I do believe that symmetry in time is never purely coincidental. A day after her daughter died, Hollywood musical royalty Debbie Reynolds has also passed away saying she wanted to be with the brilliant actress/author Carrie Fisher. Can one discount a broken heart being the cause? I think not.
Debbie Reynolds is one of those stars who, like Liza in Cabaret and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, will always be defined by her first starring role. Singin’ in the Rain is a competitor for MGM’s best musical of all time and Miss Reynolds was nineteen when it was released in 1952.
Interesting that Gene Kelly didn’t trust Debbie Reynolds for the romantic lead and yet the kid learned how to dance in six months and was easily punching at equal weight with Kelly and Donald O’Connor when they shot their first scene: the Good Morning number in which Reynolds shines.
Revisiting Debbie Reynolds’ career, it is a mystery why MGM didn’t cast her in more musicals. Another twelve years passed before the 1964 one-woman-show The Unsinkable Molly Brown that earned Reynolds a nomination but not the Academy Award as Best Actress.
Reynolds came late to the golden era of the Hollywood studios but remained in the public eye thanks to Broadway, television then cult television. The theft of her husband Eddie Fisher by Elizabeth Taylor after the death of Mike Todd gave Debbie Reynolds a frisson of scandal and the sympathy vote that tallied with her wholesome Hollywood image.
I saw Debbie Reynolds’ greatest legacy in the very early 1990s. I’d been sent to Las Vegas by an editor to do an interview with Liza Minnelli (nothing camp about that) and had a couple of days so went off to visit Debbie’s Hollywood Hotel where she displayed all of the classic movie memorabilia she’d collected over the years since the 1970 MGM auction.
Very few of the tributes to Debbie Reynolds mention the heroic job she did rescuing costumes, sets and photographs from the studio archives at a time when the film industry’s history was considered worthless. It was only in the last decade when she was forced to sell her collection that it became clear what a remarkable crusade she’d embarked upon.
Debbie Reynolds saved Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Marilyn’s subway dress from The Seven Year Itch and a vast collection of costumes and sets from her rival Elizabeth Taylor’s doomed epic Cleopatra. She’d lived it so she knew the value of Hollywood’s past. That said, the movies do offer symmetrical closure and Debbie Reynolds’s was to co-star with Elizabeth Taylor in the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads with a screenplay by her daughter Carrie Fisher.
Retrospectively, the symmetry of Carrie Fisher’s screen career was also neat. Like her mother, she was defined by her first starring role as Princess Leia in the 1977 film Star Wars. Her work as a script doctor and screenwriter far outweighed Fisher’s acting roles in between Star Wars and the revival of her role as Leia in the 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Again like Reynolds, Carrie Fisher’s greatest legacy was away from the screen. A self-confessed card-carrying member of the high/low club with addiction issues, Fisher was very vocal and very amusing about living with manic depression. I appreciated her attitude and her thoughts on a subject that has troubled me for years.
‘Think of bipolar disorder as an opportunity to be heroic – not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic – but an emotional survivor. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder’. There were few opportunities that Carrie Fisher missed to laugh at a deck of cards she’d been dealt that would have others weeping with despair.
Carrie Fisher’s attitude to mental disorder – not illness please note – is inspirational. As she says, ‘this is my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous. Having had this illness my entire life, I accommodated it by developing a very big personality’.
In later years we saw Carrie Fisher’s personality on talk shows such as Graham Norton and documentaries like Stephen Fry’s about manic depression. In the round of media to promote The Force Awakens she was particularly funny advising young co-star Daisy Ridley ‘don’t go through the crew like wildfire’ intimating that that’s precisely what she did on the original Star Wars sets.
It takes a lot of balls for a child of Hollywood to say she avoided suicide because she was taking so many drugs or to hint that she got the Star Wars role on the casting couch despite being too out of it to remember who swung it for her. Fisher’s books Postcards from the Edge, Wishful Drinking and The Princess Diaries are equally uncompromising.
Postcards from the Edge, the 1990 film written by Carrie Fisher and co-starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, has often been mistaken as pure autobiography. True or false, it is something of a gay camp classic for the barnstorming female leads and one-liners that fire like a Gatling Gun.
Carrie Fisher described her character thus: ‘I act like someone in a bomb shelter trying to raise everyone’s spirits’. This is infinitely preferable to the manic depressives who act like someone in a bomb shelter reminding the rest of the world that the incendiary device is moments away.
If her daughter was the wit, Debbie Reynolds was the pragmatist. Looking at their lives in words and pictures today, one quote leapt out for me and it was Debbie’s: ‘doing the impossible is possible. It’s just not fun’. That’s the secret – and the curse – of a long career.