Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher: surviving instant fame and finding a lasting bond

The famous mother and daughter, who died a day apart last week, survived showbusiness by coming to depend on each other, as a poignant new documentary shows

In a modest screening room on the Cte dAzur last spring, the curtains went up on what were to prove the last scenes of a great Hollywood mother-and-daughter saga. An intrigued audience at the Cannes film festival joined Carrie Fisher, fragile in a black cocktail dress and accompanied by her French bulldog, Gary, for the world premiere of a documentary called Bright Lights. Largely shot in the privileged enclave of Beverly Hills, the film is the true-life story of coping with a celebrity parent and with the legacy of stardom. It is also a story that only really ended last week with the unexpected deaths of its two leading ladies: Fisher, 60, and her mother Debbie Reynolds, 84.

Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher will now be shown by US cable television channel HBO this Saturday, as a fitting memorial to the wit and endurance of a mother-and-daughter showbiz team initially seen singing together on stage in the late 1960s, when the young and increasingly reluctant Fisher had a guest spot in her mothers cabaret show.

The documentary revolves around a series of interviews, interspersed with Hollywood newsreel footage and home movie sequences, and it offers a glimpse of the eccentric domestic life Fisher latterly shared with Reynolds inside a luxury compound once owned by Bette Davis.

The Star Wars actors friend, Fisher Stevens, had originally agreed to direct the film, alongside his wife, Alexis Bloom, with the intention of showing the public how affectionately dependent the pair of warring relatives had grown. But as filming progressed last year it became clear that both actors were revealing a side of themselves that had never been seen before. It also became clear that both faced tough daily health challenges.

We didnt know it was going to get that dark, admitted Stevens at a reception for the film. Thats the beauty of documentary film-making, that you dont know where your movie is going. But there were times when we had to turn off the cameras. Now the film has a permanent valedictory note.

The public was always startled by the fact the young woman who found fame playing Kathy Selden in Singin in the Rain opposite Gene Kelly in 1952 should be the mother of the young woman who in 1977 found fame playing Princess Leia in a space opera. The notion that star talent, or at least charisma, can be passed down the generations is particularly potent when it concerns Hollywoods female firmament. Liza Minnelli is still regarded as her mother Judy Garlands representative on Earth and Melanie Griffith is judged of interest partly for just being the daughter of Tippi Hedren. The status of Hollywood royalty was almost automatically conferred upon them.

And just as Minnelli once recalled a childhood spent watching spellbound from the top of the stairs as her mother performed songs at the piano for her dinner guests in the 1940s, so Fishers childhood was dominated by admiration for her mother: a well-known photograph taken by Lawrence Schiller in 1963 shows the six-year-old Carrie standing in the wings of a theatre, mesmerised by Reynoldss performance on stage. Walking down the street with her was like being in a parade, Fisher once said. I had to share her. She belonged to everybody.

Even before the 1978 publication of Christina Crawfords book Mommie Dearest, with its allegations of cruelty at the hands of her celebrated mother, Joan Crawford, the idea that the excesses of stardom were incompatible with motherhood was a favourite trope of celebrity gossip columns.


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Fisher and Reynolds in 1972. Photograph: Rex

Nowadays some of us might feel guilty for staring, rather as if we are passengers on one of those homes of the stars bus tours, but it is hard to pass by the Reynolds/Fisher epic without gawping a little. There is so much to see. First, there is the all-American drama of a high school beauty pageant winner who is plucked from nowhere for Hollywood grooming and becomes a sensation in one of the most famous musical films ever made. Then comes Reynoldss marriage to Eddie Fisher, at the time on a par with Frank Sinatra as a swoonable crooner. Next up is his scandalous, marriage-wrecking affair with the beautiful widow next door, who just happens to be Elizabeth Taylor. Then along comes youthful Carrie, and before we know about her drug addiction and mental health struggles, she is established in an unrivalled position in the solar system as a sci-fi princess in the film that saved cinema. She goes on to have love affairs with Harrison Ford, Dan Ackroyd and Paul Simon, before developing a writing career and appearing in classics such as The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally.

The head of documentaries at HBO described Bright Lights as a love story in a recent interview with Variety. But the nuances of the dynamic between the two stars are exposed in the film. They are also evident in comments made last week by Carries younger brother, Todd. After the death he told press that his octogenarian mother had been lost without having Carrie to look after.

The documentary shows Fisher trekking back and forth up the path to her mothers home, where Reynolds awaits the cameras with full blow-dry and make-up. At one point they share a souffle with Gary the dog.

Yet the shared intimacies of the documentary are not the only justification for public interest in the private lives of these women. In 1987 Fisher wrote a thinly disguised novel about her conflict with her mother. Postcards from the Edge was made into a successful film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. As a result of this portrayal, many assumed their feud had raged on. Not so. Although Fisher refused to see her mother for about a decade after she made Star Wars, their fondness for each other won through. As Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times this weekend, they lived side-by-side in a state of truce. This proximity clearly rattled [Fisher], but it reassured her, too. It was equal parts intimidation and consolation in other words, motherhood itself.

The new film revolves around Reynoldss determination to keep performing and Fishers equal determination to protect her mother and see her hopes fulfilled. In what turned out to be Reynoldss last two shows, first in Connecticut, and then in Las Vegas, we watch her powers diminish. Most poignant of all, however, is the aftermath of her failure to set up a museum in Hollywood for the wealth of studio memorabilia she had built up, including Monroes subway grate dress and a pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The collection was eventually sold off at auction to pay off debts. Perhaps nearly as moving is the moment when Fisher joins her mother for one final time on stage at Vegas.

During scenes shot in London, where Fisher has travelled to appear in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we see the personal trainer foisted upon her by Lucasfilm, the production company. Asked if she keeps in touch with co-stars Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill, Fisher replies sarcastically that they run into each other at the celebrity cafe where we all just look more melted.

In an interview with the Guardian last year, Fisher confessed that her next meeting with Ford would cost her a blush or two. She had just published The Princess Diarist, a book which candidly chronicled their short affair. It was, she said, one of the most intense moments of her life and Ford had influenced her future relationships, steering her towards Simon, whom she dated for several years either side of an 11-month marriage.

Carrie Fisher, Todd Fisher and Debbie Reynolds for the opening of Irene at the Minskoff theatre in New York City, in 1973. Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage

Paul was much more verbal. But there was something very diffident again. He was the same amount older. I was 21 and Paul was 36. They were both very cerebral and serious. And they were witty, which is different from being funny.

For his part, Harrison is quoted as once telling Fisher: You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.

Key to her character was a need to make people laugh. Her book recalls her joy at managing to amuse Ford with her impersonation of him early in their affair. In the film Fisher also talks about her childhood efforts to keep her errant father inside the family home by entertaining him. The scene in the documentary where she visits the 82-year-old singer in hospital in a halting moment of reconciliation was too painful for her to watch again, the director has said.

Last week Todd Fisher told the New York Daily News that a joint funeral service was likely, so fans may have only one occasion to say farewell to Reynolds, all smiles and pink satin top hats, and Fisher, all sardonic barbs and dress-down honesty.

Billie Lourd, Fishers daughter by the leading Hollywood agent Bryan Lourd, once said that Reynolds was annoyed that she was never described as Debbie Reynoldss granddaughter and that both women urged her to avoid an acting career. Reynolds even showed Lourd diaries from her days on set in the 1950s, including a letter to herself which read: Dear Debbie, youre sitting in the make-up chair, you have no eyebrows, youre a shell of yourself, and its 5am. How did you get here?

Her advice would be to keep true to yourself and dont lose yourself. Or your eyebrows, Lourd told Vanity Fair.

Nevertheless, in a fitting finale to the film, and perhaps to two performers lives, the final shots are of Fisher and Reynolds consoling each other on a couch, reciting the lyrics to Theres No Business Like Show Business.

Famous mothers and daughters

Kate Hudson and Goldie Hawn
Hudson, 37, made her name as a serious actor in Almost Famous in 2000. Her mother, 71, was the comic darling of Rowan & Martins Laugh-In of the 1960s and graduated to romcoms and earned an Oscar nomination in 1980 for Private Benjamin. She returns to the screen in Snatched later this year.

Melanie Griffith and Tippi Hedren
The star of 1988s Working Girl made ordinariness charming. In contrast her mother was Alfred Hitchcocks ideal, remote woman in grey and represented highly-strung perfection in Alfred Hitchcocks
Vertigo and Marnie.

Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh
Curtis, 58, specialised in comedy, appearing in Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda and Freaky Friday, after starring first in the 1978 horror classic Halloween. Her glamorous mother starred in Orson Welless Touch of Evil, but is forever the doomed woman in the shower in Psycho.

Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland
Minnelli, 70, has survived a succession of health scares and remains a cult figure for her performance as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Garland still has higher cult worth, not just as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, but also for her rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in Meet Me in St Louis.

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