The Sunday Conversation: Debbie Reynolds

At 79, Debbie Reynolds is unsinkable. She returns to the big screen as dotty Grandma Mazur in the Katherine Heigl comedy “One for the Money,” opening Friday, and maintains a busy performing schedule. At her cozy Beverly Hills home, she talked about her famous family and historic Hollywood memorabilia collection, which she partly liquidated in two auctions last year.

Who’s this?

This is Dwight. This is Carrie’s dog. I’m the grandma. I’m a grandma in every way. I’m Grandma Mazur, I’m Grandma Reynolds. I won’t say Fisher. I’ll just say Carrie’s mother. Carrie’s dog is a Coton de Tulear, which is a fancy name for a dog, just an adorable little dog. Carrie left for the Bahamas today with her daughter, Billie Catherine. So Grandma is left baby-sitting with this little dog that I love.

I read that Billie inherited your talent for impressions.

Yes. I always call it “an ear.” Some people are gifted at the piano, violin, trombone. Nanette Fabray, my girlfriend, plays a saw. So it could be a gift for sawing. You have to have a certain sound you can hear that nobody else seems to hear. Carrie doesn’t do impressions. She has a great voice. She has Eddie Fisher’s voice. See, I said his name. Carrie doesn’t use her gift, her voice, yet. You don’t know what her future will be.


Although I did see her one-woman show.

You heard her sing a little “Happy Days Are Here Again.” But you didn’t really see her do a concert. I hope I live to see her do that, but because I want her to, she hasn’t done it. We have a definite daughter-mother relationship, not a roller-skating relationship. Some people just join hands and glide around the ring. We don’t do that.

You both have strong personalities. How could it not be that way?

Great love, great love, but there’s usually quite a difference of opinion. Which is fun and exciting and I’m looking forward to the day my daughter sings completely, where I really get to see her do a full act. That’s what I’m looking forward to. If I live that long.

How can you tell she inherited her voice talent from her father and not from you?

I don’t have a great voice. I have a good voice, a very good trained voice, 25, 30 years of training a voice so you know what songs you can sing and sing them well. I’ve been performing now for 63 years, so I know what I’m best at doing, whereas Carrie hasn’t done that yet. She does a harder job at doing a stand-up, one-woman comedy show. That’s harder to do than anything. Her talent is writing. She’s intellectual but not snotty. She’s really quite diversified and loves to travel. She wants to see the world, the round world, not just Pasadena. I used to take the bus to Glendale for 25 cents and thought that was an extraordinary trip, but we were a poor family. She was born differently and always had the good fortune to be able to travel.

But you still travel for work. How much do you travel?

Until this year, 42 weeks a year. I was in England 17 weeks [last year], and we did a bus-and-truck tour, where you take the bus, you do a show, you take the bus to the next place, you do a show, all over England.

You already have four engagements in March.

March we have four. April is my 80th birthday, and in April I have two engagements, and then I’m going to take two weeks off. There’s a place I like very much to go back to. It’s off Florida; it’s Paradise Island.

That’s the Bahamas.

Well, that’s where Carrie went. She should have asked me if I’d like to go. My favorite place. I probably will go there, and I’ll invite her to go, and she’ll say, “No, I’ve been there, Mother, and I’m going to China.” I predict that answer.

I imagine you know each other pretty well by now.

I don’t think at all. As adults? I don’t think you can predict a manic-depressive, bipolar person. I find it an everyday experience, you never really know what’s going to happen. So it’s kind of interesting. It’s like learning to do impressions; you play it by ear. Life should be like that anyway.

Doesn’t medication make it more predictable?

Controllable, not predictable. Controllable, livable, possible, which is very important. But not predictable. Some personalities are like that. The reason I did Grandma Mazur in the picture is because I thought she was very funny like that — unpredictable. I felt she was someone I could easily understand and easily play. It was fun to do. I just knew who she was.

She’s not the lead, she’s a small part, but she’s the head of the mafia, in my opinion, so I treated her like that. I don’t want a big part. I don’t have the love nor the desire, you have to have a passion for your work. That’s not my passion, to play a long, tedious memorization. My whole life was spent all day in the dark on a set. I did that for 27 years.

You’ve practically cornered the market on great dotty grandmothers.

Not really. Shirley MacLaine, I would say, has that market. After Shirley, me, and Betty White was always in television but now she’s gone into film, so now you’d put Betty White first, but as an actress Shirley MacLaine is of course a very fine character actress. Shirley is one hell of an actress.

I get the sense that you’re having more fun now.

I haven’t had a lot of time until I decided to auction off my memorabilia, which you see, my red slippers. I still have a lot of my things but I decided to become rich, and I had all of this that I’d invested my money in, millions over the years. Over 40 years. My collection was 50 years old. I sold my collection, but not everything. So I decided to pull some money out so that Carrie and [her brother] Todd and I could do whatever we wanted to do.

[Reynolds’ campaign to found a Hollywood memorabilia museum is] interrupted now, and now the fun of it is hurt. Now I’m hurt. So I won’t do it. I’ll just sell. I can’t accomplish the museum. The dream could not be fulfilled. Therefore you must move along, catch another train and go down another track.

What were the prize pieces of the collection for you?

It was the whole collection that was the prize, the fact that it was all in one and that from every picture I had every costume and I had all Academy Award-winning films. So of course the subway dress [Marilyn Monroe wore over a grate in “The Seven Year Itch”], I had 18 Marilyn Monroe costumes. I bought Grace Kelly, ladies I knew like Garbo lasts forever, Katharine Hepburn. I had all three sequences in films of “Little Women.” I had all three “Mutiny on the Bountys,” from Clark Gable and Charles Laughton on to the latest one with Mel Gibson. So I had history.

When is your next auction?

I don’t want to do any more. I was going to do two more, but I’m not going to do it. They’re exhausting, they’re depleting and they’re depressing for me and too hard. It goes too deep.

Any more husbands in the offing?

I never like the word “never.” No, it is not in the plans. Husbands, no. Marriage, no. Would I want a companion? Possibly. Friendship? Of course. But not permanent, because I really like my space. It’s especially peaceful since the auction. They were like my children, so I had these thousands of stars to take care of. My life is much more peaceful, calm, less worrisome.