Debbie Reynolds: “Look At Me Now!”
For a long time, I’ve had a reputation as a gal who says just exactly what she thinks. And, as a matter of fact, I’ve been pretty pleased with myself about it. But lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that what was okay at eighteen and nineteen might not go over so big in my twenties. My first discovery was that there are ways—-and ways—of handling a situation and speaking my piece.
One day not so long ago, I was on my way out of the M-G-M executive building, when I ran into a studio pal. He knew I’d had a pretty serious gripe. So he put two and two together.
“Did you tell them?” he asked me.
“Tell them what?”
“Tell them off,” said he. And he wore a smile that could’ve stretched from Monday through Friday. “With your nerve, I sort of figured . . .”
I knew. He sort of figured the building would suddenly fall flat on its foundation from the impact of my wrath. “I told them exactly what I thought,” I said.
He shuddered. And it was my turn to grin. It was all about a part in a picture—a non- musical picture that would have opened new horizons for me. I wanted that part the way Popeye wants his spinach. In the worst way. And I had been cast in it. Then, a short time before shooting began, the executives changed their minds. They had called me in that day to explain why the role was being given to another girl. So I told them. “She’s one of the finest actresses I know and she’ll do a great job,” I told them. “If it were anybody else, I’d be tempted to blow my top. But you know more about it than I do, and I agree with you completely.”
As far as I was concerned, this was a bit of the awful truth. However, there was more to it, and I decided they might as well hear the rest. “I can’t say that I’m happy,” I went on. “And I do hope that in the future you won’t ask me to give up anything that means as much as this role means to me.”
Should I have gone off my rocker, lost my temper? Stalked forth to tell my troubles to ten other people? Or just let my thoughts smolder away inside me? I was disappointed and I wanted them to know it. I told them so in no uncertain terms. But there was respect in my mind as well as in my voice—and they knew that, too.
If I feel that I’m justified, I sound right off. But these days, I try to think before I begin making sounds. There was a time, however, when I was pretty young and didn’t understand that tact was more than a word in the dictionary.
When I first got into movies, people used to flip at the way I talked to producers and directors. Apparently, newcomers are expected to be all ears and few words. I’d just walk in and start yakking away a mile a minute. Up until the time I won a contract, I’d been strictly a movie-star fan. Producers and directors? They were merely the screen credits that held up the start of the show.
Because I didn’t know how great these people are, I just didn’t realize that I was supposed to be scared. I’m glad now. Otherwise, it might have taken me much longer to learn that they are kind and understanding gentlemen.
I can’t honestly say that I was ever a subdued and shrinking violet, even when I was just a kid. I remember once in junior high school when campaign speeches were the order of the day. I’d been elected to speak for a friend who was a candidate for the presidency of the class. I sat very quietly while our worthy opponents had their say. “Faculty members, classmates, friends. . . .” they’d begin, stating their platforms with dignity. Then came my turn.
I had a secret weapon. A cowbell! When I got up, I rang it to the rafters. After that, I launched into my little talk. “Wardens, fellow inmates, members of our jail . . . if we work hard enough we might get out of here. But right now, what we need is a leader for this cell block.”
The kids loved it. The faculty? Well, a short time later I was facing the principal. “Mary Frances,” she said sternly. (For that’s my real name.) “We all like to see you enter into the school activities. However, don’t you think you might confine your speeches to traditional types?”
Thereafter, she suggested, it would be an excellent idea if I handed in copies of speeches I intended to make. Just to be on the safe and sane side. So I’d hand them in. They were fine speeches. But strictly paperwork. I’m a little ashamed to remember that I seldom made them. Something else always seemed to pop into my mind.
“That crazy Franny,” they used to say at school. “She’s got enough nerve for ten people!” And most of the time, that was a kind of a compliment. I was simply considered the local character. Every institution of learning has one. I was the girl who’d go to the football and baseball games and note with grave concern that the spectators on our side were wasting their lung power on plain, ordinary conversation. So I’d dash down front, rally the cheerleaders and give the folks in the grandstand a long, loud pep talk about cheering the team.
When the fellows played baseball during school hours, the coach would get me out of my sixth period class so I could be there lending vocal and moral support. “That Reynolds,” they’d say. “She has a ball.”
Everyone has his or her own idea of a good time. And now that I look back on it, I’m afraid some of mine were pretty whacky. I was one of the ringleaders of a group that used to break the monotony of downtown traffic in Burbank. We’d stroll down the street until we found a likely corner, then we’d stop and stare skyward. We’d talk and point. Sometimes we’d have to stand there an hour before a crowd gathered. But we thought the result delightful . . . everyone straining their necks to see what’s with the clouds.
That wasn’t too bad, I guess. But we had another gag that I can see now wasn’t very funny. I’d pretend that my knee had suddenly given way and collapse on the nearest curb, madly moaning in agony. “Anything we can do?” the nice folks would rush up and ask.
“Maybe we’d better call a doctor,” one of my chums would mutter.
Came the time when our act was too realistic. First thing we knew, there was the wail of a siren and an ambulance speeding toward us. Someone actually had called a doctor. You’ve never seen an invalid and her friends run so fast.
Almost everybody goes through that kind of hectic stage, I guess. It’s one of the weirder sides of growing up. And—for an adolescent—it probably isn’t anything to be ashamed of. But I can’t see that it’s much to be proud of, either. For myself, I’m mighty relieved that I’ve put that all behind me and can have a good time now without knocking myself out.
There’s a theory that “life of the party” behavior of that kind is just a cover-up for deep, inside shyness. Now shyness is something that never plagued me in my school days. But lately I’ve discovered—well, we’ll get to that in a little while.
Anyway, even though I was so rough- and-tumble myself, I did understand what tortures my shy friends went through. It had a terrible grip on one of my closest friends—and my antics embarrassed her no end. “Fran, they’re looking at you,” she’d whisper.
“Who cares? I’m having fun. Relax,” I’d tell her.
She never entered into the fun. It took us nearly a year to bring her out of her shell—to make her feel at ease, to speak up and express herself. “Now, look,” we’d tell her. “You have as much to contribute to a conversation as anyone else. So get with it, girl!”
We made certain that she was included in all of our activities and we encouraged her to take part in others. By the time we got to high school, she was really in the swing and being elected to class offices. Once she told me that she’d always wanted to be the way I was. But at times, I thought it might be better if I were more like her. She’d reached a happy medium.
They’re strange, these growing pains. And shyness is one of the most painful. In school, many kids simply don’t stop to think about trying to diagnose the shyness of a classmate. I remember the time a new girl came to one of our classes. At first everyone pegged her as the snobbish type . . . the girl with the prim kill-joy attitude who preferred a book to the company of the “peasant.” Someone got around to having a long talk with her one day and discovered that she would have gladly exchanged her best library card for the nerve to go whooping it up with the rest of the gang. And once we learned that, she was in.
I felt sorry for that girl at the time, but it was years later before I really understood what tortures she’d gone through. And the realization came to me in a studio rehearsal hall, not once—but a dozen times. I would be practicing a new dance routine, doing just fine, until someone would happen to walk in and start to watch. Then my feet would freeze. And when I’d get them thawed out again, all I’d ever want to do was start to shuffle—right out of the hall and out of sight.
Eventually, I got around to talking it over with choreographer Bob Sidney. And he almost knocked me off my pins by diagnosing it as shyness. Shy! Me of all people.
But as he explained it, I knew that he was right. “You’re overly conscientious about this thing,” he grinned. “You think you should do the routine perfectly—right from the start. And you don’t want anyone watching you until it is perfect.”
So that was that. And once he’d set me straight, I knew that dancing was by no means the only thing I was shy about. There had been a lot of other incidents—none of which I’m the least bit ashamed of. They’re a sign of maturity—and sensitivity.
As I’ve said, I had never taken much notice of producers and directors, but I was awfully star-conscious. Then came the day when I began to meet the stars I’d admired from afar. There they were—so much greater than I could ever hope to be. Tongue-tied? You bet I was.
I’ll never forget the time I was introduced to Clark Gable. I knew I should be saying something. But for awhile—it seemed like a million years—I couldn’t seem to locate the first word. His wonderful friendly manner finally brought back my voice. Pretty soon, I was at ease again . . . and very thankful for it! It’s a fine occasion when you come to realize that even people who tend to leave you awestruck are actually human.
It’s been kind of fun to stand off and watch myself change in all these little ways. And I’ve been aware of a very interesting thing: My appearance has been gradually changing too. My hair used to be as fly-away as my temper. Now I’m managing to keep it under control—at least most of the time. And I love the smooth clothes that seem to fit into the new picture.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m still no timid flower. And I don’t intend to be. I’m certainly not one for standing in a comer and coming out just long enough to be walked all over. There are a lot of things a girl has to be prepared to stand up for. Her ideals, for instance. And it isn’t always easy.
Not so long ago, I told someone off at a cocktail party. I don’t drink or smoke and there was one guest who kept insisting that I start immediately. “No thank you,” said I.
“Aw, try it,” he insisted.
“I really don’t care for it,” I told him.
“Come on, Deb. You’ll love it.”
Finally, I ended our verbal go-round. “Now look,” I said. “I hope you won’t get angry, but I’d honestly rather not have any. If you want me to argue about it, I’ll argue. Then I’ll go home.”
Well, that was that. Because I stood my ground at first, the matter is rarely a problem anymore. When I go to a party, the host or hostess hands me a Coke or ginger ale and life is a lot more beautiful.
I still get ribbed about my Girl Scout activities. Kidding I can take, but ridicule is out . . . especially when it concerns something as fine as Scouting. A boy I barely know called one evening to ask what I was doing and I told him I was going to a Scout meeting. He got hysterical laughing. “I don’t mean to be rude, so I’ll tell you I’m going to hang up,” I told him. And I did.
He called back and apologized and my opinion of him rose considerably. I believe he has more respect for me, too.
There’s nerve and then there’s nerve. Every so often there comes a time when I have to stop and gather mine in a grownup manner. That’s when a fellow I’ve been dating begins to feel that he’s in love with me. I feel that he isn’t . . . not really. And I know that I don’t care for him in that way. Perhaps I like him very much, but that still doesn’t mean I care enough to want to marry him. Yet, I don’t want to lose his friendship.
Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t happen every day in the week. But it’s a problem that comes to all girls at one time or another. Many boys want friendship on a more romantic basis. Especially if they’re old enough to want to settle down. I’m far from ready. I’ll be ready only when I find the man I love and want to be with for the rest of my life. I think my new-found maturity is helping me in handling the situation.
When you’ve gone with a boy for five or six months, you know pretty well whether you feel something for him or whether it’s a friendship thing. And I just can’t believe in letting a boy think I care a great deal more than I do. It’s not fair to either of us. What then?
I have been cowardly and tried to create an argument as an excuse for breaking up. When you launch into explanations fellows get very upset. “Debbie, you have a closed mind,” one boy told me.
“If I didn’t know what I was feeling, I’d certainly never try to explain it to you,” I told him.
It’s a chance I have to take on losing a friendship I value. So far, it’s paid off. “Maybe you’re right, Deb,” this boy said a few days later. “Let’s wait and see.”
I guess nerve is a pretty good thing to have, after all. I’ve got mine. And I’m going to keep it. But I’m going to keep it under control. That’s part of my new look—my growing up—so I can be proud to say “look at me, now!”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MARCH 1954