When I met Carrie Fisher at last May’s Cannes Film Festival to moderate a panel with her, her beloved French bulldog Gary, and director Fisher Stevens celebrating the World Premiere of their new documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, I had no clue of course that just seven months later both of the title stars of this remarkable film would be gone well before its scheduled debut on HBO in the spring of 2017. Watching it then in stops and starts on my laptop (with the horrible wifi in my hotel room) in order to prep for the panel, I couldn’t turn away from it and was struck by how brutally honest both Carrie and Debbie were in presenting themselves to the world in this way, warts and all.
You can count on one hand the number of superstars that would allow a camera to peer into their most private moments in this way. In many ways it is a valentine from a daughter to a mother, but also from one major star to another of different generations, but both with the same gut instincts that made them great – and enduring. It will floor you with the kind of unfiltered access this pair gave these filmmakers, resulting in a pure show business saga like no other that has now ended, in the waning days of 2016, also like no other.
It seems a terribly cruel coda, but when seen with some distance from this week’s sad events, Bright Lights will likely stand as a stirring tribute to both who, as the film shows, lived side by side in a compound right off Coldwater Canyon. Now they are side by side again, odd and oddly comforting as that may sound. It is very clear Carrie, conflicted relationship and all, was looking out for her mother in these final years, and it will be nice to think she still is. It will be impossible for others now to watch this film the way that I and those who saw it in Cannes, Telluride, and a handful of other festivals saw it, but what is undeniably true is right there in its title. These were two very bright lights who fought insurmountable odds, and ups and downs in their lives and careers but always, always rose back to the top.
So much has been written about Carrie since Friday when she suffered cardiac arrest on that airplane that I can’t really add much more than to agree she was an incomparable wit, a great writer and observer, a natural actress and most of all a terrific daughter, despite all those personal demons she had to conquer. But this cruel-seeming plot twist is incomprehensible. I can’t dwell here though on the sadness now, so soon after Carrie, of hearing about the death of Debbie Reynolds, only on the joy that iconic and legendary career gave to so many even if life wasn’t always fair to her in return.
She was a show business trouper if ever there was one, and it frustrated me that every single year when the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had the opportunity to give her an Honorary Oscar, they didn’t do it. Finally they did last year, but by then she was so sick she couldn’t pick it up in person (her granddaughter Billie Lourd accepted it, and now has lost her mom and grandmother in the course of one day). It was the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given more for philanthropic work in the industry than a film career. I was happy Debbie had an Oscar, but if anyone deserved it for more than charitable work it was this woman.
Every day I stare at my original one sheet poster from Singin’ In The Rain (it is framed in the bathroom where, believe me, you can’t miss it), and I look at those amazing names on the credits and think, well at least Debbie is still with us. Very few stars are ever even in a movie as lasting and classic at this one which only gets better with time some 64 years after it was made, and a musical that director Damien Chazelle often sites as a key inspiration for this year’s Best Picture Oscar frontrunner La La Land. It was a hell of a way for this little girl from Burbank, as she sometimes liked to describe herself, to hit the big time opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.
In another musical landmark in her career, she received her one and only Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1964 for the MGM film version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a role she got after Shirley MacLaine dropped out. She might have won too, but had the dumb luck for that movie musical to be completely overshadowed that year by two others with higher profiles in the race, My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews of course beat her for that Oscar). It is another point of irony in this very mean year – that can’t end a moment too soon – that Tammy Grimes, the original Molly Brown on Broadway, just passed away as well. But the phrase “unsinkable ” stuck with Debbie from then on and she owned it. A key song in the show, “I Ain’t Down Yet” really defined her life didn’t it?
Unsinkable was also the title of her second memoir released in 2013. She lived so much life she had to write two books about it, the first simply called “Debbie My Life” in 1988. She was indeed unsinkable, through busted marriages and bankruptcies, through the public humiliation of Eddie leaving her for best friend Liz, through collecting the prime Hollywood memorabilia and costume collection of all time only to have to sell it off in bits and pieces after she failed to find a home for it. Too bad the Academy didn’t listen when Debbie met with them, on more than one occasion I am told, trying to convince them to help in her dream of a Hollywood museum, something ironically they are in the midst of sinking hundreds of millions into building now.
But the opportunity for all of those priceless pieces of the movies to be a part of it, even as the Academy scrambles for content, is now, well, gone with the wind.
There was probably no better natural comic talent than Debbie, though she never got the credit Lucille Ball did, and her own 1960’s NBC sitcom came and went quickly. But I defy you to take a look at even some of her lesser known big screen comedies, like The Gazebo, Mary Mary, Goodbye Charlie, How Sweet It Is, The Mating Game, Susan Slept Here and others where she was able to take material that might have been beneath her talents and lift it to the skies with her impeccable timing.
In Norman Lear’s 1967 Oscar nominated screenplay Divorce American Style she went toe to toe with Dick Van Dyke in a movie that will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year and still resonates. And then in 1996, long after her prime-time movie career was largely a thing of the past and she’d moved on to clubs and the stage, Albert Brooks cast her in his brilliant Mother and she socked home another one, but somehow inexplicably lost the Golden Globe Comedy Actress prize to Madonna in Evita and failed to get the Oscar nomination she richly deserved.
Don’t take my word for it, just find it and watch. I could go on and on with my favorite Reynolds roles, from the feisty and stalwart Lillith Prescott in 1963’s How The West Was Won, to the macabre pairing of Debbie with Shelley Winters in 1971’s creepy What’s The Matter With Helen?, to the touching and simply human 1956 The Catered Affair, the elegant pleasures of 1961’s The Pleasure Of His Company opposite Fred Astaire, the underrated 1960 drama The Rat Race in which she was so good opposite Tony Curtis, and even to the irony of a revenge-filled 2001 ABC TV movie These Old Broads that paired her with, among others, once and then friend again Elizabeth Taylor in a fun and bitchy script written by none other than Carrie Fisher.
But let’s face it she will always be remembered by most for Singin’ in that Rain, as an unsinkable Titanic survivor, and of course, Tammy. Yes, that 1957 movie, Tammy And The Bachelor brought her a number one pop hit that followed her for her entire career. There wasn’t a show she did where she didn’t sing it, and she never disappointed the crowd. There were other Tammys after Debbie did that first film, but she was the only one people remembered.
Perhaps her proudest achievement though were her kids, who both were there with her right near her side in these last few years. “She wanted to be with Carrie,” son Todd Fisher told our sister publication Variety after her sudden passing from a stroke today. In that HBO documentary Bright Lights, Carrie talks amusingly about how, early in her career, her mother would drag her on stage to join her in a song she liked to sing from the Unsinkable Molly Brown score. It was actually a love song called “I’ll Never Say No”. These were the lyrics:
I’ll Never Say No To You, Whatever You Say Or Do. If You Ask Me To Wait For A Lifetime, You Know I Will Gladly Wait For A Lifetime Or Two.
What a pair of lifetimes those two had. Somewhere they are probably together singing that song one more time.