IAN HORNER spoke to Debbie Reynolds before the opening of the Sydney stage version of Singin' in the Rain earlier this year. It would prove to be among her final interviews. Debbie, 84, died this morning following a stroke. Her daugher, actor-writer Carrie Fisher died the day before, at 60, of heart failure. In this interview Debbie talks about a brilliant career which owed everything, of her own admission, to that greatest movie musical of all time. She was speaking from her home in LA, where she lived next door to Carrie Fisher.
Singin’ in the Rain is without doubt the greatest movie musical of all time. It was a natural to become a stage musical, not only for its theatrical story and magnificent production numbers but also because of its staging – the biggest numbers take place before a theatre audience so the live theatre audience easily becomes part of the show, like A Chorus Line and Chicago.
It’s the story of the coming of sound to early Hollywood which horrified many stars who looked so gorgeous on screen but were better suited to playing Mickey and Donald when it came to their voice talents, and we’re not talking Rooney and O’Connor.
Debbie Reynolds was 17 and in her sixth film. She’s now 84 and has made 48 films and done 33 TV shows, in big part, and she admits this, on the strength of that landmark role as Kathy Selden. Her health has forced her to slow down a bit and roles may be getting smaller, she says, but she’s classic Hollywood gold.
Donald, Debbie and Gene get carried away until mornin’ . . .
Reynolds is a trouper who’s more than paid her dues. Tougher than you’d expect with some very strong opinions, she won’t be bullied by big-name directors (she’s capable of outrageous stunts to prove it) and though, she admits, the roles get smaller as she gets older she relishes each and every part. She recently played Liberace’s mum for Steven Soderbergh in Behind the Candelabra and appeared on the Snow White fantasy The 7D for TV. It was only in the last few years that health issues have forced her to pull back on touring her 90-minute stage act.
In your first book you said Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and childbirth were the hardest things you’ve ever faced. But the pay-off was pretty good from both! (Her daughter is the actor-writer Carrie Fisher). [She laughs].Singin’ in the Rain is a classic and everybody loves it. It seizes the day. And it was 64 years ago. That’s Gene Kelly. It wasn’t Debbie Reynolds. I was just lucky to be in it. I was only 17. Just a kid. And I didn’t know how to dance so Mr Kelly taught me everything. I do think Singin’ in the Rain is a great film.
Fred Astaire wasn’t in the film but I believe he helped you on it? Yes, I was rehearsing. Well, I was crying because it was all so hard, very difficult, and he walked by. I was under the piano hiding during a break from learning all the dance steps and some legs walked by and he reached under and said: “Now who's that?” I said: “It’s Debbie. I, I, I just can’t do it.”
And he took my hand and pulled me out and said: “Now you come and watch me rehearse and you'll learn something.”
He never allowed anyone to watch him rehearse. There was a security guard at the gate and no one was ever allowed to watch Fred Astaire rehearse. He had a drummer and he had his cane and that was it. He took me in and he let me sit on the floor and watch him for about two hours until he was red in the face from rehearsing a big number.
Then he turned to me and said: “Now you see nothing is easy, nothing that’s worthwhile, and the only way to be great is to work till you just sink from the exhaustion because that’s the only way you can be good at dancing. This is not singing, it’s dance.”
So I crept back in and I didn’t go under the piano, I went back to work. And we became friends and later we did The Pleasure of His Company  together. He played my dad and he was really sweet and we had a wonderful time. We became friends and I was over at his house and he was just a dear, dear person.
On Singin' in the Rain you weren’t a professional dancer at the time but your performance to this day is a standard classic dance performance. How on earth did you pull it off? You know, I don’t know and I’m amazed that a girl that young could keep up with Gene and Donald [O'Connor] and it shows I had a lot of stamina. In Yiddish it’s called chutzpah. I just never believed in failure. I was too young to know better but I was very blessed and very fortunate to be in it.
What did you think when Stanley Kubrick put the title track into A Clockwork Orange (1971) with Gene Kelly singing sweetly as Malcolm McDowell kicked the life out of some street vagrants? Well, look, anything that makes a project a success – what does it matter how you do it? It takes the creative people to do it, so it never bothered me. It might have bothered Gene or the people who created the original! I wasn’t one of those, I was a participant.
Life has thrown a lot at you and you’ve had higher highs than most. Also some very hard times, lower than many. It's no coincidence the word “unsinkable” (from her hit 1964 film The Unsinkable Molly Brown) has become your byword. Well, thank you. Yes it has. I’ve had some rough seas, shall we say and I’ve made it so far and I ain’t down yet. There’s a song in Molly Brown called I Ain’t Down Yet. So I’m not yet. That doesn’t mean I won’t be.
But I’ve had a great life. You have to look at that. I’ve been very lucky to have come in a generation when it was the Golden Era of just wonderful times and wonderful movies. I feel really blessed.
Another Molly Brown song, She’s My Friend, is a wonderful production number and you dance the whole thing in high heels! How on earth did yo manage that? Well, it was a very tough number! We shot it in one take. You’ll notice we never cut. We did it as a single take – about 17 minutes, I don’t know exactly – and there was no cut so it was extremely hard. As hard as anything in Singin' in the Rain. And, yes, I’m in high heels – but I was in high heels throughout Singin' in the Rain and Molly Brown too!
That’s the hardest number I’ve ever done. At the end of it we all fainted, the three of us. We did the roll-over and into the dah-dah with our arms up . . . and passed out. All three – those two younger boys [including Harve Presnell] and me. It was just bam and they put ice water all over us because we were so red in the face from the heat and the length of the dance. It was a very tough number, that’s for sure!
When you were negotiating with Henry Hathaway to do How the West Was Won (1962) he was pretty obnoxious in his treatment of you, even before you got onto the set. How did he line up so many big names, including yourself? He was a great director and I just believed he wouldn’t be as tough as everybody said, but he proved me wrong. He was just as tough but I treated him tough back because I wasn’t afraid of him, I really wasn’t.
He didn’t frighten me and I had warned him that I would faint if he did. And I just kept fainting on him. He had to stop yelling at me because he wasn’t going to get his shot. I'd just pass out. I'd fake it, you know. He would yell at me and call me names and I’d just sink to the ground and he wouldn’t get any more work done. He didn’t win.
So the whole production had to close down while you got your way. Exactly. Exactly. Well, when he finally stopped yelling at me I would sit up and be kind of groggy and I’d say “When you stop yelling at me Henry I’ll be available. Or I’ll pass out again.”
On screen you’re known as wholesome, amenable and approachable. But you’ve just described someone who's extremely tenacious, extremely strong, not exactly what you are on screen. Well, I am very strong. I believe everybody has to be, especially if you’re successful and you wanna be good and carry yourself strongly through your role and not take abuse. There's no excuse for people to yell and if you do, the work won’t be any better.
You’re all hoping to accomplish perfection which you can’t achieve anyway, that’s elusive to everyone, but you can try. It’s not right of a director to yell when you haven't done anything wrong, when you've simply walked onto the set for the first time and he starts yelling. That’s just being a brat.
Watch a preview of the stage version . . .
The fact that he was older and such a successful director didn’t give him the right to bully a young actress who’s just walked on the set to do her job.
But actually we became very dear friends and he kept writing the part bigger. Originally I was just to do the first part of the picture where I was the young girl, Lilith, and then he liked me so much that by the end of it every time I fainted he got a big scream out of it and he’d laugh and laugh and laugh.
I’m so happy I never got to work with Hitchcock. He did frighten me. I would have had to shoot him, you know, it would have been disaster. I would have had to faint all through The Birds.
I was very fortunate by the time we did the first half of How the West Was Won, which took over a year and a half to make, Henry and I became really good friends. He learned to put up with me and I never took him seriously. And he stopped yelling at me and I stopped passing out.
You’ve worked with some extraordinary people. Who are your favourites? I got along with everybody. I always catered to the male lead. I gave him first billing, I just catered to the male ego and I never had any trouble if I gave them their way in everything they wanted to do, except sexuality.
My favourite wouldn’t be Gene because he was my teacher and he had to be very tough on me and I was just 17. So young.
Watch Gene Kelly singin’ ’n’ dancin’ in the rain – was there ever a better dancer?
My favourite as far as friendly and happy goes was Agnes Moorehead, Fred Astaire, Glenn Ford, Jimmy Stewart – Jimmy Stewart was a dear, dear person. Jack Benny, he was a darling. George Burns was like that too, just precious.
You’ve had a marvellous career and you're still working! I’m 84 and it’s getting harder. The first time I noticed anything changing I wasn’t really prepared for it. I always thought I would be healthy and I was wrong. So now I’m having some health situations and it certainly is a drag and puts you in a very hard position as you get older.
It’s not funny and it’s not laughs and it’s not a wonderful joyful getting-old rapture of life. It’s hard work all the way. And it’s harder than when you were young. We thought that was hard because it was hard but this is harder because your body isn’t as strong.
I swim every day, I have a little pool. I don’t like it but I have to do it. My goal is to do more walking. But I’m not good at it because I don’t wanna do it. I’m like a little petulant child. I don’t want to do it so I argue with myself and I stay in bed instead. But you can't do that so I drag myself out.
You always put the men first and you took a secondary role. Life has changed these days. Women are equal. I didn’t say I wasn’t equal. I was equal but it was my choice to make everything go smoothly so there could be no trouble. I don’t mind playing second fiddle when I know that’s what I’m going to be doing to give a top performance.
Not a lot of Hollywood women would play second fiddle to a man these days. Hmm. I don’t think they write it like that, either. The business is entirely different. Every generation is a different world. I’m in this world now. And I’m having a wonderful time in my career.
I pick and choose small parts because that’s all that's offered. You don’t get the great parts and you can't be unhappy about it. I get small parts and I’m very happy to do them. But I’m not nervous about my career.
I can't dance up the walls any more, I can't do the splits, but any part that comes along is great. You have to be happy where you are. ❏
■ Read Ian's other star interviews and reviews here.