Man, 2016 has been tough. Gordie Howe, Muhammad Ali, Prince, George Michael, Alan Rickman, and Craig Sager are all celebrities that have passed on this year. In the last two days though, two more celebrities have passed on, and their deaths hit a bit closer to home for me.
I grew up a massive Star Wars fan. I’ve watched Episodes IV, V, and VI so many times and have memorized every line of those films. I still grin when Han yells “Yahoo!” after shooting down the TIE fighters to save Luke, I still smile whenever Yoda says anything in Empire Strikes Back, and I still tear up when Vader is redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi. So you can imagine my sadness when my Dad read a news report that Carrie Fisher passed away.
I looked online to see for myself, and indeed, Carrie Fisher had passed away at 60 years old due to complications of a heart attack she suffered while returning to Los Angeles from London. Only one day later, Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, was rushed to the hospital and died of a suspected stroke. Just like that, two of film’s most famous stars, and the leading ladies of my favorite musical and film franchise, are gone and millions of fans are left to mourn their passing, appreciate their work, and marvel at how tragic portions of their lives were and how positive they remained through it all.
Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1932, Mary Frances Reynolds was raised in a strict Nazarene household and was a leader in her Girl Scout troop. She would remain a face for them for years and there is still a scholarship bearing her name given to high school aged scouts. At five years old, her family relocated to Burbank, CA. At 16, she entered into and won the Miss Burbank Beauty Contest. That contest got her a contract with Metro Goldwyn Meyer. Jack Warner, the owner of the Warner Brothers studio gave her the name Debbie because it was a cuter name than Mary Frances.
Her first notable role was in 1950’s Three Little Words, starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton. Reynolds was nominated for a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer for that role. She didn’t win, but she found favor with the executives at the studio, and in 1952, was given the role that would define her career at only 19 years old.
She was cast as the female lead of Singing in the Rain, starring and codirected by dance and film legend Gene Kelly. This ended up being brutal on Reynolds. She wasn’t a dancer before the film, she had been a gymnast. As a result, she was not prepared to get every step right. Kelly was harsh on her, insulting the 19 year old for her lack of dancing knowledge and ability. MGM star Fred Astaire, whom Reynolds had worked with on Three Little Words, found her in a studio crying under a piano after an especially harsh grilling by Kelly. Astaire agreed to help her get the steps right and teach her some important things to do the film. She got through it, but not without major stress. The number “Good Morning”, for example took from 8am until 11pm to shoot in one day, left Reynolds with sore and badly bleeding feet. She was sore and exhausted, but her place in Hollywood was sealed. Singing in the Rain was a modest success on its initial run, earning Donnie O’Conner a Golden Globe for best actor and a sizable profit for MGM. It has since been regarded as the greatest movie musical ever made, a sentiment I whole heartedly agree with.
From there, Reynolds continued to land big roles for MGM. She met Eddie Fisher, a singer and TV show host around this time and married him in 1955. A year later, their first child was born. Reynolds had filmed three movies with intricate dance choreography while pregnant with her daughter, notably Bundle of Joy, but there was no harm. Carrie Frances Fisher was born on October 21, 1956, and all seemed to be going well for the family. And then life got complicated.
In 1959, Eddie Fisher left Debbie, Carrie, and one year old son Todd to pursue a relationship with Reynold’s friend, Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher and Reynolds divorced and Reynolds became a working single mother in Hollywood. Teheran managed as well as she could, eventually getting both children into the entertainment business and getting married to a millionaire businessman named Harry Karl. This marriage also ended in controversy, with the two divorcing in 1973 and Reynolds suing Karl after Karl had gambled away almost all of Reynold’s savings.
While her mother was struggling, Carrie was hiding away from the complications in books. She read classic literature and poetry to the point of being called “the bookworm” by her family. She attended Beverly Hills high school until the performing world and her mother got in the way. Debbie took on work as a stage actress with film chances coming in slower, and was cast as the lead in a broadway revival of Irene. Carrie was cast as a Debutante in the show and learned the tricks of the trade from mother dearest.
Fisher decided that she wanted to make this a living and was accepted to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She studied there for 18 months. Shortly after, she followed a path similar to her mother. Her debut film role was a small role in Shampoo, starring Warren Beatty. The film saw real financial success and Fisher was off to a good start in the film world.
Shortly thereafter, Fisher was cast as the female lead of George Lucas’ new space opera: Star Wars. She thought the script was outstanding but didn’t think many others would, so she kept quiet. Much like Singing in the Rain, Star Wars was also a painstaking process. There wasn’t an obnoxious director insulting her talents, but the process was stalled many times because of technical failures and malfunctions, the rest of the cast didn’t take it as seriously as she and Alec Guinness did, and she was uncomfortable because she was taped up under her costume in place of wearing actual underwear, because according to George Lucas, “There is no underwear in space.”
She and the crew waited with baited breath to see the reaction to the film and to everyone’s shock, it became the highest grossing film of all time. It has been surpassed, but the original Star Wars film is still regarded as one of cinema’s greatest achievements, again, something I agree with 100 percent.
Fisher would reprise her role as Princess Leia in the next two Star Wars films and would become synonymous with that special galaxy, far, far away. She had other roles, like the Mystery Woman in Blues Brothers and Marie in When Harry Met Sally. But similarly to her mother, she was known for her best film and her personal troubles.
Fisher married Paul Simon in 1983, divorced him in 1984, had a number of relationships with different entertainers, including an affair with Harrison Ford, being briefly engaged to Dan Aykroyd, and dating and having a child with Bryan Lourd. On top of that, she suffered from bipolar disorder and drug addiction that siphoned years off her life. Her mother didn’t have the drug problem, but Carrie had become a star and became just as famous for her relationships as her work on the screen.
Through it all, they kept working, kept entertaining, and found ways to turn their pain into art. Carrie turned her drug problem into a semi-autobiographical novel and then into a movie: Postcards From the Edge, starring Meryl Streep. Debbie served as an inspiration to her daughter through all her issues, and they maintained a healthy relationship for years, after not speaking for close to a decade. Todd Fisher told news sources that Reynolds final words before her stroke were “I want to be with Carrie.”
I love the work these two ladies put on the screen. Singing in the Rain is the greatest movie musical ever made and Star Wars is easily my favorite entertainment franchise. For fans of both franchises to lose their heroes in two days is tragic. For Todd Fisher and Billie Lourd to lose two pivotal family members is even worse. My prayers are with the family, and I will have a more difficult time watching their work, especially the now complicated Star Wars: Episode VIII.