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May 16, 2013

Memoir reflects on 'roller-coaster life and career'

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — One of the first movies I remember from my younger days was “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” I can’t explain why that film resonates in my memory, but the star of the movie was Debbie Reynolds. Besides having a leading role in a few memorable films from the 1950s and ‘60s, Reynolds is probably best remembered for being unceremoniously dumped by her husband Eddie Fisher for Elizabeth Taylor, and being the mother of “Star Wars” princess Carrie Fisher. But her life was much more than that.

Reynolds just published her latest memoir, “Unsinkable,” and it’s an apt title. It’s a no-holds barred look at her roller-coaster life and career. Reynolds is a living proof that fame and fortune do not automatically buy happiness. The good news is that she refused to stay down.

It’s hard to believe that anyone could pick three worse husbands than she did. Part of the motivation for writing this memoir came from the fact that Reynolds erroneously predicted in her previous biography, “Debbie, My Life” (published in 1988), that she was entering bliss with her third marriage.

Apparently, the third time wasn’t the charm. The way Reynolds described him, the third husband was worse than the first two combined and that’s saying a lot. Eddie Fisher literally walked away from Reynolds and their two infant children to chase a sex goddess. At least he got his just desserts when Elizabeth Taylor tossed him aside for Richard Burton.

Reynolds did not learn her lesson. The second husband was a gambler and spent all her money. The third pulled the trifecta of adultery, drunkenness and draining Reynolds of her life savings. The irony is that she was warned by friends not to marry any of them. At least there wasn’t a fourth.

The failure of her marriages, especially the third one, provides the backdrop for her memoir. The first half of the book discusses her life since her 1988 autobiography. The second half describes each movie she appeared in and what she thought of the actors who performed with her. Her insights into other actors are quite illuminating.

For instance, it took Leslie Nielsen 40 years to find his true calling as a comic actor in the “Airplane” and “Police Squad” movies. Tony Randall was not the straight-laced character that appeared on “The Odd Couple” or as a guest on the “Hollywood Squares” or “Tonight Show.” And Don Rickles at one time actually tried to play serious roles on screen.

And that’s just the start. Reynolds lets us know who were the truly good-hearted souls and who only cared about themselves. We find out how the studio system worked, for better or worse, in the old days. We discover how Reynolds dealt with Carrie’s bi-polar disorder and how her son Todd has acted as a rock in her life. And how many of us were aware that there was a Debbie Reynolds Hotel in Las Vegas for several years?

A recurring theme throughout the book is the huge Hollywood memorabilia collection that Reynolds has maintained and the museum that she hoped to build to house those artifacts. It’s a concept that had wide-ranging support, but kept finding roadblocks. Red-tape or indifference kept getting in the way.  

The bottom line is that “Unsinkable” is a very entertaining memoir. Reynolds lets you know a lot about the workings of Hollywood and the stars that make it what it is. She’s also a down-to-earth personality who comes across as someone who would be a pleasure to meet. Maybe it’s not surprising that she stands out in my mind for a film she made 50 years ago.

David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org.