Entertainment & Arts

Obituary: Debbie Reynolds, a wholesome Hollywood icon

Actress Debbie Reynolds arrives at the world premiere of the 40th anniversary restoration of the film "Cabaret" during the opening night gala of the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California April 12, 2012 Image copyright Reuters

At the age of 19 Debbie Reynolds sealed her status as a Hollywood legend with her spirited performance as aspiring actress Kathy Selden in the 1952 musical classic Singin' in the Rain.

Her daughter Carrie Fisher was also just 19 when she auditioned for the role that would define her career as the feisty Princess Leia in the Star Wars films.

Reynolds died at the age of 84 following a stroke that came on just one day after her daughter's death - the stress was "too much", according to her son Todd Fisher.

"She wanted to be with Carrie," he said simply.

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Born Mary Frances Reynolds on 1 April 1932, in El Paso, Texas, her father was a carpenter for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and the family moved to California in 1939.

She made her entry to the world of American entertainment after being spotted at a beauty pageant in 1948, aged just 16, and she won a contract with film giant Warner Bros and later MGM.

It was her wholesome appeal that made her a major star by the mid-1950s, and she appeared in a string of films through the decades. Reynolds even made a stab at a career in pop music with her album entitled "Debbie" in 1959.

Her performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a true-life rags-to-riches tale of a brash society doyenne who survived the sinking of the Titanic, earned her an Oscar nomination.

When accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Screen Actors Guild she told the audience: "My favourite movie was the Unsinkable Molly Brown and in that movie I got to sing a wonderful song called 'I Aint' Down Yet'

"Well I ain't," she asserted to huge applause.

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Her gift for dancing and performance ensured her dozens of roles in the musicals and light comedies Hollywood churned out in this era, but few came close to the fame Singin' in the Rain earned her, considered one of the industry's greatest musicals.

Throughout her life she was devoted to the heritage of Hollywood, the industry that made her, by assembling an astonishing collection of memorabilia that included Orson Welles' fur coat from Citizen Kane and a pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

While she remained largely wholesome on screen her private life was not spared scrutiny.

Reynolds was married three times. Her first husband was singer Eddie Fisher in 1955 with whom she had two children; Carrie Fisher and Todd Fisher.

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Image caption Debbie Reynolds and husband Eddie Fisher in 1957

Their divorce became one of Hollywood's most notorious scandals when Fisher had an affair with actress Elizabeth Taylor who was at the time a friend of Reynolds'. The story gripped the public with Reynolds sometimes cast in the role of "America's Sweetheart". Years later Taylor and Reynolds revealed they had reconciled.

But in 2010 Reynolds disclosed: "I forgave, but I don't forget."

Reynold's second husband was millionaire businessman Harry Karl. By the time that marriage ended in 1973, Karl's gambling and investments meant Reynolds too was facing financial difficulties. She filed for bankruptcy in 1997.

Reynolds was also married to real estate developer Richard Hamlett from 1984 to 1996.

"All of my husbands have robbed me blind," she said in 1999. "The only one who didn't take money was Eddie Fisher. He just didn't pay for the children.''

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Image caption Elizabeth Taylor and her husband Mike Todd at Derby Day with Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in 1957

In her later life, a different image of Debbie Reynolds came through in the writings of Carrie Fisher. Theirs was a tempestuous but close relationship and Fisher's 1987 novel Postcards from the Edge is thought to be a thinly disguised portrait of Fisher's struggle with drugs and her sometimes difficult relationship with her Hollywood royalty mother.

In a 2010 interview with the New York Times , alongside her mother, Fisher says: "If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it. She would go through these amazingly difficult things, and the message was clear: Doing the impossible is possible. It's just not fun."

Shortly after Carrie Fisher died, Reynolds posted a poignant message on her Facebook page: "Thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter. I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop."

She signed off simply: "Love Carrie's mother".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Debbie Reynolds with daughter Carrie Fisher in 2015

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