"'WHAT ARE you doin' up so late, darlin'?
Waiting for you to come home. Where have you been for the past day and a half? ... At a brothel? ...You smell like sex.'"
'You bet I have!'"
That juicy, bitter exchange (and I only used the "family friendly" portion of the quotes) is not from the latest Jackie Collins novel of misery in high places. Nope, it's a sequence from -- brace yourself -- Debbie Reynolds' new memoir "Unsinkable." And after you read this, you'll understand why "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" is her favorite role. (Her only Oscar nod, unfortunately) and why this woman is a real survivor.
"Unsinkable" begins where Debbie's 1988 autobiography left off, still happily married to her third husband, planning to open a casino and theater in Las Vegas and endlessly trying to find a museum for her priceless collection of movie sets, props and costumes. She never did, and this failure broke her heart. (Although the eventual auction of her movie memorabilia, while wrenching, did recoup some of her lost money.)
(I should say here that the first Debbie memoir was co-written by our own David Patrick Columbia and I have always admired its style and candor. This coda was co-written by Dorian Hannaway and given the times, is much more au courant and upfront.)
But what the iconic MGM movie star relates is a nightmarish awakening, recalling that she had, for the third time, fallen into an unsuitable wedlock. This marriage was scarier, more abusive and more soul destroying than her previous one to Harry Karl; he left her dead broke after his death, millions of dollars in debt, but "was as good a husband as he could be." And, of course, the first one -- Eddie Fisher -- left her for Elizabeth Taylor. (This abandonment sparked a show biz scandal that rocked the world. Taylor would later take Eddie Fisher's scalp from her belt, throw it in his face and take up with Richard Burton.)
THERE's a lot of humor in "Unsinkable," believe it or not.
Debbie's sense of gritting her teeth and getting through her problems with optimism is palpable. But what seeps through constantly, also, is her shock at being "taken" once again. Left high and dry, with no recourse but to give up her dreams -- the spousal betrayal that led to the closing of her casino are simply astounding -- and go back to her grueling work schedule. ("It's a good thing I like to work!" Reynolds remarks wryly at one point.)
There is some nostalgia, things she's told before about Elizabeth and Eddie and her early days at MGM, but this book sticks to Debbie's more recent crises -- and joys. There is a poignant chapter on her tragic friend, Pier Angeli, the surprise of what lurked beneath Tony Randall's trousers and the pleasure of working with Albert Brooks in "Mother," a performance that should have garnered her an Oscar nomination.
And there is the hilarity of her asking Mike Nichols to let her "audition" for the role of Meryl Streep's mother in the screen adaptation of daughter Carrie's book, "Postcards from the Edge." This classic comedy, with Shirley MacLaine playing the Debbie role is "loosely" based on Carrie and Debbie's relationship.
"You're not right for it." Mike said.
Debbie writes: "Excuse me? I'm not right to play myself, a part I'd been creating -- admittedly unwittingly -- for my daughter for a decade?!"
THERE IS also a tender chapter on Elizabeth Taylor. The pair had buried the hatchet back in the 1960s, during Elizabeth's marriage to Richard Burton. In later years, as Elizabeth was more confined to L.A. and her home because of drastically declining health, the women became closer. "When she finally died, I knew she was at peace. She had suffered for so long, yet she still grabbed life by the balls. Even in failing health, she would go off to Hawaii to swim with sharks. There was no one like her," writes Debbie. (Elizabeth would leave Debbie a beautiful set of sapphire jewels in her will.)
Debbie also puts to rest the absurd tale of Elizabeth, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando fleeing NYC in a panic after the 911 attack. In fact, Elizabeth invited Debbie -- who was in Manhattan, as was Liz -- for Michael's concert -- to stay with her. "You'll be more comfortable," said Elizabeth. The two stars hugged and cried for a week, watching the tragedy unfold on TV. And when Debbie had to leave to fulfill an engagement, Elizabeth hired a plane, via the auspices of her ex-hubby, Sen. John Warner. "He was married to me," said La Liz, with the smooth confidence of a woman who always got what she wanted, "He'll do it." And he did.
THERE ARE charming remembrances of Debbie's films, her co-stars and directors, but what stands out is a rather basic warning to all women. Take care of your money, know where it's going, and -- harsh as it might sound -- don't even trust your husband. But Debbie doesn't come off bitter, quite the opposite. She appreciates the "fairy tale" aspects of her life, although the tales could get rather grim. (Or Grimm, as fairy tales go!)
Stephen Sondheim's song "I'm Still Here" has been sung so many times by so many people, it has become a cliche. Often one wonders, "Why is she singing it?" But Debbie Reynolds embodies the spirit of that anthem as few do. I don't know if Debbie has ever performed "I'm Still Here, but she should. She owns the song, the sentiments and the triumph. Debbie -- unsinkable at 80. Long may she sail.
A DAZZLING NIGHT ON BROADWAY.