“My self-image is just whacked from having the movie-star mom,” said Carrie Fisher, in 2011, on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“My mother would get up in the morning as my mother. And then she would get into this big closet that she had. And you would go in on this end and there’d be the shirts and the shoes and maybe some slacks. Then you’d turn left and it’s skirts and dresses. And at the other end, probably nightgowns and robes. She’d go in on this end as my mom, and she’d come out the other end as Debbie Reynolds.”
Reynolds died of a stroke on Wednesday, at 84, merely one day after losing Fisher. The pair had become closer by the time they appeared on Oprah. Like her daughter, who shot to world fame in the New Hollywood era after a turn in the decade-defining Star Wars trilogy, Reynolds was a star of her time. She was one of the bigger Hollywood celebs of the ’50s and ’60s, thanks to roles in films like Singin’ in the Rain and to the scandals — the husband, Eddie Fisher, Carrie’s father, that Reynolds famously lost to Elizabeth Taylor; the $7 million she lost to another husband, a gambler — that kept her gossiped about.
Her turn in Singin’ in the Rain as Kathy Selden begins with a bit of magic. Fleeing a mob of autograph-seeking teenagers, the Hollywood star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) leaps into her car from atop a trolley. She pretends to only sort of care who he is. “I don’t go to the movies much,” she says. “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Selden is a stage actress — or trying to be. She’s actually a dancer in a chorus line, and the next time she and Lockwood see each other, she’s just popped out of a cake at a Hollywood studio party.
Reynolds was only 19 when she shot Signin’ in the Rain and had learned to dance just three months before filming. Suddenly, in songs like “Good Morning,” she was sharing the screen with two of Hollywood’s great dancers — the smooth, jazz-inflected Kelly, and the manically athletic Donald O’Connor — tumbling over couches, skipping up and down flights of stairs, hopping over bar stools onto a bar. If Reynolds couldn’t quite match the veterans in outright technique, she gave them a run for their money at making it look easy. She was an open, inviting performer — a complement to her character, Kathy. Kelly’s charming Lockwood is a skirt chaser stuck in a publicity-ready romance with the squeak-voiced blonde Lina Lamont. Seldon, on the other hand, may as well have been named “Not that kind of girl.” That’s thanks to Reynolds, who’d go on to become America’s sweetheart, starring in films like Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), The Mating Game (1959), and The Pleasure of His Company (1961).
In her semi-autobiographical 1987 novel Postcards From the Edge and the screenplay based on it, Fisher wrote herself and her mother into the characters Suzanne Vale and Doris Mann. Vale (Meryl Streep) was a Percodan- and cocaine-addicted actress who comes to terms with her and her mother’s relationship after a drug scare. Her mother, Mann (Shirley MacLaine), is a performer, too — too much so. “We’re designed more for public than for private,” Vale says. More complicatedly, the movie, directed by Mike Nichols, suggests the tie between mother and daughter was sometimes strained by celebrity.
Fisher, who began to use drugs early in life, openly spoke about the difficulties of having celebrity parents — namely, the attention usually reserved for the child is instead heaped on the parents. In Postcards, this is manifest as a mother who can’t even stop from stealing the show at her daughter’s post-rehab welcome home party. “Why do you have to take over every situation that you’re in?” Vale says to her mother. “Why do you have to completely overshadow me?”
In real life, thanks to Star Wars, Fisher would outpace her mother in terms of Hollywood fame and cultural relevance. Reynolds would joke, “It’s OK because I’m Princess Leia’s mother so everywhere I go, [I say] ‘I’m ‘Princess Leia’s mother’ now.” Reynolds never stopped working, however. After her second husband lost all of her money, she fell into a career of nightclub showings, a Tony-nominated turn on Broadway, voice acting, and much more. She experienced another wave of fame in the early ’00s, playing Grace Adler’s sing-songy, judgmental actress mother on the sitcom Will & Grace.
More recently, she played the role of reconciled mother of Carrie Fisher. “I would say that Carrie and I have finally found happiness,” she told Oprah. “I always feel, as a mother does, that I protect her.” According to Carrie, she did. “I’m not afraid of almost anything,” Carrie said to her mother on Oprah’s stage. “And that’s a lot because of your example.”