I haven’t stopped watching clips of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, since their untimely, dual passing. I’m thrown by fate’s rendition of this one-two punch. The horror of Fisher’s massive in-flight heart attack, Christmas week, was enough to send legions into a tailspin, but the follow up news that her grieving mother suffered a fatal stroke while planning her late daughter’s funeral, was simply too overwhelming to comprehend.
I’ve considered myself a fan of both women from afar, until now. After days of binging on television and movie clips, interviews, award shows, and YouTube fodder, I’ve come to learn details of their strife and rebirths, both individual and collective. And in the process, my respect for Debbie and Carrie has grown manifold. I have newfound admiration for the young Debbie Reynolds, who powered through with unmatched gumption, after being abruptly left by 1950s crooner, Eddie Fisher, for Elizabeth Taylor. Though her prowess as a singer, dancer and actress was mesmerizing in films like the star-making, Singing in the Rain, it was her fortitude and sheer grit, worthy of her Texas upbringing, that impressed me most.
With two toddlers in tow, Reynolds overcame betrayal, abandonment and sensational headlines to surface with her dignity intact, forging on to reinvent herself, and support a family, in an era when single mothers weren’t necessarily known to do so. Reynolds went on to act during two more failed marriages, when her husbands both caused financial ruin, amid rumors of infidelity. This, while juggling her fading fame, mothering Todd Fisher and his then troubled sister, Carrie (who struggled with mental illness and drug addiction), and later, a decade-long estrangement from her daughter. But, somehow, Reynolds’ humor remained a beacon during dark distress, her spirit, the catalyst for a career that thrived through her golden years — despite the rigors of show business and it’s inherent ageism. She indeed, remained afloat, much like her film character in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the performance for which she scored an Academy Award nomination.
During my reminiscing, I also became aware of Reynolds’ penchant for movie memorabilia and her extensive costume collection: Julie Andrews’ autographed guitar from the The Sound of Music, Charlie Chaplin’s hallmark bowler hat, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s indelible garbs from Cleopatra, among them. How inspiring, that after her share of disappointments, Reynolds wanted to preserve movie magic — and salute the community that embraced her as an idealistic ingenue of 17, then all but rejected her at 40. As Debbie’s audience knows, she embraced longevity, enjoying a stream of comebacks, in film, television and on stage, but her most treasured role, it seems, was that of a dedicated mother. In online snapshots with Carrie Fisher, their connection is palpable, making her daughter’s premature death that much crueler.
Carrie Fisher’s heart gave out, at just 60, though it seemed to have lived many lives — outlasting substance abuse, unsuccessful relationships and the rollercoaster that bipolar disorder can bring. She was no stranger to the limelight — or heartache. After negotiating the difficult task of growing up as the offspring of two celebrities, Fisher shot to instant stardom at just 19, as Princess Leia in George Lucas’ wildly popular Star Wars movie series, launched in the 1970s. Carrie, too, was unlucky in love, with her short-lived marriage to singer, Paul Simon, and later to the father of her child, Bryan Lourd, who left Carrie for a man. Road bumps aside, Carrie raised a daughter, Billie, also an actress (known for her work in Fox’s Scream Queens), reframed her fractured life, and continued to charm crowds. She made peace with her past, and even championed for the mentally ill.
Beyond her Princess Leia status, Carrie, like her movie star mother, was a bona fide triple threat: she could sing, act, and write. She penned a series of spot-on bestsellers to include Postcards from the Edge and Wishful Drinking, the first which became a film starring screen legends, Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, and the latter, an HBO special and her one-women Broadway show. In 2015, Fisher return to Star Wars, the franchise that made her a household name, only to be much-scrutinized for her appearance as General Leia Organa in the installment, Episode V11: The Force Awakens. Fair weather fans took to social media and belittled Carrie, saying she’d aged less than gracefully. But like the buoyant Debbie, Carrie, too, fought back — with words (and her signature sense of humor) to quiet the haters and journey on.
Both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher were iconic, but for reasons that transcended their Star Wars and Singing in the Rain personas. In the fishbowl facade of Hollywood, they dared to be human; they essentially let us in. With wisdom that comes from years in the spotlight, Debbie and Carrie reflected on their lives with brutal honesty, peppered with quotable one-liners. Regardless of their many woes, mother and daughter drew on their special brand of resilience to rebound and flourish: they were a unique team.
I was consoled to learn Carrie and Debbie lived next door to each other; they’d dismissed differences to reconcile and reclaim their unparalleled bond following years of upheaval — a lasting lesson, perhaps, for the forever-feuding. It’s no surprise that, according to her son, Todd, a distraught Reynolds said she “missed Carrie so much and wanted to be with her,” just minutes before her deadly stroke. Though Debbie was 84 and had ailed in recent years, one can’t help but think the brokenness at the thought of burying her child, was the final blow.
Both women suffered great losses, but in their deaths, became true winners. In the face of Hollywood’s strict standards, Debbie and Carrie were my kind of super heroes: they not only persevered, but broke barriers and skirted stigmas to emerge triumphant. Despite their tragic, sudden deaths, we can find solace knowing their legacies as accomplished entertainers, women of wit, fervent survivors, and unbreakable mother and daughter, have now taken center stage.