Even after Eddie Fisher, her first husband, outpaced her, leaving her at 26 with two kids, for Elizabeth Taylor, she kept going, never appearing to seek a part that would bring what you would call catharsis. Taylor, meanwhile, kept looking for parts to unleash a darker side. She became drama incarnate. Ms. Reynolds was, as they say, a trouper. So she did what came naturally to her: She trouped.
And maybe all that shining and all that chastity were cathartic. If Taylor indulged vulgarity, Ms. Reynolds embraced virtue. She was the least ostensibly neurotic of her peers — a class that included Shirley MacLaine and Doris Day. The movie titles got a lot of that anti-anxious decency across. She played “The Singing Nun,” for heaven’s sake. But she also starred in the 1964 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a title whose adjective best explains the full Debbie Reynolds experience: maximum buoyancy.
“Molly Brown” was Ms. Reynolds in full command of her Debbie-ness. In a little over two hours, she goes from over-aged Rocky Mountain tomboy to highfalutin femme to a hero of the wrecked Titanic (yes, it was that Molly Brown). And she looks like a leprechaun for the whole thing. She practically shouts and grunts the opening number. But this was the character she committed to: a clump of dirt determined to become a diamond. Molly winds up married to a yokel played by Harve Presnell, who’s as unconscionably strapping as his voice is outrageously strong. Ms. Reynolds, however, doesn’t hit her notes. And she bangs on them harder than she does the piano she pretends to play.
The fun of her stardom in this kind of movie is that you can see all of her work. She’s not afraid to pop her eyes or try about a dozen other “obvious” things, including fall flat on her back and do triple takes. Even after the ship goes down and people are on the verge of death, Ms. Reynolds’s face is wet with both water and showbiz. Who needs realism when you’ve got that twinkle?
But the more real-life or real-ish the movies got, the more suffused with social politics and method acting, the less that breeziness made sense. She works herself mad in “Divorce American Style” with Dick Van Dyke, in 1967. But the emotions don’t leave the surface. During this period, Ms. Reynolds never played parts as complex as Ms. MacLaine’s or Taylor’s. And Doris Day monopolized “sexy virgin.” Ms. Reynolds became too good for sex, anyway.
By her own admission, she wasn’t that kind of actress. She didn’t want to be. Misery wasn’t her thing. Not at work.
She became a star in “Singin’ in the Rain,” a musical about how talkies put the silent movie out of business. By the late 1960s, when the movies actually started saying something, Ms. Reynolds’s twinkle started to put her out of business. In 1971, she made a fascinating train wreck called “What’s the Matter with Helen?,” in which she and Shelley Winters more or less turn “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” into a stage-mother horror film that actually predicts the onscreen, rooftop brawl, six years later, between Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in “The Turning Point.” “Helen” was just about the only live-action movie Ms. Reynolds made during that decade.
There wasn’t much place for many of the old stars in the new Hollywood, which was less about appearances and salesmanship and more about psychology and behavior. The classic stars were now the squares. Instead, she sought other places to practice showbiz. Her self-titled NBC sitcom, in 1970, lasted for one season, partly because she didn’t like the cigarette commercials. So Ms. Reynolds did lounge shows in Las Vegas. She worked on Broadway. She trouped.
Meanwhile, the acting career of her daughter, Carrie Fisher, took off, and then so did the second act — as rehabbed addict and memoirist who chronicled her bitterness over Ms. Reynolds’s mothering and career obsession.
“Postcards From the Edge” was Ms. Fisher’s roman à clef that portrayed Ms. Reynolds as a kind of nonchalant, casually narcissistic gorgon of a mother. That incarnation of Ms. Reynolds was cemented by Ms. MacLaine, her professional rival, in Mike Nichols’s 1990 movie adaptation of that book. It’s not a heartless portrayal, but it’s an ambivalent one. It gets at the glorious raconteur Ms. Reynolds clearly was, as well as how ill-suited for real life she might have been, at least according to her daughter.
And Ms. MacLaine used sharp, affectionate comedy to capture what feels essential about Ms. Reynolds: that the show could never go off. And you got the sense that Ms. Reynolds and Ms. Fisher came to accept over the years their very public symbiosis and that Ms. Reynolds had a flair for the dramatic after all. They were relatives. They were neighbors. They made their exits a day apart.
There was a moving, human beauty in the extremity of that bond. They so couldn’t live without each other that they couldn’t die without each other, either.