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MAY AND MOTHER’S DAY inspire a tribute to the ever-springy Debbie Reynolds. The Texas-born performer not only produced a famous daughter, actress-author Carrie Fisher, but also played the title role in Albert Brooks’s 1996 comedy, Mother, her first movie since 1972. For most of her 35-film career, the petite Reynolds has inevitably been described as “cute,” which she came to consider a four-letter word (“Cute, cute, cute—the ruination of careers,” she lamented in her autobiography). Despite being relegated largely to light, humorous roles, she earned nominations for both an Oscar (The Unsinkable Molly Brown, 1964) and a Tony (Irene, 1974). Today she focuses primarily on her high-energy nightclub act.
She was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932, in El Paso. Her family was poor; at one point they lived in a dirt-floored cellar. They moved to California when she was seven.
Poverty inspired her to enter the 1948 Miss Burbank contest, because each competitor received a free scarf and a blouse. She won. Two talent scouts serving as judges flipped a coin to see who got to sign her up. Jack Warner of Warner Bros. rechristened her because “Debbie is a cute name for a little girl.”
When she was nineteen, Louis B. Mayer tapped her to star in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). The role entailed a grueling blitz of dance lessons and constant ridicule by director-star Gene Kelly.
She trained with a voice coach to lower her squeaky soprano and banish her Texas accent.
In 1954 Modern Screen magazine named her one of the country’s ten most popular female movie stars. When she met and married singing idol Eddie Fisher, their romance riveted the nation. Even more fascinating was their split; in 1958 he dumped her for Elizabeth Taylor.
Reynolds’ recording of “Tammy,” from Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), was number one on the charts for eleven weeks.
Her second marriage, to a shoe store millionaire in 1960, also brought heartache: He gambled away their entire fortune. Last March she won an $8.5 million judgment against her third ex for mismanagement of pension assets.
In 1974 Reynolds was robbed in her Beverly Hills home but convinced the gunmen that her pearl and diamond jewelry was actually fake.
In 1993 she opened the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Hollywood Movie Museum in Las Vegas, where she sings, dances, and clowns five nights a week.