Woman of the Year: Debbie Reynolds

updated 03/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

The blonde bowing triumphantly center stage has just finished swilling bourbon, sprawling drunkenly under a saloon table, and blurting words like "shmuck" and "sonuvabitch." This is her first performance in the Broadway hit Woman of the Year, and she waits happily for the standing ovation to subside. Then, with an appealing candor that has always characterized her in private and in public, Debbie Reynolds tells her audience, "I'm so glad to be back in New York. This time I'm not getting a divorce, and I'm gonna have a helluva time!" Later, in her dressing room, Reynolds scarcely flinches at the sight of a gift from her prankish daughter, Carrie Fisher: a cake, decorated with two frosted breasts, designed by a bakery specializing in erotic confections. "So? I got a couple of pink tits," shrugs Debbie. "I was afraid it would be a chocolate something else!"

This is America's sweetheart, the demure, pixieish heroine of Singin' in the Rain and Tammy? Where is the fragile figure who won a nation's sympathy in 1958, when Eddie Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor? "I've changed," says Reynolds, now 50. "There comes a time when cute doesn't carry you. Now I'm playing a mature, bossy, crusty woman with a lot of bite. This show is about a character I identify with."

Reynolds is the third actress to portray the brittle television journalist Tess Harding. The role was created for the notoriously temperamental Lauren Bacall, who played it for more than a year. When her replacement, Raquel Welch, announced her pregnancy last winter (she later suffered a miscarriage), the panicked producers scrambled for a new Tess. Contenders included Ann-Margret, Cyd Charisse, Kim Novak, Cheryl Ladd, Suzanne Somers and Diana Ross, all of whom turned out to be unavailable or unwilling to follow Bacall and Welch. "I never felt that way," says Reynolds, who was at the top of the list anyway. "It's a great woman's role. It's like saying you won't do Gypsy or Oklahoma! because other actresses have done them."

Reynolds accepted (at 10 percent of the gross, she earns about $30,000 in a good week) and plunged into a frantic 10-day rehearsal schedule in late January. A dancer by training, she asked that one of the musical numbers be rechoreographed. To Debbie's delight and chagrin, the number now includes flips and rolls. "If the other cast members mess me up in that roll," she frets, "I break my back." She also injected more body language and subtle humor into the play. "I saw a lot of comedy in the book that wasn't seen before," she says pointedly.

Coincidentally, Debbie's performance, praised by the critics ("An accomplished singer and dancer...an antic sense of comedy," said the New York Times), is part of an extended family act in town. Carrie is starring a few blocks away in the Broadway drama Agnes of God. Carrie's dad, Eddie Fisher, 54, just wound up a gig at the Club Indigo, his first in Manhattan in 16 years. And the most famous Mrs. Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor, arrives in town this month with another noted ex, Richard Burton, to begin rehearsals for her May 8 Broadway opening in Private Lives.

To a mellower Reynolds, the proximity of her ex and his ex is of little concern. "I have no venom about Eddie," says Debbie. She claims she did not read Fisher's 1981 autobiography, in which she is portrayed as calculating and tightfisted. "His memory of what went on in our life is absolutely not true. I didn't want to read it because I didn't want to get upset," she says. "I'm trying not to dislike him. He's the father of my children."

As for Taylor, Reynolds explains: "I never felt bitter about Elizabeth. A man doesn't leave a woman for another woman unless he wants to go. You know, when Mike Todd died, I sent Eddie to help Elizabeth. I don't think she ever really loved Eddie. He was an interim interest during her mourning period. Her decision to leave Eddie was very good. Richard Burton is one of the most interesting men alive."

Long before Debbie-and-Eddie and Eddie-and-Liz and Liz-and-Dick, a Texas-born carpenter's daughter named Mary Frances Reynolds was winning the 1948 Miss Burbank contest in California and heading for teenage stardom. Her performance at 18 in Three Little Words led to an MGM contract, 30 more films and gold records for Aba Daba Honeymoon and Tammy.

Along the way, there were the domestic dramas: the storybook marriage at 23 to Fisher; the birth of Carrie and then Todd, who is now 25 and a record producer; the marriage in 1960 to Harry Karl, a shoe tycoon 18 years her senior; their divorce in 1973. Debbie says of Karl, who died last year: "He was able to confuse my entire life by losing all my money and his. He just didn't run his business and he made bad investments and gambled...a lot of things. It took me 11 years to get out of debt. But now I'm on my way again."

Understandably, she is wary of sharing her life again. During the six-month period Reynolds has committed to Woman of the Year, she plans to live alone in a Manhattan hotel suite. (Her tiny "one-bedroom English cottage" in Los Angeles is presently the preserve of Debbie's brother, William, a makeup man on Knots Landing.)

Now that her grueling rehearsal schedule has loosened up, the nocturnal Reynolds hopes to visit her favorite restaurants and piano clubs. She wouldn't mind finding the right escort. "Perfect, gymnastic, macho-looking men terrify me," she says. "And I'm too insecure to go out with a gorgeous younger man. I would always be thinking: 'He's looking over there at that beautiful young girl.' What I like is a man with a little stomach. I want something to hold onto when I put my arms around him. And he has to have a jolliness and a fragility, too."

So, if the right humorous and paunchy partner came along, would Reynolds try marriage again? "Well," she says with a twinkle, "there is a scene in Woman of the Year where my ex-husband's wife is envying my life, and I say to her: 'But you can hold a husband. That's wonderful!' At my opening performance that was the only line I forgot." It is now one she'll definitely remember.

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