What a terrible irony—in death, Golden Age star Debbie Reynolds is mostly being referred to as Carrie Fisher’s mother. Over the course of her forty-year career, Fisher never achieved the level of moviestardom that her mother enjoyed. On the other hand, Reynolds’ fatal stroke (at 84) just one day after Fisher succumbed to heart failure (at 60) is so very startling that I suspect the two will always find themselves linked in the public mind.
It was not always so. Back in 1952 the barely 20-year-old Reynolds was the toast of the town after nabbing the ingénue role in Singin’ in the Rain. The part of Kathy Selden, a pert chorus girl in the early days of talkies, required her to sing (something she was good at) and dance (something she was not). To keep up with expert hoofers Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly, she was coached by Kelly, a stern taskmaster. So grueling were their practice sessions that it’s remarkable she looks so carefree in numbers like “Good Morning.” (One charming bit of trivia: as part of the story, Reynolds’ low, sweet speaking voice replaces the shrill and nasal on-camera enunciations of Lina Lamont, the screen diva played by Jean Hagen. The problem was that Reynolds’ slight Texas twang lacked the elegant sound the script required. So Hagen herself was called upon to dub in the lines, using her own natural register rather than Lina Lamont’s unforgettable squawk. Got that?)
Early on, Reynolds consistently played women who are spunky, but still subscribe to conventional values. In The Tender Trap (1955), 23-year-old Reynolds lands 40-year-old Frank Sinatra. He plays a ladies’ man with no use for domesticity, until the adorable Debbie convinces him he’d be happier with a home and babies. Similar roles marked other films, including Tammy and the Bachelor. In the next decade, she stretched, but just a bit, playing a spunky frontier woman in How the West Was Won (1962), and then the really spunky lead in the screen version of a Broadway musical hit, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Her theme song in that film, “I Ain’t Down Yet,” served to sum up the rest of her career, as well as her turbulent personal life.
In 1955 she had married nice-boy crooner Eddie Fisher. The two of them starred in a 1956 comedy, Bundle of Joy, that was meant to reflect their status as the perfect Hollywood young-marrieds. That same year, Debbie gave birth to Carrie; son Todd followed in 1958. But a year later the perfect marriage was on the rocks, thanks to Eddie Fisher’s dalliance with the newly-widowed Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal enveloped everyone: I remember reading at the time that Debbie’s publicist made sure she had diaper pins affixed to her blouse to help ratchet up sympathy when the press came to visit. (A second marriage, to millionaire businessman Harry Karl, was also a disaster – his gambling habit sapped her fortune as well as his own.)
Throughout it all, Reynolds remained active, in both business matters and humanitarian endeavors. She also kept performing, most notably playing an addled mom in Albert Brooks’ Mother (1996)/ In 1990 the rumor was that her daughter’s deeply satiric Postcards from the Edge reflected her own imperious style of mothering. No question that there was strain, at times, between Carrie Fisher and her mom. But in early 2017, HBO will air Bright Lights, an acclaimed documentary chronicling the connection between Debbie and Carrie, with a focus on the unshakable bond between them. No one who worked on it could have guessed that it would be their valedictory.