While Reynolds was one of the best-loved stars of the studio system — the wholesome girl next door who came to be known as America’s original “sweetheart” — Fisher was the face of New Hollywood, thanks to her role as Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Though they represented different eras in an ever-changing industry, each was beloved and respected by multiple generations.
Fisher’s “Star Wars” character wasn’t a girlfriend or conquest or sister, but a butt-kicking space princess and an empowered heroine. Though the actress’ legacy is mostly a testament to the hold that fictional characters like Leia have over contemporary culture, she repositioned her fame by allowing the public into her life, first through the semi-autobiographical novel (turned movie) “Postcards From the Edge,” and later in her one-woman show (turned memoir) “Wishful Drinking.” Still, her life behind the scenes was far more complicated — and dramatic — than any character Hollywood allowed her to play.
Unusually candid about the human side of stardom, Fisher shared the battles she’d had with substance abuse and bipolar disorder with the same wry humor her mother brought to her standup stage shows. However, while Reynolds looked like Cinderella’s fairy godmother and sounded like Betty Boop, Fisher delivered her testimony in a husky trucker’s voice that made her irreverence all the more appealing.
Fisher may have paved the way for female action stars (in a genre which has evolved to the point that gender doesn’t factor into the treatment of the ultra-capable characters played by Daisy Ridley in “The Force Awakens” and Felicity Jones in “Rogue One”), but she was also outspoken about the double standard placed upon actresses. It was a contrast to her mother, who was as drawn to showbiz as the ingénue she played in the hit MGM musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” an upbeat homage to the beginning of Hollywood’s sound era. Reynolds continued to act until recently, playing matriarchs to Debra Messing (“Will & Grace”) and Liberace (“Behind the Candelabra”), as well as to Albert Brooks in “Mother,” for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Her family life only enhanced her fame. In 1955, Reynolds married mega-successful pop singer Eddie Fisher; Carrie and her brother, Todd, were the product of that showbiz dream couple. The match looked perfect on the outside — until Eddie left his family for Elizabeth Taylor.
Pressured to become a performer by her mother, Carrie resisted singing full-time but began acting at a young age, playing the liberated and libidinous teen who seduces Warren Beatty (as the hairdresser who’s shagging her mom, played by Lee Grant) in “Shampoo.” Two years later, she landed the role of Leia in “Star Wars.”
Fisher had other noteworthy roles, playing a psycho in “The Blues Brothers,” Dianne Wiest’s friend and rival in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and Meg Ryan’s friend in “When Harry Met Sally” — before directors who’d grown up on “Star Wars” started casting her because she was Carrie Fisher. (She played nuns in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and the “Charlie’s Angels” sequel, though both were bizarre meta jokes.) But nothing came close to the “Star Wars” exposure. Reynolds enjoyed her share of leading roles in such films as “How the West Was Won” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” using her earnings to preserve Hollywood memorabilia for a museum that was never to be.
The pair’s off-screen relationship was the subject of “Postcards From the Edge”; in the film, Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine played the mother-daughter duo. That film suggested an almost oppressive relationship. But a new HBO documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” sheds further light on their surreal private life, which had settled into sort of a West Coast “Grey Gardens” situation. The doc, directed by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom, screened in October at the New York Film Festival and before that at Cannes. It offers a poignant glimpse into the pair. Fisher’s goal with “Bright Lights,” according to HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, was to document, for a younger-generation, Reynolds’ legacy as an entertainer.
“She wanted to preserve all of that for her mother,” Nevins told Variety. It’s about both of them trying to stand upright, both having their frailties — age on the one hand, and mental illness on the other. It’s a love story about a mother and daughter; they happen to be Carrie and Debbie.”
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.