Y ou can almost hear Carrie Fisher’s voice come down from on high: “Really, Mom? You had to upstage me one last time?”
The instant memorials to Debbie Reynolds came pre-fitted with the words “Hollywood legend” before her name. And she was a legend, for different reasons to different people. For one generation, she was the fresh-faced teenage ingenue who, after being discovered at a Los Angeles beauty pageant, delivered her first big Hollywood star turn in the 1952 MGM musical “Singin’ in the Rain.” To those same fans, she was party to one of the most notorious romantic scandals of the 1950s, when her husband, the pop singer Eddie Fisher, left her for their dear friend Elizabeth Taylor after Taylor’s husband, the producer Mike Todd, met an untimely death. (The couples had been such good friends that Reynolds and Fisher named their son Todd.)
To another generation, Reynolds was known as “Princess Leia’s mom,” Princess Leia having been played by Carrie Fisher in “Star Wars.” And to another cohort still, she was assumed to be the inspiration for Fisher’s 1987 novel, “Postcards From the Edge,” a fictionalized memoir of Fisher’s recovery from a drug overdose. In the book, Reynolds’s character was mentioned only briefly (and not particularly negatively), but she loomed large in Fisher’s screenplay for the film adaptation, which starred Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. In that version, Fisher’s mother was brash, bossy and sometimes breathtakingly inappropriate in her attempts to steal the spotlight from her far more painfully self-aware daughter.
Although the story was about a mother and daughter who were both actresses — and embroiled in the kind of pressure, competitiveness and endless psychodrama such a relationship might naturally entail — Fisher insisted that it was far more fiction than fact. Still, “Postcards From the Edge” captured what might have been the most enduring truth about Reynolds: She was a trouper. A red-light performer. To borrow a phrase about another thinly fictionalized actress — Margo Channing, in “All About Eve” — if she could walk, crawl or roll, she played.
After her spectacular breakout in “Singin’ in the Rain” (which she made when she was 19, the same age Fisher was when she was catapulted to unexpected fame in “Star Wars”), Reynolds made 50 movies; she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in the musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” She did Broadway and television and she recorded a hit pop song, “Tammy,” from the 1957 movie “Tammy and the Bachelor.” She kept coming back, whether it was to play Albert Brooks’s mother in the 1996 comedy “Mother” or Debra Messing’s mother in the TV show “Will & Grace.”
And through it all, she continued to take her cabaret show on the road to Las Vegas. She was so indomitable (would “unsinkable” be too on-the-nose?), that well into her 80s, even after strokes and bouts of pneumonia, she would insist on booking just one more show. In May, when Carrie Fisher was at Cannes promoting the HBO documentary “Bright Lights,” about Reynolds’s latter-day nightclub career, she recalled that she hatched the idea for the film after watching her mother rally again and again, despite a failing memory and inevitable physical decline. “It’s the thing that gives her life, but it was also pulling it out of her,” Fisher explained, “because she’d perform, and then she’d have to recover.” When her mother would insist on playing one more date, Fisher admitted, “Part of me is, ‘Please, no.’ But it’s great that she has that kind of passion. And she adores it, so who am I to get in the way of it? Just don’t ask me to, because she automatically says, ‘And then you’ll come, too.’ ”
In Eugenia Zukerman’s 2003 book “In My Mother’s Closet: An Invitation to Remember,” Fisher wrote at length about her relationship with Reynolds, whose fame she “resented bitterly” when she was young. But, she added, “As a kid, I remember thinking, There is no other mother that even comes close to this broad. I still find my mother fascinating and very touching. She’s loyal, she’s reliable, she’s honest. Those qualities are hard won. She’s also quick, she’s certainly witty. She still performs, and whether she’s tired, or her foot hurts, when she’s out there onstage, she’s radiant, she’s the consummate performer. I’ve watched her for a long time, and she’s got this strong life force. It pours through her veins, her muscles, and her heart. It’s extraordinary.”
No one, least of all Fisher, should be surprised that she and Reynolds died just one day apart. Despite any strains in the past, by now they had grown close, not just physically (Fisher lived just up the hill from her mother in Los Angeles), but psychically as well. Reportedly, Reynolds’s last words were, “I want to be with Carrie.” Those are the understandable sentiments of a parent who can’t imagine the agony of outliving her only daughter — tinged, perhaps, with a touch of jealousy that Fisher had left to play the great gig in the sky without her mother, the consummate performer.
“And then you’ll come, too.” If Saint Peter is waiting, one can’t help but imagine him a bit intimidated by Fisher — coolly observing the scene and taking notes for mordant future reference — and Reynolds, adjusting her hair and makeup one last time before wowing him with a showstopper of an opening number. Dim the stars. Cue the music of the spheres. Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher will storm the pearly gates together. How, in heaven or on earth, could it ever have been otherwise?