Being “unsinkable” is practically impossible when others keep trying to hold you down. Debbie Reynolds spent a great deal of her life dealing with men who tried to take advantage of her.
An adviser to the President of Mexico once tried to force her onto a bed, a ruby-and-diamond bracelet in his free hand as a bribe, she wrote in her 2015 autobiography “Make ‘Em Laugh.” A member of the British royal family, groped her on a dance floor, Reynolds wrote.
The comedian Buddy Hackett put a hand up her skirt and another hand down her blouse, she said. And a country pop star amorously pinned her to a pool table, she said.
Awkward or upsetting as such experiences were, they were almost minor in the life of an actress whose husbands abandoned and bankrupted her. Reynolds was publicly humiliated in 1959 by singer Eddie Fisher (father of her daughter Carrie, who died this week) and financially devastated during her marriages to businessmen Harry Karl (1960-73) and Richard Hamlett (1984-96). She wrote in her 2013 memoir “Unsinkable” that she even feared the latter might try to murder her for her money.
She kept fighting back for her life.
The lesson from her life, said her daughter (paraphrasing her mother), was “If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that’s unacceptable.”
Nothing sank her for long. Nothing got her down permanently, not even the sharks that swirled near Celeste Holm and her when the two Hollywood actresses went swimming one day. Nothing totally overwhelmed her, not daughter Carrie’s youthful drug abuse or the time son Todd accidentally shot himself in the leg with a blank cartridge from Reynolds’ unregistered gun.
Absurdly asked if it was a publicity stunt, Reynolds told reporters yes, it was, “which I hope works because I only have one more child to shoot.”
A wicked sense of humor served her well, on or off camera. It helped her to overcome just about anything bad that interrupted a charmed and generally glamorous life.
Except at the very end.
No built-in defense mechanism could save this mother after her daughter’s sudden death. No pluck she showed while singin’ in the rain could get Reynolds through this. No willpower to keep on living would work the way it had for her unsinkable Molly Brown on that night the Titanic and its passengers went down around Debbie on film. No sweet, sad ballad like the one her make-believe “Tammy” sang could see her through this very real darkness.
When she died on Wednesday, a day after Carrie, we can’t say it was Reynolds voluntarily giving up. But there was understandable, if melodramatic, speculation that the 84-year-old died from a broken heart. Not even the most resilient woman in Hollywood could have easily bounced back from this.
Reynolds was tiny but tough. She prided herself on it.
When she was booked as a guest on a talk show, she would end up in wrestling matches on stage, tackling Jack Paar from beneath his desk, grappling on a floor with Regis Philbin before a roaring audience, not merely for everyone’s amusement but to demonstrate she could give as well as take.
Roseanne Barr physically tussled with Reynolds’ character during an episode of Barr’s television series. She just rolled with it and kept going, even when Barr accidentally broke one of her ribs.
Humor got her through it. Reynolds was funny. Audiences think of Carol Burnett being funny, Tina Fey being funny, but they often neglect to include one of entertainment’s greatest stars whenever listing some of the funniest women of all time. Comedy was second nature to Reynolds, who starred in farces, sang silly songs, did standup, did impressions, wore ridiculous wigs, made ’em laugh, made ’em laugh, made ’em laugh.
“If I learned nothing else from my mom,” Fisher wrote in a foreword to one of her mother’s books, “I learned this: ‘Life is hilarious — especially when it’s not.’ “
What better epitaph could there be? How else could a life end for a woman of humor, with a philosophy like that?
The circumstances of the last few days were no laughing matter. The back-to-back sudden deaths of Fisher and Reynolds were heart-wrenching, horrifying and almost macabre. Yet two funnier women never lived. Women who could tell a joke and take a joke. Women who understood pain and loss and kept coming back for more, usually with a great comeback line.
While hosting an Academy Awards segment in 1997, Reynolds paused while reading a TelePrompter and asked: “Who wrote this drivel?” Out stepped Fisher from the wings. Just cut it, said Carrie, a writer for that night’s show. “This show could be shorter anyway,” Fisher added.
“You couldn’t,” Reynolds replied.
They loved each other. They kidded each other. They were there for each other. They still are.