By Alan Hurst
The deaths almost two years ago of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds – only one day apart – produced volumes of commentary, career retrospectives and forever enshrined them in a tragic but oddly fitting way. Aside from Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, no other Hollywood mother-daughter were so inextricably linked with each other. Only 60, Carrie died too soon and Debbie died too soon after Carrie for it to be any other way. But one of the positives has been the renewed attention on their work – Debbie as an actress and performer and Carrie as a writer.
I readily acknowledge that Debbie Reynolds wasn’t in the same league as Judy Garland or her two closet contemporaries, Doris Day and Shirley MacLaine. However, with the right material and director she could hit it out of the park.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) made her a star and she’s great – pretty, full of energy, but with just enough of an edge, and she proved to be a wonderful dancer under Gene Kelly’s direction. It’s still the best musical ever made and she’s a major reason.
A lot of MGM B-musicals followed where she was always cute and energetic, but they really just blend into each other and none provided her with any really opportunity to shine. She was finally able to show that should could handle drama in The Catered Affair (1956). It’s not a great film, but she delivered a completely realistic portrayal of a young bride-to-be whose wedding is the catalyst for the drama – although it does stretch credibility to imagine her as the off-spring of Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine. She won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress.
More antiseptic hits (as well as the Elizabeth Taylor-Eddie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds tabloid scandal) followed before her next major films: How the West Was One (1963) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). How the West Was Won is, again, not a great film, but it is big with some spectacular sequences, a great score, a huge A-list cast and Debbie at its centre as one of the key characters linking everything together. It’s not a nuanced performance, but there’s a terrific energy. The Unsinkable Molly Brown came at the end of the MGM’s string of great musicals and it’s a bit of a letdown. For budget reasons they cut musical numbers from the Broadway show, some spectacular location shooting is mixed with cheap looking on-set exteriors, and there’s a depiction of the Titanic sinking that’s over in seconds. But this is Debbie’s show – she’s not subtle, but you can’t take your eyes of her and she is wonderful in the few musical numbers that were left in the film. She received her only Oscar nomination for this one.
Following that there was not much of value until What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), the latest in the long line of horror films pairing two aging actresses: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971). This is B-movie stuff but, despite the cheap production, the atmosphere of 1930s Hollywood feels just right and Debbie plays her part with enough grit to balance the craziness that Shelley Winters brings to the table.
There was some nice voice work in the animated Charlotte’s Web (1973) and then nothing until Mother (1996) where she delivered the best performance of her career – a sly, funny, steely performance as the ultimate passive aggressive mother to Albert Brooks’ slightly annoying son. It’s a terrific film and one of the best comedies of the decade. This one should have won her the Oscar, but not even a nomination.
One film role that could have come her way but didn’t was Postcards from the Edge (1990). This is one of the best films about Hollywood ever made – sharp, funny, and perfectly directed by Mike Nichols. It’s the film version of Carrie Fisher’s top achievement as a writer, which she adapted from her own best seller. The film spends less time in the rehab facility than the novel does but that allowed for a laser focus on the relationship between mother and daughter – thinly disguised versions of Carrie and Debbie, played in the film by Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. Debbie wanted the part, correctly assuming people would think it was her anyway. But her casting probably would have tipped the film’s balance away from the Carrie character as well as take the spotlight for the film’s critical success away from Carrie the writer. The casting of Shirley MacLaine may have been a bit of Hollywood karma at work – MacLaine was actually set for the film version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown until Debbie went after it.
Postcards from the Edge was the start of Carrie’s career as a writer – and, from an artistic perspective, it’s her writing that she will ultimately be remembered for. Her success with her adaptation of Postcards from the Edge (her script should have been Oscar nominated) put her in high demand as a script doctor, working uncredited on numerous films including Sister Act (1992), Hook (1990) and The Wedding Singer (1998). There were many other successful novels and memoirs, one resulting in a well received one-woman show – Wishful Drinking – that she performed on Broadway, on tour, and in an Emmy-nominated HBO special. This is not to diminish her achievements as a performer – the Star Wars films, a nice performance in When Harry Met Sally (1989), and the beautifully performed Wishful Drinking – but to highlight the impact of her skill, humor and insights as a writer.
There was also another script by Carrie, this one specifically for her mom and Elizabeth Taylor. These Old Broads (2001) was a TV film that told the story of three former co-stars being reunited 40 years later for a TV special. Debbie, Shirley MacLaine (again) and Joan Collins played the women, with Taylor as their agent (a not so subtle take off on Sue Mengers). It’s badly made, there’s no real energy and it’s the one time that Carrie’s skills as a writer don’t help. The characters are clichéd versions of the actual actresses and there’s no real wit. Just a lot of camp and bitchiness – which can work and has worked before, but not here. Debbie and Shirley come of the best and it’s nice to see Debbie and Liz sharing the screen for the first time, but Liz isn’t well and it shows. And Joan Collins – well, she was never their league (Julie Andrews was originally set to play the part but she was fortunate to have other commitments pull her away).
A final joint project that aired on HBO after their passing provided a beautiful epitaph to Debbie and Carrie’s complicated relationship. Bright Lights (2016) is a terrific documentary that follows the duo over the course of a couple years – sadly chronicling Debbie’s decline and retirement, Carrie’s ongoing mental health struggles, and the co-dependent nature of their relationship. At times hysterically funny, invasive, and raw but ultimately very moving, it really does show how they lived for each other and, of course, the spotlight.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.