Thursday, March 2, 2017

TCR on Film: "Unsinkable: A Memoir" by Debbie Reynolds

In tribute to the late Debbie Reynolds, one of the last stars produced by the old Hollywood studio system, The Committee Room takes a look at her memoir Unsinkable (William Morrow, 2013).

In the preface to Unsinkable, Reynolds mentions her first book, Debbie: My Life (William Morrow, 1988), written when the actress was in her fifties and, it would seem, still had a lot of living left to do.  "I can't believe how naive I was when I wrote it," Reynolds in Unsinkable says of the earlier book. She explains that at the time she was writing the first book she was in what she believed was a happy marriage to her third husband, a Virginia real estate developer named Richard Hamlett.

In Unsinkable, Reynolds offers a detailed portrait of Hamlett as a handsome, smooth-talking scoundrel who, she maintains, cold-heartedly entered into marriage with the intention of swindling her. The first third of the book is Reynolds' painstaking and angrily told account of how Hamlett's unscrupulous behavior led to the bankruptcy of her Las Vegas hotel, a venture which she hoped would provide a regular venue for her talents along with a steady income. Consequently, in Unsinkable there is much talk, perhaps too much talk, of lawyers and property deeds and promissory notes.

Bankruptcy auction, Debbie Reynolds hotel, Las Vegas, 1998
 (photo/Jeff Scheid/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
After her movie career dried up in the late 1960s, Reynolds focused on her nightclub act. Reading Unsinkable, one gets the feeling that variety entertainment -- song and dance, jokes, imitations -- before live audiences was the ebullient Debbie's first love and true calling, not the isolated world of movie acting. Hollywood stardom was just an avenue to being famous enough to sell out a Vegas showroom or some regional auditorium. Anywhere she was wanted. Despite serious health issues in her later years, Reynolds continued to perform concert dates up to just a few months before her death.

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, 2011.
(Photo: Jason LaVeris/Film Magic)
Reynolds' famous offspring, the writer/actress Carrie Fisher, contributes the foreword to Unsinkable. She calls her mother "a good person, a kind person -- which would be a fine thing if these were the qualities that are consistently rewarded. But as most of us know, they are not." Media coverage of the recent deaths of Fisher and Reynolds, which occurred one day after the other, made much out of their mother-daughter bond. However, Carrie is only briefly mentioned in Unsinkable. It is Reynolds' not famous child, Todd Fisher, a sometime director and lighting designer, who stalwartly stands at his mother's side through the tribulations detailed in the book. Todd plays a major role in her business affairs -- rather reluctantly on his part, it seems. The dutiful son escapes to his ranch in Northern California whenever possible.