EXCLUSIVE: Four years ago Carrie Fisher wrote the following article for Deadline’s AwardsLine magazine, remembering her first visit to the 1965 Oscars when her mother Debbie Reynolds was nominated for Best Actress for the title role in Charles Walters’ musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Like many memoirs Fisher, who died Tuesday, it’s a piece that reflects her Hollywood insider sensibility and hysterical wit.
Having come from a show business family, I was aware of the Academy Awards from a very early age. What age I happened to be is outside the grasp of my unenviable, limited powers of recollection.
That having been said, if age can, in part, be determined by someone’s height, I was very, very short, so in all likelihood I was about 6 or 7 years old when I learned about this coveted, golden, (nude?!!!!) man. A man even shorter than I was, but unlike me, he had the ability to make someone in nice clothes unimaginably conspicuous, frequently giddy, surprised, tongue tied, and in a very short time, able to disconcert!
But perhaps unlike other short people, the Oscars snuck into my awareness because my mother had been nominated (!) for Best Actress for her performance in the 1964 film, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. It was her first — and only — nomination. Of course, at the time, all she knew was that it was her first nomination.
So, the night came. She got all dressed up — and when I say dressed up, I mean way dressed up. You know, jewelry surrounding and dangling from every imaginable place. And makeup — big makeup. And on top of the makeup — literally on top — hair. Blonde hair even! More than blonde, it was vertical! It had the quality of attempting to keep company with the ceiling! And if that wasn’t enough — like an invisible escort — she was lovingly encased in something I came to call a gown, which is a dress to the power of lots and lots of powers of some number that hardly matters. What mattered was that she shimmered. I assume that something in the nature of fur was draped devotedly over one shoulder and shyly in the crook of the other, bare-shouldered arm.
Also, teetering on high heels — heels designed to help her hair scale its nosebleed-high trek to the top of her dressing room, and in an invisible cloud of secret celebrity perfume, she nervously clutched her teeny, totally impractical “purse,” able to contain a bit of Kleenex, a bright tube of lipstick, a tip for the woman in the crowded washroom, and, yes, a secret little cache of … don’t tell … please … hope.
Of course, she assured everyone — like most everyone does who possesses an ounce of apparent humility — of course, she knew she wouldn’t win. That’s when you shake your head and smile shyly and say something like: “It’s an honor just to have been nominated. That’s more than I ever could’ve dreamed of expecting. Just to be named in the same little list of lucky honorees was more than enough.”
Which was true, in a way.
More than that, she — and in all likelihood most of her co-considered companions — told this to anyone who’d listen. And, c’mon! — lots of people listened to you while you waited to see if it would it be you who clutched the golden, nude man holding his sword greedily, grinning as the cameras flashed and the people – both strangers and known, even strangely known — called out your name: “Over here! Look at me! See me!” Because if you — one of the most seen persons on the scene saw and even smiled at them, it made them part of the winners’ lucky charm. Would it be you? Please! Don’t tell anyone, but please let me be the one who the most people agreed was the best at what she had done and would — with any ongoing luck — continue to do. But also, please let me seem fine if I don’t win. The choices seem to come down to being lauded as the best at what a few really good people did, or if I fail on the lauded front, please let me be the finest of the most gallant of sports. Good sport or great star.
There she was, on that night of nights, waving bye-bye to her short, nervous offspring who wondered, “Would she come back? Would she be different? Would the love that was offered be of a higher quality than the littler love that her two little shimmers were able to give her to take with her?” And come on, how much love would she be able to cram into that bejeweled excuse for a purse?????!!!!!
Off she went, seated stiffly in the back of that long limousine. Steering down palm tree-lined streets, there she glides — or goes — you can’t really do both. Streams of long cars flow to the big building. Rivers of the well-known are invisibly drawn to where the prizes are lined up on some undeserving table, waiting to be distributed to the soon-to-be even-more-visible-than-before stars. Cars hauling the super human to the place where the popular convene in their expensive clothing and Cinderella-esque borrowed jewelry — jewelry that will magically turn into publicists and commentators and fans, oh my!
But it’s not midnight yet. There are still hours remaining — stretches of time left to hope, to wave gaily, to not fall off your tall shoes on the red carpet or make your way to the green room — “Wait! Check it out! Red and green! The colors of Christmas! Of stars sparkling from every sparkable spot that can be shined from! Will there be something under the tree for me on this flashbulb-filled night disguised as a kind of Christmas morning?” The wondering is done as they wander through this water hole, this hot spot, this birthplace of the conspicuous.
There she is — see her?
My mother makes her way: her way; for now it’s hers and no one else’s. Eventually she survives the throng – this gaggle of the thrilled and the thrilling. See? That’s her on the aisle in case she wins. She’s right next to three other names over the title and five and a half seat fillers. Finally, the evening so many have waited for. Not knowing what to expect. Hoping against hope — or is it hope against hoping? Anyway, hope is a factor.
And now it’s time; the telecast is beginning. The lights dim, the music swells, it’s just a matter of time until the little gold men will begin to be distributed. It will be many hours until we arrive at the Best Actress category. All nominees will have to call upon every last ounce of stoic, straight-backed patience available to them. But we’re not concerned with them right now, are we? Right now, it’s my mother who we’re rooting for. Well, I am anyway.
The names are read, the clips are shown, hearts are pounding, breath held …
“And the winner is … Julie Andrews!”
What??????? That couldn’t have been for her performance as Mary Poppins, could it? It could. Wearing an expression of shocked and thrilled, thrilled excitement, Ms. Andrews kisses a husband-type person and bounds up the stage to the podium to collect her coveted statue and express her gratitude and humility. And my mom? Sure, she’s happy for Julie, who should’ve won for The Sound of Music — or was it she should’ve gotten the role in My Fair Lady? — so she got this instead. My mother is happy-ish, she applauds, demonstrating beaming expressions of good sported-ness and whatever else you can manage to summon to survive the rest of the night.
In the car on the way home, she stares out the window without seeing. Things she would and wouldn’t say are running like riderless horses around an otherwise silent track. Her lower back throbs from sitting so long, her face finally still, having spent so many hours stretched in an assortment of almost genuine, outsized smiles. How many times would she have to say how happy she was for Julie? How great she’d been as Mary Poppins? And how could you compare Mary Poppins to Molly Brown? Certainly, there would be experiences in her life that would weigh on her more heavily, and not winning wasn’t the same as losing, was it? No. That’s the truth at the end of this long day, right? And that’s the thought that travels from one side to the other that enables her to sigh.
She shuts her eyes and lays her head back on the cool, dark leather. Her husband [Harry Karl] reaches across the seat and squeezes her hand till she has to smile. “You look beautiful,”” he tells her, or some such … “I love you” … (or my favorite) … you were ROBBED.” One of those silly things they say to you to make it all better. The thing you say that’s designed to ease you into the next part of your life. If your life were that silly and star spangled, then this was when everything would lead away to the next time you dressed up and hoped you’d be able to thank all those thankless loved ones and that management team … “and I’d like to thank …” and “I’d be remiss if I didn’t say …” and “none of this would be possible without …” and “Mom, look at me now!”
She reaches over and pulls one of Harry’s Kent cigarettes out of the pack, he lights it with his solid-2gold HK diamond monogrammed lighter, she pulls the smoke into her tired, Oscar-free lungs. She longs to live in a world where none of this matters. Or stay in this one and stick around until it happens. The truth was, the more you got, the more you had to lose. Or, if this was the best time in her life, and she sure hoped it wasn’t, then at least let her learn to kid herself about not wanting things she never thought she’d have to live without.
She pushed the button that eased down the window and let in the cool breeze encased in dark night. Lots of folks lived in an Oscar-free world and did all right, she thought, flicking ash into the ashtray and stubbing the cigarette out in the middle of Harry’s lying, gambling forehead. At least this is what she ought to have done. That would’ve been better than any Oscar anywhere.
The driver turns up the radio, and Etta James’ voice pours into the air around her. “At last, my love has come along.” Debbie curls up in the safe arms of the song and waits for the rest of her life to fill her with a hearty mix of safety and pleasure.
“And the winner is …” All of us at some point. If we wait long enough or look at it from that seat infused with cynical laughter: Goodnight, everyone! Hope you enjoyed the show! See you next year!”
(Reynolds-Fisher photos courtesy of Carrie Fisher)