First published by The Pool on 29 December 2016
Yesterday, the actor and singer Debbie Reynolds died aged 84. She was perhaps best known for co-starring in the 1952 musical Singin’ In The Rain – but, this week, what feels like the most poignant detail about Reynolds is that she was Carrie Fisher’s mother. They died only a day apart.
Her son, Todd Fisher, told the press, “The last thing she said this morning was that she was very, very sad about losing Carrie and that she would like to be with her again. Fifteen minutes later she suffered a severe stroke.” To us outsiders, who only knew these women from afar, there’s a heartbreaking poetry to this: a mother going to join her daughter. To the family, losing both in one week must be an unbearable blow.
Reynolds, of course, had a remarkable career and life story of her own. She was 19 years old with no dance training when she won the role opposite Gene Kelly in Singin’ In The Rain. She learnt on the job, not that you can tell that from watching the movie, through which she spins, skips and leaps like a pro. “It’s amazing that I could keep up with [Kelly] and Donald O’Connor,” she said later. “This little girl from Burbank sure had a lot of spirit.”
She held a contract with the studio MGM in the 1950s and 1960s, and had several successes; she worked with Frank Sinatra and Bette Davis, among others, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown. But Reynolds also had the resourcefulness and tenacity that we might associate with her actor/writer/script-editor daughter; when the film work began to dry up, she switched lanes and became a Las Vegas cabaret performer and a TV star, and later a Tony-nominated Broadway actress. Her first husband, Eddie Fisher, ran off with their friend Elizabeth Taylor; her second husband cheated and gambled away their money; after her third divorce, she had to declare bankruptcy. But she was resilient: in the 1990s, she had a return to form with a spate of good film roles and a recurring cameo as Grace’s mother in Will & Grace.
Reynolds had a longterm passion project: archiving and protecting the costumes of Hollywood’s golden age. We can thank her for the fact that Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat and the ruby slippers from The Wizard Of Oz are still in existence – she acquired them at auction when MGM’s archive was being broken up and disposed of in the 1970s. She was also a significant fundraiser for the mental-health charity The Thalians.
The Guardian today has a gorgeous gallery of Fisher and Reynolds, over which I pored; it shows 60 years of them hugging each other, performing together and latterly posing with Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd. It proves the enduring bond of a relationship that was famously complicated; family relationships, of course, usually are. If Fisher knew that things were going to end this way, she’d probably have written some good jokes about it. She never shied away from discussing the personal or the painful, including her relationship with her mother, which was close but often difficult.
Fisher’s excellent 1987 novel, Postcards From The Edge, which was dedicated to her brother and Reynolds, focuses on an actress, Suzanne, recovering from a drug overdose. Her mother appears occasionally (though she became a central character in the 1990 movie adaptation), dropping in to give her a biography of Judy Garland, or suggest that a food allergy might be the root of her problems. “She didn’t like my hair very much, but pretended to,” writes Suzanne in her journal after a visit. “She said it was ‘interesting.’ She thinks my life would work better if I got a new business manager. She washed my underwear and left.” It may or may not be an accurate portrait of Fisher’s relationship with Reynolds but, with its combination of pointed criticism and unconditional love, it certainly feels like a truthful portrait of a mother and daughter.
In 2010, The New York Times did a rare joint interview with Reynolds and Fisher. It shows the parent to be dignified and dry, and the child to be as sharp and creative as a stand-up comic – they are a double act, offering complementary performances. Fisher winds her mother up by doing a tap dance; Reynolds retorts by telling the interviewer, “I am the tap dancer in the family. She’s just not gifted for dancing.” But aside from the sniping, Fisher expresses unreserved admiration for Reynolds: “If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive,” she says. “That’s my word for it. She would go through these amazingly difficult things, and the message was clear: Doing the impossible is possible. It’s just not fun. She broke her ankle one night during a performance and went back onstage and sang ‘Tammy’ with her foot in a bucket of ice.”