Debbie Reynolds: 'The Singing Nun' Treacle vs. Real Life Tragedy

Debbie ReynoldsDebbie Reynolds: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer singing and dancing star.

Debbie Reynolds movies: Oscar nominee for 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown,' sweetness and light in phony 'The Singing Nun'

Debbie Reynolds is Turner Classic Movies' “Summer Under the Stars” star today, Aug. 23, '15. An MGM contract player from 1950 to 1959, Reynolds' movies can be seen just about every week on TCM. The only premiere on Debbie Reynolds Day is Jerry Paris' lively marital comedy How Sweet It Is (1968), co-starring James Garner.

This evening, TCM is showing Divorce American Style, The Catered Affair, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and The Singing Nun.

See also: “Debbie Reynolds Films” and “Debbie Reynolds Movie Memorabilia Auction.”

'Divorce American Style,' 'The Catered Affair'

Directed by the recently deceased Bud Yorkin, Divorce American Style (1967) is notable for its cast – Reynolds, Dick Van Dyke, Jean Simmons, Jason Robards, Van Johnson, Lee Grant – and for the fact that it earned Norman Lear (screenplay) and Robert Kaufman (story) a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination. (They lost to William Rose for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.)

It goes without saying that this Hollywood release has little in common with Pietro Germi's broadly satirical Divorce Italian Style (1961), in which Best Actor Oscar nominee Marcello Mastroianni lusts after the voluptuously youthful Stefania Sandrelli while plotting to kill his mustached wife, Daniela Rocca.

Divorce American Style, after all, is set in a posh Los Angeles suburb, where everyone is well dressed, well manicured, well coiffed. The sort of “American Style” you get to see only at the movies. Ah, but the emptiness of it all…

Richard Brooks' generally effective working class family drama The Catered Affair (1956) gave Debbie Reynolds her first chance at straight drama. Surprisingly, her low-key, naturalistic performance is one of the highlights of the film; she even gets to quietly steal scenes from Bette Davis, whose theatrical, over-the-top characterization at times threatens to capsize the proceedings.

Debbie Reynolds The Unsinkable Molly Brown her one and only Best Actress Oscar nominationDebbie Reynolds in 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown': Her one and only Best Actress Oscar nomination.

'The Unsinkable Molly Brown'

In the title role, Debbie Reynolds bounces all over the place in Charles Walters' overblown but enjoyable musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), one of her biggest post-MGM commercial hits. The film deservedly earned Reynolds her one and only Academy Award nomination – she lost the Best Actress Oscar to Julie Andrews for her work in an even more bloated (and way less enjoyable) musical: Robert Stevenson's global box office phenomenon Mary Poppins.

More than three decades later, Reynolds would take another stab at the Best Actress Oscar – for her lightweight but entertaining comeback performance as Albert Brooks' Mom in Mother (1996).[1] She failed to be nominated, but, ever the good trouper, was a presenter at the Academy Awards that year.[2]

As an aside, Kathy Bates played Molly Brown in Titanic (1997), James Cameron's multiple Oscar-winning blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Gloria Stuart.

'The Singing Nun'

If you can't beat them, join them: The year after she lost the Best Actress Oscar to Julie Andrews, Reynolds played a singing nun in the concisely titled The Singing Nun (1966). Both the film and its ditty, “Dominique” (“Dominic” in the original French) were quite popular, but nothing to compare to the success Andrews enjoyed as that other mid-'60s singing nun, Maria, in Robert Wise's The Sound of Music.[3]

Inspired by the real-life story of Belgian-born, Grammy-winning Sister Luc-Gabrielle a.k.a. Sister Smile (née Jeanne Deckers), The Singing Nun was directed by Henry Koster, who had guided Deanna Durbin in several of her Universal hits of the 1930s and who hardly ever shied away from heavy-handed sentimentality – e.g., Music for Millions, The Bishop's Wife, The Robe, A Man Called Peter. (Harvey was one of Koster's few un-treacly efforts.)

Of course, when a Hollywood movie is “inspired” by a real-life story it means that any similarities to real-life events are merely coincidental. In fact, nothing in The Singing Nun bears any resemblance to reality – not even the “reality” found in people's dreams. Jeanne Deckers herself is supposed to have dismissed the film as “fiction.”

'The Singing Nun' Jeanne Deckers a.k.a. Sister Smile sings 'Dominic.'

The tragic end of 'Sister Smile'

As for the real Jeanne Deckers, who looked nothing at all like Debbie Reynolds, she quit the Dominican order to become a professional singer, but was unable to maintain her initial success. Songs with titles such as “Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill” (about contraception) and “Sister Smile Is Dead” surely didn't help matters any with the sort of crowd that had fallen in love with “Dominique.”

With a partner and possible lover, fellow ex-nun Annie Pécher, Deckers later opened a school for autistic children in the Belgian town of Wavre. By the mid-'80s, however, they were faced with the prospect of bankruptcy when the Belgian government slapped Deckers with a bill for $63,000 in back taxes – money from her record-selling earnings that she had reportedly donated to charity.

On March 29, 1985, Deckers and Pécher committed suicide by an overdose of barbiturates mixed with alcohol. They left a note that read, “We hope God will welcome us. He saw us suffer, so He should show clemency.” According to their wishes, they were buried together at Wavre's Cheremont Cemetery.

Twilight of the Goddesses

[1] Debbie Reynolds quit movies following Curtis Harrington's 1971 release What's the Matter with Helen?. From then on, she would make only sporadic film appearances.

Reynolds was one of numerous major and/or veteran Hollywood actresses who dropped out of filmmaking in the late 1960s and early 1970s, possibly because American big-screen productions became almost exclusively male oriented. In fact, that was probably the biggest such talent flight since the dawn of the TV era in the late 1940s/early 1950s and the dawn of the talkie era in the late 1920s/early 1930s.

Besides Debbie Reynolds, major Hollywood actresses who quit movies – or dramatically reduced their film appearances – at that time include Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Jennifer Jones, Greer Garson, Joan Crawford, Shirley MacLaine, Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, Joanne Woodward, Leslie Caron, Maureen O'Hara, and, elsewhere, Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot.

Even the likes of Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Vanessa Redgrave, and Maggie Smith had long gaps between movies in the mid-'70s.

'Postcards from the Edge'

[2] Debbie Reynolds is also supposed to have been a good trouper when Mike Nichols' Postcards from the Edge came out in 1990. Shirley MacLaine played the ragged, alcoholic Hollywood mother to recovering drug addict Meryl Streep, standing in for Reynolds' daughter and Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher.

[3] In Ida Lupino's The Trouble with Angels (1966) and James Neilson's Where Angels Go Trouble Follows! (1968), Rosalind Russell, Binnie Barnes, Mary Wickes et al. were hip, but non-singing, '60s nuns. On TV, Sally Field floated about in The Flying Nun, but she didn't sing either.

Debbie Reynolds The Singing Nun: Any similarity to Sister Luc-Gabrielle is a mere coincidenceDebbie Reynolds in 'The Singing Nun': Any similarity to Sister Luc-Gabrielle is a mere coincidence.

Debbie Reynolds movies: TCM schedule (PT)

3:00 AM MR. IMPERIUM (1951). Dir.: Don Hartman. Cast: Lana Turner. Ezio Pinza. Marjorie Main. Debbie Reynolds. Color. 87 mins.

4:30 AM GIVE A GIRL A BREAK (1953). Dir.: Stanley Donen. Cast: Debbie Reynolds. Marge Champion. Gower Champion. Color. 82 mins.

6:00 AM THE AFFAIRS OF DOBIE GILLIS (1953). Dir.: Don Weis. Cast: Debbie Reynolds. Bobby Van. Barbara Ruick. B&W. 73 mins.

7:30 AM THE GAZEBO (1960). Dir.: George Marshall. Cast: Glenn Ford. Debbie Reynolds. Carl Reiner. B&W. 102 mins. Letterbox Format.

9:15 AM THE TENDER TRAP (1955). Dir.: Charles Walters. Cast: Frank Sinatra. Debbie Reynolds. David Wayne. Celeste Holm. Color. 111 mins. Letterbox Format.

11:15 AM THE MATING GAME (1959). Dir.: George Marshall. Cast: Debbie Reynolds. Tony Randall. Paul Douglas. Una Merkel. Color. 97 mins. Letterbox Format.

1:00 PM HOW SWEET IT IS (1968). Dir.: Jerry Paris. Cast: James Garner. Debbie Reynolds. Maurice Ronet. Color. 99 mins.

3:00 PM HIT THE DECK (1955). Dir.: Roy Rowland. Cast: Jane Powell. Tony Martin. Debbie Reynolds. Walter Pidgeon. Vic Damone. Ann Miller. Gene Raymond. Russ Tamblyn. J. Carrol Naish. Richard Anderson. Jane Darwell. Alan King. Uncredited: Robert Dix. Stuart Holmes. Robert Williams. Color. 112 mins. Letterbox Format.

5:00 PM SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952). Dir.: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Cast: Gene Kelly. Donald O'Connor. Debbie Reynolds. Jean Hagen. Millard Mitchell. Color. 103 mins.

7:00 PM DIVORCE AMERICAN STYLE (1967). Dir.: Bud Yorkin. Cast: Dick Van Dyke. Debbie Reynolds. Jason Robards. Jean Simmons. Van Johnson. Lee Grant. Shelley Berman. Joe Flynn. Martin Gabel. Pat Collins. Tom Bosley. Tim Matheson. Richard Gautier. Eileen Brennan. Color. 109 mins. Letterbox Format.

9:00 PM THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956). Dir.: Richard Brooks. Cast: Bette Davis. Ernest Borgnine. Debbie Reynolds. Rod Taylor. Barry Fitzgerald. B&W. 94 mins.

11:00 PM THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN (1964). Dir.: Charles Walters. Cast: Debbie Reynolds. Harve Presnell. Ed Begley. Jack Kruschen. Hermione Baddeley. Vassili Lambrinos. Fred Essler. Harvey Lembeck. Lauren Gilbert. Kathryn Card. Martita Hunt. Vaughn Taylor. Audrey Christie. Uncredited: Gertrude Astor. Minta Durfee. Anna Lee. Color. 129 mins. Letterbox Format.

1:15 AM THE SINGING NUN (1966). Dir.: Henry Koster. Cast: Debbie Reynolds. Greer Garson. Katharine Ross. Ricardo Montalban. Agnes Moorehead. Chad Everett. Ricky Cordell. Ed Sullivan. Juanita Moore. Tom Drake. Michael Pate. Uncredited: Philo McCullough. Dorothy Patrick. Color. 97 mins. Letterbox Format.

Debbie Reynolds movies' cast info via the IMDb.

Debbie Reynolds The Unsinkable Molly Brown image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Debbie Reynolds The Singing Nun image: MGM.

Debbie Reynolds: 'The Singing Nun' Treacle vs. Real Life Tragedy © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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  1. VANESSA ANN Merriman