This week on our “Wine and Film, A Perfect Pairing” Podcast on reVolver Podcasts, we took a break from new releases and great pairings, instead to celebrate the lives of two incredible women, lost tragically over the holidays. Listen to the show here, clicking “episode 28,” and be sure to subscribe through iTunes, Google, Spotify or IHeartRadio. More notes on each of their lives below.
The back to back loss of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds was so sudden it’s taken me a few days to shake off the unexpected sadness so I can thoughtfully reflect on and admire their remarkable careers. Both had personal issues and demons to overcome but I never felt they were “tortured” artists trying to find their way, just complicated, accomplished women.
I spent quality time interviewing Carrie and Debbie over the years apart from each other, over movies, books, and public appearances and at some point the conversation would always roll around admirably to each other. Both achieved super star status at a young age (19) never resting on past accomplishments. They were talkers, doers, intense, funny, and always generous in conversation. They laughed a lot and they always made eye contact.
I was in Tyler Texas in 1977 when I saw the first “Star Wars” film and couldn’t get it out of my head, returning multiple times and becoming culturally enraptured with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia. Carrie would write candidly about her honey bun experiences in books, on talk shows, and on stage in HBO’s painfully direct, “Wishful Drinking.” In her latest book, “The Princess Diarist,” she admitted to having an affair with Harrison Ford during filming. I wasn’t surprised.
Carrie Fisher was briefly married to Paul Simon, was engaged to Dan Akyroyd, and served as a”script doctor” for “The Wedding Singer.” She suffered from depression, was admittedly bi-polar, and participated willingly in a certain form of shock therapy called ECT.
She worked with Woody Allen in one of his best films, “Hannah And Her Sisters,” played a therapist in, “Austin Powers,” worked with Tom Hanks in, “The Burbs,” and I loved her opposite Meg Ryan in, “Sleepless In Seattle.”
Last night we re-watched, “The Force Awakens,” and I was reminded how some actors transcend age or personal drama to remain iconic. It felt satisfying and bittersweet to see an older Princess Leia greeting Han Solo by caressing his face and I think for the first time I understood how much affection goes into these films.
Two days after Christmas, Carrie Fisher, died much too young at the age of 60.
Sadly, her mother, Debbie Reynolds, immediately followed compounding the experience for most of us because a child passing before a parent always hits you in the gut.
Debbie grew up Mary Francis Reynolds in El Paso, Texas. Her mother took in laundry, her father was a ditch digger, and at the age of 7 they moved to California where 9 years later she would win the 1948 “Miss Burbank Beauty Contest.” She entered because they gave away “a silk scarf, a blouse, and a screen test to the winner.”
Two talent scouts served as judges, they flipped a coin, and it was on to Warner Brothers where Jack Warner re-named her “Debbie” because, “it was a cute name for a little girl.” She started working in the studio system, tried to get rid of her Texas accent, and her life changed at 19 when she landed the role opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in, “Singing In The Rain.”
It is an astounding film to watch and if you focus on Debbie Reynolds’ performance you’ll see she plays it stride for stride as one of the boys. “Singing In The Rain” was not critically acclaimed in 1952 as Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds weren’t even nominated for an Academy Award. Currently AFI lists “Singing In The Rain” as the #1 Musical of all time and #5 on the “Best Films” of all time.
Debbie Reynolds was nominated for an Academy Award for, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” was popular as, “The Singing Nun,” played Albert Brooks’ mother in, “Mother,” Liberace’s mom in, “Behind The Candelabra,” and provided the voice of Charlotte in, “Charlotte’s Web.” She also sang the Oscar-nominated title song in “Tammy & The Bachelor” topping the Billboard music charts for 5 weeks and making Debbie Reynolds the best selling female musical artist of 1957.
She half owned with NBC, “The Debbie Reynolds Show,” in 1969 and walked away from a two year contract after one year because she was personally against cigarette ads (Pall Mall) on her show and NBC wouldn’t budge. The ratings were enormous and at the time Debbie Reynolds was the highest paid female performer on television. She later called it, “one of the dumbest things she ever did in her life.”
Debbie Reynolds married Eddie Fisher in 1955 and were instantly labled “America’s Sweethearts.” They had two children (Carrie & Todd) but it ended in a widely publicized divorced (1959) as Eddie ran off with Elizabeth Taylor. She lost millions in her next two marriages to businessman Harry Karl (1960-1973) and real estate developer Richard Hamlet (1984-1996).
She bought the “Clarion Hotel & Casino” in Vegas in 1992, re-named it the “Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel,” and the hotel filed for bankruptcy five years later. At one time she also owned one of the largest collections of movie memorabilia in the world, selling off most of her collection before her death.
I choose to remember her as a tiny, talkative, Hollywood legend, who couldn’t stop smiling. She knew more about movies and movie history than most of us and then there’s, “Singing In The Rain.”
She died the day after her daughter at the age of 84 on December 28th.