Editor’s note: In 1997, actress Debbie Reynolds spoke to the Sun-Times about her starring role in the film “Mother,” opposite Albert Brooks. What follows are highlights of that interview with freelance writer Cindy Pearlman.
It never ends. Even when you’re sixtysomething, you still have to listen to your mother.
Maxene Reynolds, 84, has just spent the entire morning nagging her famous daughter. At age 64, Debbie Reynolds is learning that even if you’re a grandmother, you’re still somebody’s baby.
“This morning my mom said, ‘Honey, when are you going to get a good job?’ Are you ever going to take up typing or shorthand?” Reynolds says, smiling sweetly. “I said, ‘No mother, I’m in show business.’ My mother says, ‘I know, but that will never last.’ ”
A few years ago Reynolds almost listened to her mother’s advice. But just like father, mom doesn’t always know best. “Mother” marks her return to the big screen after a two-decade break. And Reynolds has wrapped up a Comeback — with a capital C.
She has already received a best actress Golden Globe nomination, and there is Oscar talk. Her phone is ringing off the hook with offers. Still, when she sweeps into a Texas hotel room looking fabulous in a white pantsuit, she announces, “Hello, I’m Carrie Fisher’s mother. Or maybe that’s Princess Leah to you.”
For the last few years, that was her claim to fame. How out of it was Reynolds? In the trailer for “Mother,” Albert Brooks is on the phone bragging about landing Debbie Reynolds for his new mom-son comedy. Suddenly, he is frowning. “No,” he says with a sigh into the receiver. ” She’s not dead.”
It’s just that her career wasn’t breathing. And like Rodney Dangerfield, screen legends get no respect. In fact, the last meeting Reynolds had for a movie role was nine years ago. And it was a cheesy Canadian television movie. “There were nine people in the room, all under 21. And the youngest person says to me, “Now what have you done?’ I said, ‘Well, I got here, but what I think I’m going to do is turn around and go out the door,’ ” Reynolds says, wincing.
Anyway, Reynolds was too busy to star in movies. She was picking up the pieces last year when her third husband left her. “The last two years he kept saying, ‘I miss Virginia.’ I found out that was his girlfriend and not the state,’ ” Reynolds states. (Rim shot, please.) And she was left with eight acres in Las Vegas, a casino, a museum and a restaurant to run.
“I take on ridiculous challenges. I think I am the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds,” says the actress, who four years ago sunk most of her pension and savings into her ex-husband’s Vegas dream. “So I’m living my life. I’m working my little place. I was doing Monday through Friday shows because on weekends everybody in Vegas wants to go see the shows without the bras on, and I’m doing my show with the bra on, because the world is not ready.”
Then the phone rang.
It was Reynolds’ daughter, actress and author Carrie Fisher. “She called me ‘Mother’ on the phone, so I knew it was business. She usually calls me ‘Mommy,’ ” Reynolds says. “Out of the blue, Carrie tells me, ‘Mother, you have to fly into L.A. and meet Albert Brooks. I said, ‘I’ve met Albert Brooks. Wasn’t he your date, honey?’ Carrie does that exasperated sigh as only your children can and says, ‘Mother!’ ”
Fisher turned the tables and became downright parental, telling her, “Mother, get on an airplane, because Albert has a script called ‘Mother.’ “Naturally, this being Debbie Reynolds, every conversation ends in a punch line. Her answer, she says, was, “That’s a better prospect for me than something called ‘Hey, Dad!’
“In the end, I thought, I won’t get this part anyway. But why upset my daughter. I got on the plane,” Reynolds says.
Paramount pleaded with Brooks to offer the title role to Angela Lansbury of “Murder, She Wrote” fame. “I said, ‘But why would my mother have an English accent and I don’t?,” frets Brooks. “Was she a war bride?”
“I called my old friend Carrie one night,” Brooks recalls, “and I said, `Do you think your mother could play my mother?’ Basically I wanted somebody who would be an event.”
Cut to Reynolds, an MGM contract player in her heyday, who had never auditioned for a movie role in her life. “So I was very nervous,” she admits. “I met Albert at Paramount, where in 1960-something I did ‘The Rat Race’ and ‘The Pleasure of His Company.’ Of course now it’s totally changed. They moved the entrance to another street. The Mae West Building is now the Roy Rogers Building. I can’t find my way to the gate, so I just gave up, stopped my car on the street and walked into the studio. “Fine. You’ve got it.’ ”
Brooks recalls, “I knew she was the right choice because she said, ‘Well, don’t many people have to make that decision?’ I said, ‘No, I can make that decision.’ Debbie said, ‘You alone?’ She was sounding like my mother.”
For her part, Reynolds went numb. “I actually went downstairs and sat on a park bench at Paramount for hours. I said, `What am I going to do now? I have this hotel which I just put all my pension, my money and my everything into. And I’m onstage every night. How am I going to do this movie?’ Then I decided, ‘Well, I can’t.’ ”
Then Reynolds sent a copy of the script to her son Todd Fisher, the chief executive officer of his mom’s hotel. “You don’t have to print that name Fisher,” she scolds, alluding to her famous breakup with actor Eddie Fisher. “I always tried to get the kids to change it. Why can’t it be Todd Reynolds? Such a good name.” And such a good agent. Fisher convinced his mother to become Brooks’ mother.
And the result? Brooks says mother and daughter – Reynolds and Carrie Fisher – were both in tears at one early screening. “Carrie was crying after the movie,” he recalls. “She never saw her mom hit those notes. Who knew that Debbie Reynolds was this method actress who could sit down for hours and talk to you about psychological ramifications.”
With classic movies like “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and “Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957), Debbie Reynolds became known as America’s sweetheart — a good girl you could, yes, bring home to mother. Born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas, she grew up a cute tomboy who was dirt poor.
Her father, Ray Reynolds, was a carpenter. “Literally, we lived off dirt floors. We would stay in homes he’d repair, so we could live for free,” Reynolds says. After living with her grandparents in Texas, the family moved to Burbank, Calif., when Debbie was 7. As the famous story goes, Reynolds was 16 when she won a “Miss Burbank” beauty contest. The judges included talent scouts from Warner Bros. and MGM, and on the flip of a coin, Warner Bros. won the right to screen test Reynolds first. Church deacons told her parents that if she went into show-biz, she ‘d go to hell and fast. “To which my grandpa laughed and said, ‘I don’t see our little Mary Frances becoming a wanton woman.’ ”
The screen test led to a contract and a quick name change. In 1949, Reynolds made her screen debut in “The Daughters of Rosie O’Grady.” Her contract was picked up the following year by MGM, where she did musicals like “Three Little Words” (1950) and “Two Weeks With Love” (1950), which led to hit songs like “Aba Daba Honeymoon.”
Louis B. Mayer cast her as the leading lady opposite Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” “I was afraid of Gene through the whole movie. He was so strict and unyielding, and so serious all the time. He did have an enormous burden of creativity on his back. Yet, he was never satisfied. And I never got a compliment. Ever,” Reynolds recalls.
The public adored her. Not that there weren’t some sour moments for America’s sweetheart, especially in her personal life. Her breakup with husband Eddie Fisher was the No. 1 scandal of its day. The fact that Fisher was having an affair with Elizabeth Taylor made it a gossip writer’s dream. “People are still fascinated with the triangle, and it’s 38 years later,” she marvels, adding that since then she and Taylor “have come to terms with it. Probably she did me a great favor.”
The marriage was shattered the night that, while still married to Fisher, she suspected he was at the Plaza Hotel with Taylor. So Reynolds called the switchboard pretending to be Dean Martin’s secretary with an urgent call.
“Eddie picked up the phone and said, ‘Well hiya, Dean, whatcha doin’ calling me at this time of night?’ I said, ‘It’s not Dean, Eddie, it’s Debbie.’ There was dead silence. I said, ‘Just roll over, Eddie. I want to talk to Elizabeth.’ ”
It was tougher getting rid of second husband Harry Karl, a compulsive gambler, who left Reynolds $2 million in debt. It took her 10 years to pay off those debts. But she found solace in her children and her work. Reynolds has done more than 25 feature films, including her Oscar-nominated performance in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964) and other starring roles in “Susan Slept Here” (1954), “The Tender Trap.
In the ’70s, Reynolds found film roles were lacking. So she starred on Broadway in “Irene.” Twelve years ago she met real estate developer Richard Hamlett while in Reno promoting her exercise video “Do It Debbie ‘s Way.” “I planned for him to be my third and last husband,” says Reynolds, who adds with a sigh. “Actresses can’t marry. We should just do charitable work.”
Still, on most days, Reynolds is busy with her daily routine, which includes “working out, eating right and being a mother.”
What kind of mother is she? “Bossy! But also loving and funny.” Sort of like her mom, Maxene, whom Debbie calls every single day. “Of course, my daughter Carrie doesn’t call me every day,” she laments. “I keep telling her, ‘I won’t be around forever.’ ”
Debbie does guilt, too? “I am a mother,” Reynolds says, smiling sweetly.