Debbie Reynolds: Show me the Mommy!
Thanks to her role in Albert Brooks' "Mother," ex-ingenue Debbie Reynolds leaps back into the limelight--with help from daughter Carrie Fisher
There are four so-called ”power vortexes” in the spectacular red rock canyons of Sedona, Ariz. Their electromagnetic fields are so intense that New Agers claim they bring out the best — or the worst — in people.
Two days after Christmas, at a posh resort in the heart of Sedona, a fifth power vortex seems to have formed — in the bungalow where Debbie Reynolds, 64, and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, 40, are spending the holidays. They have cause to rejoice.
After years of struggling in dinner theater and Vegas, her movie career long forgotten, Reynolds is back. Once a top box office draw for 1950s movies like Singin’ in the Rain and Tammy and the Bachelor, Reynolds achieved an unwanted, worldwide celebrity when her first husband, Eddie Fisher, left her for Elizabeth Taylor in 1959. After that, her star began to dim as the studio system waned. Now — 25 years after her last major film role (in 1971’s What’s the Matter With Helen?) — Reynolds is winning raves for her sweetly passive-aggressive performance in Albert Brooks’ comedy Mother, and she’s thought to be a front-runner for a Best Actress nod when Oscar nominations are announced Feb. 11.
She owes the success, in large part, to Fisher, who urged her mom to take the role. Here in Sedona, the expectation — the hope! — is that the normally quick-witted Fisher and the bouncy Reynolds will come off like the unsinkable Molly Brown and Princess Leia triumphantly celebrating Debbie’s comeback.
The reality is more complicated; they are far from being in a celebratory mood. There is trouble over the interview itself — Reynolds claims she didn’t know it was set up and is steamed at a publicist for intimating that she forgot it because of her age. Fisher, one of Hollywood’s premier script doctors and author of three novels, is said to be ill with a toothache. And, as it turns out, they are both still suffering from chronic bad luck with men. The energy, as they say in Sedona, is out of balance.
Oh, you’re here,” says Reynolds, managing to sound grim and look perky at the same time. She wears a pastel-colored sweatsuit, full makeup, and a slightly sour expression. A second later, Fisher — wearing mismatched clothes and no makeup, looking exhausted — emerges from a back room. They sit down on the couch as if they were preparing for the root canal Fisher recently endured. After a little chitchat, Reynolds cuts to the chase. ”What’s the theme here?”
Reynolds thaws slightly when asked how she got the part in Mother, and readily tells the story. Cowriter-director-actor Albert Brooks, playing Reynolds’ son who moves in with her after his second divorce, wanted to cast an older actress who hadn’t been seen in movies in recent years. He had met with Nancy Reagan and Esther Williams (but offered neither the role), and had sought Doris Day, but discovered she was retired. Looking at her mother, Fisher says, ”I saw Doris recently and she looked fabulous, like she just had work or something.”
“We don’t want to say that, do we?” says Reynolds nervously.
“We don’t?” asks Fisher. “She looked fabulous.”
In the course of checking out more than 300 actresses, Brooks called Fisher one day and asked about casting Reynolds as the difficult Beatrice Henderson. “Carrie said, ‘What is the part—a lovable monster?'” Brooks recalls. “I said yes. Carrie said she’d be perfect.” Fisher then sent her mother the script, but Reynolds, who’s been appearing nightly at her eponymous Las Vegas dinner theater and hotel since 1994, didn’t read it for weeks.
“I don’t like picking up my mail,” explains Reynolds, sounding a bit like the technophobic Beatrice. “It’s always so much. It’s very heavy. And those big Federal Express packages require me finding a butcher knife, and I’ve never figured out how those arrows work. So I let them sit there.”
Fisher pestered her until Reynolds agreed to read the script. She loved it, but again Fisher had to badger her into flying to L.A. and auditioning for Brooks. “I had never auditioned in my life,” says Reynolds. “I was under contract to MGM for 17 years and when you’re under contract, they just put you in the picture.”
Even stranger, says Reynolds, was driving onto the Paramount lot after 30 years like a latter-day Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. “They’ve redone the whole lot,” she says. “I was supposed to go to the Mae West Building but the Mae West Building is not the same one anymore.”
Brooks was so impressed by her audition that he cast her after she read only two scenes. Reynolds says she was so “terrified” about making Mother that she hired a coach to help her memorize the wordy script and spent weekends rehearsing alone at the studio. Insecure and overwhelmed, “I would just cry so much,” says Reynolds. Fisher, however, kept the faith: “I know my mother can do anything she sets her mind to, because she works really hard.”
In the end, Beatrice Henderson provided the perfect showcase for Reynolds. At once sunny and edgy, matronly and a little sexy, Reynolds’ slyly understated performance recently scored her a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. Reynolds is currently working on her next film, In and Out, a comedy in which she plays another beleaguered mother whose son (Kevin Kline) breaks his engagement by announcing he’s gay.
Says Brooks: “This is a woman who couldn’t get anyone on the phone a year ago. She had no representation. But that’s the nice part of show business. It’ll drop you like a hot potato, but it’ll pick you up again.”
As they sit together on the couch, Reynolds and Fisher gaze at each other fondly and touch frequently. They have achieved a closeness, they say, after a tumultuous relationship that once mirrored the warring mother and daughter in Fisher’s 1987 novel Postcards From the Edge (though Reynolds has always insisted that she bears no resemblance to the novel’s hard-drinking, volatile mother, played by Shirley MacLaine in Mike Nichols’ 1990 screen adaptation). But Fisher and Reynolds look and act completely different; after the interview’s chilly start, Fisher turns out to be charming and likable. Her mother, however, has a more brittle facade.
“Do you want pizza?” Reynolds asks abruptly, about an hour into the interview. “I ordered some for you.” She walks to a desk behind a couch and picks up a box of cold pizza. She puts a slice on a paper plate and tosses a cloth napkin over so carelessly that it falls on the floor. Like Beatrice Henderson, she seems to mean well, but being motherly isn’t her forte. “I found about a million people living inside Debbie Reynolds,” says Brooks. “I love her and she can be warm—but she can also be cold. Sometimes Debbie will give more attention to someone coming up for an autograph than she will her own children.”
Her own children, however, seem devoted to her and she to them. Her son, Todd Fisher, 38, who runs The Debbie Reynolds Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas, is also with her in Sedona. He comes by once during the interview to ask if she wants something to eat. Fisher says he chose to work with his mother because he wants to support her love of performing. “She’s done a few things for me in my life,” says Todd. “So I think it’s only fair I do a few things for her.”
Reynolds’ children appear protective of her—for good reason. Reynolds is now locked in a messy legal battle with her third husband, real estate developer Richard Hamlett, to whom she was married for 12 years. They were officially divorced last year, though they’re still fighting in court over money. “I got stomped on before,” says Reynolds. “This time I’m fighting back.”
Before Hamlett came the late shoe magnate Harry Karl, who Reynolds says gambled away all her money and left her broke after their 13-year marriage ended in 1973. “It took me 10 years to pay everything back,” says Reynolds.
“It was a nightmare,” agrees Fisher, who was 15 at the time and had begun to develop the manic depression she still suffers from today. And before Karl, of course, was Eddie Fisher, who dumped Reynolds after four years of marriage for Taylor.
“The store is now closed,” Reynolds says when asked whether she has a sex life, as Beatrice does in Mother. “I have no judgment, no taste in men. Neither does Carrie. And I’m very sad for her.”
Even when the store was open, says Reynolds, it was not any of her husbands but a man she dated at the age of 40 who was her best lover. “He taught me about what’s called a ‘climax,'” she says. “I’d never experienced it before and I found it an exquisite piece of information.”
As for Fisher, she says she is still struggling to get over her messy breakup with CAA agent Bryan Lourd, the father of her 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Billie; in 1994, Lourd reportedly left her for a man. It was a “public humiliation,” she says, not unlike what her mother endured when Eddie Fisher left her for Taylor. She echoes Reynolds when she says that she too can be deceived. “The idea that I didn’t know what was in there for two years was very frightening,” she says. “Now I think that anybody I find attractive has something that will be revealed later on.”