurrently, paving her own way to superstardom.
3. Barbara Harmon in "Divorce American Style" (1967)
"Divorce American Style" is an inherently genius film, and not only in terms of Debbie Reynolds' movies. It's the kind of film you would expect of Carrie Fisher rather than her mother, a vicious, surprisingly-modern satire that sinks its teeth into the sanctity of marriage and the agony of divorce. Commonplace grotesqueries are exaggerated to naturalistic and resonant effect (see Dick Van Dyke's dogged attempt to avoid a subpoena, the expert camera work when Reynolds and Van Dyke realize they've emptied their joint safe deposit box and savings account, respectively, and the sheer comedic genius of the scene in which Reynolds' first attempts to date after the divorce [featuring a pre-"Happy Days" Tom Bosley]). Though she is supported by a supremely talented cast including Bosley, Jean Simmons, Van Johnson, Lee Grant, and (my favorite '60s novelty lounge act) Miss Pat Collins the "Hip Hypnotist," Reynolds on her own is superb as a kind of perverse distortion of her usual girlish roles, a Cinderella post-happily ever after. The fact that she wasn't nominated as so much for a Golden Globe still remains a glaring travesty in the annals of film history.
2. Molly Brown in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964)
If you've seen any of Debbie Reynolds' obituaries during the last few days, the epithet "unsinkable" has been a recurring feature. This adjective, previously affixed to the long-dead Titanic survivor Molly Brown, was equally applicable to the actress, and, because this part garnered her first, last, and only Academy Award nomination, it's only fitting that this is the role so commonly associated with her. In it, she plays Molly Brown, the wife of the miner/engineer J.J. Brown. After discovering what turns out to be the richest gold mine in the world, the pair become fabulously wealthy, and are summarily snubbed by Colorado's fledgling elite (second and third generation wealth who look down upon the nouveau riche Browns). It's a typical ugly duckling story (Reynolds even refers to herself as such through the [godawful] first fifth of the film), but a touching film nonetheless. While not as strong overall as "Singin' In the Rain" or "Divorce American Style," this film marks the peak of Reynolds' career, the culmination of her talents in one engaging, endearing performance and, in typical Reynolds terminology, a "knockout."
In 1958, while consoling a recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor over the untimely death of her husband, the film producer Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher (Todd's best friend, Debbie Reynolds' husband, and Carrie's father) left America's Sweetheart for the raven-haired beauty, effectively knocking Sputnik off the front pages of America's newspapers and turning Elizabeth Taylor into public enemy number one (my own grandmother's eyes flashed with anger when she recently recounted the event to me). This story, a precursor to the drama which engulfed Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, and Angelina Jolie, is remarkable in that it pitted the sultry, savvy Liz against the sweet, unassuming Debbie - and Reynolds won. She may have lost her husband - Liz ended up cheating on him with and marrying her Cleopatra costar Richard Burton a mere five years later- but she gained international sympathy, a reward sweeter than any spouse.
Reynolds was a formidable woman who waged a valiant, singlehanded war to preserve Hollywood's illustrious history. She demonstrated a deep respect for the rich heritage of the American film industry, and because she was a first-rate performer and actress, she played a unique role in the cultivation and conservation of filmographic memorabilia and history. She was a star in every sense of the word and filmdom has sustained a tragic blow with the death of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.
Icons of the Silver Screen, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher in 1973