The passing only one day apart of mother-daughter actresses Debbie Reynolds (December 28) and Carrie Fisher (December 27) was a shock for multiple generations of movie fans. Described as “Hollywood royalty,” both women achieved stardom at very distinct points in Hollywood history and left their mark in enduring roles
Reynolds had never considered an acting career when she entered the Miss Burbank contest in 1948. Her sole goal was the free blouse and scarf offered to all entrants. But the pageant judges included major studio talent scouts who saw the petite competitor’s energy, vivaciousness, and wholesome looks. Reynolds not only won the title, she received a contract during the era when movie moguls and studios controlled stars’ lives and images.
Given the screen name “Debbie” (which she never liked) by studio boss Jack Warner, Reynolds achieved stardom at age 19 for her role in “Singin’ in the Rain” alongside dancers Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Having never danced before, Reynolds was put through her paces by Kelly who, according to Reynolds, “Criticized everything I did and never gave me a word of encouragement.” But, as she would have to do many times in her life, Reynolds stuck it out and emerged the victor, becoming a star and a household name.
Married three times, Reynolds’ spouses gave her challenges which impacted her personally and professionally. Husband number one, singer Eddie Fisher, left her and their two small children for recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor (another member of Hollywood royalty) after the plane crash death of Taylor’s husband, and Fisher’s best friend, producer Mike Todd.
Second husband Harry Karl’s gambling left Reynolds, as she described it, “Flat broke.” The mismanagement of her Las Vegas casino by husband number three, real estate developer Richard Hamlett, resulted in bankruptcy. Through it all, Reynolds held her head high, earning public admiration and inviting comparisons to her true life, Titanic survivor screen character “Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
Carrie Fisher, Reynolds’ first child from her marriage to Eddie Fisher, grew up surrounded by show business. Like her mother, Fisher entered movies as a teen, first starring in 1975’s “Shampoo” opposite Warren Beatty.
While her mother had achieved stardom in the studio system, Fisher entered the movie business during the renegade 1970’s. Studio control had collapsed. Actors were independent contractors, free to make their own career choices but also not guaranteed steady work.
However, Fisher found stardom plus a recurring role, when cast as Princess Leia in 1977’s “Star Wars.” As the only featured female character in the film, Fisher’s portrayal of the brave and feisty princess won her both male and female fans. One month before her death, and almost 40 years after “Star Wars” premiere, Fisher told NPR’s Terry Gross, “I like Princess Leia. I like how she handles things, I like how she treats people. She tells the truth.”
Fisher had entered Hollywood fully aware of the movie business’ insatiable appetite for young, “new” talent. As she told Oprah in a 2011 interview, “My mother was no longer wanted in movies by the time she was 40.” Despite this reality, both Fisher and Reynolds maintained lifelong creative careers. Reynolds took to the stage, both on Broadway and in Las Vegas, continuing to sing and dance her way into fans’ hearts.
Personally, Fisher struggled with drug addiction and mental health challenges. But, ever the artist, she turned her life experiences into material for books including Postcards from the Edge, Shockaholic, and 2016’s The Princess Diarist. Fisher displayed her quick sense of humor in a one woman stage show, “Wishful Drinking,” which became a book plus the subject of an HBO documentary.
In addition to her career longevity, Reynolds also earned the admiration of film historians (myself included) for her drive to preserve production memorabilia. From silent screen star Charlie Chaplin’s trademark bowler hat, to Julie Andrews’ frock and guitar used in the “Do Re Mi” scene in “The Sound of Music,” to Marilyn Monroe’s white sundress from “The Seven Year Itch,” Reynolds bought and preserved iconic items from Hollywood history.
In 1970, she’d been horrified to learn her former studio “home,” MGM, intended to auction off its props, costumes and Lot 2. When the studio refused Reynolds’ offer to buy the lot, she went to the auction and saved iconic pieces from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
For a time, Reynolds’ collection was displayed in her Las Vegas casino. Her third husband’s mismanagement of the property financially ended her dream of starting a permanent movie memorabilia museum. Accepting this fact in the early 2000s, Reynolds began to auction parts of her 5000 piece collection.
The success of 2014’s “Hollywood Costume,” an exhibit jointly organized by Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, demonstrates Reynolds’ accuracy in predicting film memorabilia is of interest to the public.
For their contributions to entertainment, both on screen and off, Reynolds and Fisher truly earned the description “Hollywood royalty.” Long may their achievements last.