In events so tragic that it seems only a Hollywood screenwriter could come up with it, actress Debbie Reynolds has died just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher passed away. Todd Fisher, son of Reynolds and brother of Carrie, said that he had spoken to his mother earlier in the day and she said she missed Carrie, so now she is with her. Apparently the stress of Fisher’s death was too much for Reynolds and the 84-year actress succumbed to the heartbreak of losing her only daughter.
The two had been linked in the public eye to an even greater extent than most famous parent/child combinations, due mostly to the popularity of Fisher’s acclaimed first novel “Postcards from the Edge” and the subsequent film version made of the novel starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine as thinly veiled versions of Fisher and Reynolds, respectively. The film documented Fisher’s early battles with substance abuse and the difficulties she faced growing up in the shadow of a very famous parent.
As Fisher documented in her one-woman Broadway show “Wishful Drinking,” the two women ironically both had similar early struggles due in large part to what Fisher described as “mind warping” early fame due to appearances in landmark films. Just as Fisher would later stumble into worldwide fame in “Star Wars,” Reynolds too was skyrocketed to international stardom after her appearance in the musical “Singin’ in the Rain.” Reynolds had been discovered in a local beauty pageant as a teenager and received a Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Newcomer for the film “Three Little Words,” but it was “Singin’ in the Rain” that really established her.
Reynolds would go on to success in other films such as the “Tammy and the Bachelor” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” for which she earned an Oscar nomination, but her film career began to slow down in the 1960s after which she turned to singing onstage in Las Vegas and various other nightclub venues. Fisher often joked that if you were to ask Reynolds what her greatest regret was in regard to Carrie it wouldn’t be Fisher’s drug addiction or bipolar disorder, but instead Reynolds regretted that Fisher had never developed a Vegas act of her own. While said for comic effect, Reynolds’s own nightclub act was often her savior when she was plunged into financial difficulties at various times in her life, so you could see why she might have wanted the same safety net for Fisher.
If it was drugs and bipolar disorder that caused the greatest difficulties in Fisher’s life, Reynolds’ difficulties mostly stemmed from her choices in marital partners. When Fisher’s father, the singer Eddie Fisher, notoriously left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor it was the stuff of international headlines and tabloid fascination. Reynolds’ two subsequent marriages were equally difficult. Her second husband was Harry Karl, a shoe retailer who gambled away much of Reynolds’ assets. Ironically Karl’s life prior to Reynolds was also documented on film. The 1991 Neil Simon film “The Marrying Man” starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger (which is probably best remembered for its tumultuous production and the huge clashes Baldwin and Basinger had with Simon) was based on Karl’s first marriage. Reynold’s third marriage also ended in divorce and accusations of infidelity and bad financial advice towards her ex.
The difficulties Fisher saw her mother go through led to perhaps one of her most profound quotes: “Fame is obscurity biding its time.” From an early age Fisher realized that the bright hot spotlight of early fame would eventually subside. While Fisher always seemed ambivalent about being in the spotlight, Reynolds seemed to always enjoy the entertainer aspects of her job. Even in her later years she purchased a hotel in Las Vegas where she performed a heavy schedule of her nightclub act and would then pose for pictures and autograph sessions where audience members got to meet and greet the star. The dichotomy between the two actresses’ reactions to fame was probably best documented in “Postcards from the Edge” in a scene where Meryl Streep reluctantly sings at a party only to be followed by a full-out Shirley MacLaine doing her own number and clearly enjoying the spotlight much more than Streep.
That two women whose lives were so intertwined would make their final exits within a day of each other is beyond tragic, yet in some way it is perhaps comforting to their remaining relatives (Fisher had a daughter, Billie Lourd, who is also an actress) that the two didn’t have to live without each other for very long. Reynolds once said that it was her children and not her husbands who were the great loves of her life, so the pain that Reynolds must have felt the last few days of her life as her beloved Carrie lingered in a hospital is unfathomable. If there is an afterlife it is probably best to think of the two of them there squabbling over what Carrie should wear and how she should do her hair as the two were so often known to do, while Reynolds limbers up her legendary legs to play her first concert booking in their new world. They were quite a pair.