Oscar Actors: Background–Reynolds, Debbie

Social Background Summary:

Born in El Paso, Texas;

Father: Carpenter

Class: Working Class

Education: High School

Winner of Miss Burbank Beauty Contest, age 16

Talent scouts and contract with Warner at 18, then MGM, at 20.

Mary Frances Reynolds was born on April 1, 1932, in El Paso, Texas, to Maxene “Minnie” Harman and Raymond Francis “Ray” Reynolds, a carpenter who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

She was of Scots-Irish and English ancestry and was raised in a strict Nazarene church. She had a brother two years her senior. Reynolds was a Girl Scout, and a member of The International Order of Job’s Daughters, now called Job’s Daughters International.

Poor Childhood

Her mother took in laundry for income, while they lived in a shack on Magnolia Street in El Paso. “We may have been poor, but we always had something to eat, even if Dad had to go out on the desert and shoot jackrabbits.” She held that “one of the advantages of having been poor is that you learn to appreciate good fortune and the value of a dollar, and poverty holds no fear for you because you know you’ve gone through it and you can do it again… But we were always a happy family and a religious one. And I’m trying to inculcate in my children the same sense of values, the same tone that my mother gave to me.”

Miss Burbank California Beauty Contest

Her family moved to Burbank, California in 1939, when she was 7.

In 1948, When Reynolds was 16 at Burbank High School, she won the Miss Burbank beauty contest. Soon after, she had a contract with Warner and acquired the nickname “Debbie” by Jack L. Warner.

They never found her attractive in school. She was cute, but sort of tomboyish, and her family never had any money to speak of. She never dressed well or drove a car. Reynolds recalled: “when I started, I didn’t even know how to dress. I wore dungarees and a shirt. I had no money, no taste and no training.”

Talent Scouts: Warner and MGM

Reynolds was first discovered by talent scouts from Warner and MGM who were at the 1948 Miss Burbank contest. Both companies wanted her to sign up with their studio and had to flip a coin to see which one got her. Warner won the coin toss, and she was with the studio for 2 years. When Warner Brothers stopped producing musicals, she moved to MGM.

Song:

At MGM, Reynolds appeared in movie musicals during the 1950s. Her song “Aba Daba Honeymoon” (from the film Two Weeks with Love (1950) and sung as a duet with co-star Carleton Carpenter) was the first soundtrack recording to become a top-of-the-chart gold record, reaching number 3 on Billboard charts.

Singin’ in the Rain: Breakthrough Role; Gene Kelly as Mentor

Her performance in the film greatly impressed the studio, which then gave her a co-starring role in what would become her highest-profile film, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a satire on movie making in Hollywood during the transition from silent to sound pictures.  It co-starred Gene Kelly, whom she called a “great dancer and cinematic genius. He made me a star. I was 18 and he taught me how to dance and how to work hard and be dedicated.”

In 1956, she appeared in Bundle of Joy with her then-husband, Eddie Fisher.

Her starring role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) led to a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar. Reynolds noted that she initially had issues with its director, Charles Walters. “He didn’t want me,” she said. “He wanted Shirley MacLaine,” who at the time was unable to take the role. “He said ‘You are totally wrong for the part.” But six weeks into production, he reversed his opinion. “He came to me and said, “I have to admit that I was wrong. You are playing the role really well. I’m pleased.”

Reynolds also played in Goodbye Charlie, a 1964 comedy film about a callous womanizer who gets his just reward. It was adapted from George Axelrod’s play Goodbye, Charlie and also starred Tony Curtis and Pat Boone.

She next portrayed Jeanine Deckers in The Singing Nun (1966). In what Reynolds once called the “stupidest mistake of my entire career,” she made headlines in 1970 after instigating a fight with the NBC television network over cigarette advertising on her weekly television show. Although she was television’s highest paid female performer at the time, she quit the show for breaking its contract.

Reynolds played the title role in the Hanna-Barbera animated musical Charlotte’s Web, in which she originated the song “Mother Earth and Father Time”. Reynolds continued to make other appearances in film and television. She played Helen Chappel Hackett’s mother, Deedee Chappel, on an episode of Wings titled, “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother,” which aired on November 22, 1994.

From 1999 to 2006, she played Grace Adler’s theatrical mother, Bobbi Adler, on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace, which earned Reynolds her only Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series in 2000

She played a recurring role in the Disney Channel Original Movie Halloweentown film series as Aggie Cromwell.

Reynolds made a guest appearance as a presenter at the 69th Oscar Awards in 1997.

In 2000, Reynolds took up a recurring voice role on the children’s TV program Rugrats, playing the grandmother of two of the characters.

In 2001, she co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine in These Old Broads, a TV movie written for her by her daughter, Carrie Fisher.

She had a cameo role as herself in the 2004 film Connie and Carla.

In 2013, she appeared in Behind the Candelabra, as Liberace’s mother.

The actress appears with her daughter in Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a 2016 documentary about the very close relationship between the two.  It premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. The television premiere was January 7, 2017, on HBO. The docu ends just as Reynolds is preparing to receive the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, which Fisher presented to her mom.

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