Actually, she never stopped, from the time she was 17 on Singin’ in the Rain to now, at 81, when she’s Liberace’s mum in Behind the Candelabra. And the makeup is so good Steven Soderbergh had to add a screen credit so people would know it was her! She talks to IAN HORNER from her home in LA.
Debbie Reynolds is classic Hollywood gold – a trouper who’s more than paid her dues, stronger than you’d expect with some very strong opinions, won’t be bullied by big-name directors (and 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. And when not on screen she tours her 90-minute stage act. She’s a real hoofer. Her latest screen job is playing Liberace’s mum in Steven Soderbergh's award-winning Behind the Candelabra.
"I was very surprised when Steven asked me to do it because he didn’t know that I even knew Liberace, or Lee as we called him. And I knew his mother, Frances. I was very good friends with Lee in Vegas because in those days he was working the Hilton and I was working the Desert Inn and we would go out afterwards and have a good time then we would go to his house and we would party and he would make breakfast. In those days we were young. He was going with that boy Scott when I knew him. I personally don’t like that the project had to go so much into his sex life. He was such a brilliant performer and the film should have not dwelled on how many relationships he had.
"You know I really didn’t care for him as a human being. I thought he was brilliant as a piano player and as an entertainer and he should be remembered for that, you know. But I was happy to be invited and Steven was kind enough to give me the role.
"I got some film with Frances' voice. There weren’t many interviews so there wasn’t a lot of film to get her sound down. She was Russian, Polish, Jewish – it was a real European mix! Ven she vas talkink you couldn’t undershtand her at all. So I wanted to do her exactly. And I love to do impressions and I do them in my act, so I think I did her voice very well."
Watch the trailer for Behind the Candelabra (duration 1.56):
If Liberace were alive and working today it’d be no problem for him to come out as gay but it must have been very hard on him and his family when he had to be so closeted.
"Well it was hard on anyone who was gay at that time because your bosses and the people who paid you and hired you were prejudiced people and they did not want to be hiring homosexual or gay people. Thank goodness we’re kinder and a little bit better about it today. Just like many prejudices that still go on. Unfortunately many prejudices are taught and people keep carrying it on and teaching their children prejudice. But Lee was an entertainer first and his personal life he kept very close to himself. His friends knew. I knew and other people knew and a lot of other entertainers at the same time knew. Jimmy Nabors was a dear friend of mine and had to stay very quiet with his personal life. He's since come out and married so I suppose if Lee had lived he would be married. And accepted.
In your first book you said Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and childbirth were the hardest things you’ve ever faced. 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 50 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 can't compare the two films, that would be impossible because they’re entirely different projects, entirely different generations. But I do think Singin’ in the Rain is a great film and I do think Behind the Candelabra is a fun evening. If you’re not offended by it."
On Singin' in the Rain you weren’t a professional dancer at the time but your performance still to this day is a standard classic dance performance. How on earth did you pull that off?
"You know I don’t know and I’m amazed that a girl that young could keep up with Gene [Kelly] 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.
Watch Debbie, Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor perform Good Mornin' in Singin' in the Rain (duration 3.59):
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 bother 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 a byword for you.
"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 you pull that off?
"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 of about 17 minutes – I don’t know exactly – and there was no cut so it was extremely hard. It was hard as anything in Singin' in the Rain. And yes I’m in high heels – but I’m in high heels throughout Singin' in the Rain and Molly Brown.
"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, I would say. Yes, I would say, 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 wonderful people, 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.
"The fact that he was older and a most successful director doesn’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 at the end of it every time I fainted he got a big scream out of it and he’d laugh, laugh, 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, we 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 throughout your career. 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 very tough on me and I was just 17. So young. My favourite as far as friendly and happy goes was Agnes Moorehead, Fred Astaire, Glenn Ford, Jimmy Stewart."
I believe Fred Astaire helped you on Singin' in the Rain?
"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. He 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 and 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, this is 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. 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 but the whole point is you're still working!
"I’m 81 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. Behind the Candelabra was a very small part but I had to work very hard on it." ❏
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
Lily Tomlin for Web Therapy – Lily Tomlin caught in Phoebe's web!
Todd McKenney for Grease – Todd’s got chills, they’re multiplyin’
Matthew Rhys for The Scapegoat – Seeing double -- and the Walkers' wine was real!
Casey Donovan for Mama Cass tribute – Casey Donovan has found her own idol
Amanda Muggleton for The Book Club – A book club for those who'd rather laugh than read!
Rachel Griffiths for Magazine Wars – We owe a big debt to Ita and Dulcie
Simon Burke for Mrs Warren’s Profession – A timeless take on the oldest profession
Ellen's mum Betty DeGeneres on marriage equality – Not supporting gay marriage is bullying
Amanda Muggleton for Torch Song Trilogy – Return to the spotlight
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns – He couldn't believe the moment would last