Friday 23 March 2018

Reynolds and Fisher were a saga straight from Hollywood Babylon

Movie star Debbie Reynolds died one day after the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher

TEMPER TANTRUM: Working long hours on the set of “Say One For Me,” Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds struggled to juggle her career and motherhood especially with her daughter Carrie who is pictured having a tantrum while younger brother Todd is cuddled by mum (AP)
TEMPER TANTRUM: Working long hours on the set of “Say One For Me,” Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds struggled to juggle her career and motherhood especially with her daughter Carrie who is pictured having a tantrum while younger brother Todd is cuddled by mum (AP)

Hilary A White

At the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a CGI likeness of Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia is seen in order to usher in a sense of nostalgia for the 1977 sci-fi trilogy that made Fisher a star. Her skin has the waxen finish only a computer can conjure, and eyes as dead and soulless as a robot's. Only the trademark "cinnamon buns" hairdo of the character look authentic.

The film is still raking it in at the omniplexes as Fisher's death resounds around the world in the year of the great cultural cull. It is a criminal way to see "Fisher" one last time on the big screen, especially in the role that cemented her place not only in the libidos of teenage sci-fi geeks via a famous copper bikini, but in the very iconography of 20th century cinema.

HAPPY FAMILY: Reynolds finally kissed and made up with daughter Carrie (AP)
HAPPY FAMILY: Reynolds finally kissed and made up with daughter Carrie (AP)

Fisher's death at 60 last Tuesday, four days after suffering a heart attack on board a flight from London, had a lead-in that softened the blow somewhat to those who adored not only her screen presence but also the whip-smart wit that she arguably became equally famous for in her later years as a memoirist and writer. That it was followed just 24 hours later by the passing of her grieving 84-year-old mother, the once glittering, scandal-ridden screen icon Debbie Reynolds, compounded the scenario into something altogether more sad and incomprehensible. Relatives are planning a joint funeral service for Reynolds and Fisher.

Parents are not meant to bury their children, as the old adage goes, and Reynolds was reported by son Todd Fisher to have said in her final moments that she wanted "to be with Carrie". This from the mother whom Fisher resented strongly through her early years as drugs, mental illness and a chaotic upbringing coalesced to drive a wedge between the two. For their relationship to make such a recovery is a wonder, especially when you look at the carry-on and the carnage that took place all those years ago against a backdrop of mega-stardom, drug abuse, rotten husbands and psychiatric treatment.

Postcards From The Edge, Fisher's 1987 semi-autobiography, looked to detail the rift at its worst but was animated by that lacerating humour that Fisher brought to all of the sorrier revelations of her colourful life. When it was adapted by Fisher for cinema in 1990, Meryl Streep took the starring role as Suzanne Vale, an actress on the mend for drug-addiction. The part of her glamorous film star mother Doris Mann, meanwhile, went to Shirley MacLaine. Suzanne has spent her life in the shadow of Doris's star wattage, and feels smothered when she is forced into Doris's care after rehab. All this to a potent metaphorical backdrop of changing sets, post-production corrective overdubs and costumes that stay on after cameras have finished rolling. Art and life enmesh in the Mike Nichols film.

It is worth mentioning at this point that MacLaine had been the first choice for the lead in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the 1964 musical that nabbed an Oscar nomination for the eventual holder of that part - Debbie Reynolds. It is one of many crossed wires in the Reynolds-Fisher cat's cradle that you simply couldn't make up. Time heals all wounds, and so it was with Reynolds and Fisher. Suzanne has a put-down, a retort and a bat-away for every Hollywood cliche that is thrown her way by the Tinseltown circus around her. Fisher was 34 when the film came out and was clearly rolling her eyes at it all while reconciling with her mother. An understanding is met between the two by the time Postcards… concludes, with Suzanne banishing her caustic grandmother out of the hospital ward where she has been bullying Doris.

Carrie as a baby with proud parents (AP)
Carrie as a baby with proud parents (AP)

The veil is gossamer thin. Reynolds was born Mary Frances Reynolds in 1932, growing up in a poor household in the Texas border town of El Paso. Fisher claimed that her grandmother Maxine was physically abusive to her daughter. There was jealousy and resentment there, Fisher felt, a more iron-fisted version of what Reynolds endured from her daughter during their relationship's nadir.

Reynolds, after all, was simply made out of stellar DNA. Bright, musical and effortlessly graceful, the suspicion is that neither her mother nor, many years later, her drug-addled, bipolar daughter, could abide the charisma she radiated. Following a move to California and the winning of a beauty contest when she was 16, Reynolds signed to Warner Bros and adopted the mantle "Debbie". Two rather fruitless years later, she moved to MGM and the rest is history. Unequipped with natural dancing talent, she grafted hard after landing a lead role in Gene Kelly's Singing in the Rain in 1952, to the point that rehearsals for "Good Morning" caused her feet to bleed.

Both Reynolds and Fisher were 19 when they landed life-changing roles. For Fisher, it had been as Lorna, a sassy ingenue insisting to Warren Beatty's philanderer that she is "nothing like" her mother. It was two years later, in 1977, that George Lucas's Star Wars rocketed her profile into the stratosphere, bringing with it the vortex-like fame that she ultimately regretted.

Fisher's disenchantment was society's gain, however. Like many of my generation, I emerged into this world and Star Wars was just there. It was a ubiquitous presence whose operatic, wide-screen narrative came to play a part in providing a mythological vocabulary for millions of childhoods. Princess Leia, leading rebels and facing down cinema's most notorious villain Darth Vader, was one of the first female figures we beheld outside our family spheres. She was granite-strength, heroic, bold and devastatingly doe-eyed. She rescued her menfolk and freed herself from Jabba the Hutt's chains. Such was the chemistry between Fisher and then-married co-star Harrison Ford (14 years her senior) that revelations in her recent memoir The Princess Diarist about an "intense" three-month on-set affair were not particularly shocking. The pair would have three more franchise outings together on the silver screen - The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of The Jedi (1983) and The Force Awakens (2015). She is said to have filmed scenes for the next Star Wars instalment as well.

Carrie Fisher and husband Paul Simon (AP)
Carrie Fisher and husband Paul Simon (AP)

The 1980s were generally Fisher's halcyon era in cinema, with her Princess Leia duties punctuating top-drawer turns in The Blues Brothers, The Man with One Red Shoe, Woody Allen dramedy Hannah and Her Sisters and When Harry Met Sally. It was, however, also the decade where her addiction to cocaine and prescription painkillers, as well as personal demons, threw her life into disarray. Not only did she and Reynolds barely speak for a decade but her marriage to Paul Simon in 1983 ended in divorce a year later followed by years of relapses into each other's arms.

Starved of attention by her mother and estranged from her father Eddie Fisher, she claims to have begun smoking marijuana at 13 before moving on to harder substances in her twenties. "I didn't do other kinds of drugs until I was about 20. Then, by the time I was 21, it was LSD. I didn't love cocaine but I wanted to feel any way other than the way I did, so I'd do anything," she revealed in 2013. By 1985, she had been hospitalised by an overdose on medication, before undergoing a spell in rehab and finally being diagnosed as manic depressive (or bipolar, as it is known today).

Fisher remained active in Hollywood through the 1990s and 2000s but the parts were bitty and low-profile compared to her heyday. The typewriter became her principal domain, and a slew of bestselling novels, unflinching memoirs and script work on prominent film projects suggested that her real talent had finally been uncovered. In typical Fisher/Reynolds fashion, she had a daughter - actress Billie Lourd - in 1992 by talent agent Bryan Lourd who then left her a couple of years later for a man. A well-received stage show of her memoir Wishful Drinking came in 2008 and a feature-length documentary about her and Reynolds entitled Bright Lights is promised for early in the New Year. The celebrity that she regained through her writing work was far more suited to Fisher than the phalanxes of flashbulbs that dogged her Star Wars years. She had seen what this had done to the relationship between Reynolds and her father, the 1950s singing sensation Eddie Fisher, and hinted that her dysfunction was down to her unconventional childhood. "[I am] truly a product of Hollywood inbreeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result," she quipped in Wishful Drinking.

Fisher was just a year old when, in 1958, Eddie left her and her mother for Elizabeth Taylor in a scandal that rocked Hollywood. Taylor had just lost husband Mike Todd in a plane crash in March of that year. The two couples had been very tight, with Reynolds and Fisher acting as maid of honour and best man at their wedding. "Naturally, my father flew to Elizabeth's side," she told Oprah Winfrey in a joint interview with Reynolds in 2011, "gradually making his way slowly to her front."

Both Fisher and her mother found forgiveness in their late years, with Taylor revealing to Fisher that the relationship was to "keep Todd alive" after she had been left grieving her husband's death with an infant daughter in tow. Not only is Reynolds' son named after Mike Todd but she and Taylor would go on to be cast alongside each other, as well as MacLaine, in a 2001 straight-to-TV comedy called These Old Broads. And the scriptwriter of this film? One Carrie Fisher.

Taylor of course would rebound spectacularly with Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra, setting off yet another moral earthquake through wholesome American society in 1962. She and Reynolds patched things up some years later after bizarrely happening upon each other on a cruise liner. They remained friends until Taylor's death in 2011. Reynolds knew a thing or two about romantic tumult as well, mind you, and the "unsinkable" prefix that attached itself to her was a sign of her resilience after the mayhem of her second marriage to millionaire shoe salesman Harry Karl in 1960. Karl turned out to be a particularly bad egg, gambling away not only his own fortune, but hers too. Reynolds however had been poor once before and said that poverty caused her "no fear". She bounced back, marrying a third and final time in 1984 to Richard Hamlett and finding a new career as a voiceover artist. Reynolds and Fisher. Both thrust into the brightest spotlights at 19. Both unlucky in love. Both the victims of bad decisions made at chaotic junctures in their lives. Both masters at laughing at life's rich and ruinous pageant. And both coming together after wilderness years and seeing not barriers or grudges in each other, but comfort and connection. So strong was their reconvergence that they lived as next-door neighbours in LA for the final 15 years of their lives. A saga straight from Hollywood Babylon, and a mother-daughter rift tempered by time, forgiveness and hard-won laughter. "I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra," Fisher said in Wishful Drinking. Who are we to refuse a Princess and the Queen by her side.

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