2016 has been a pretty deadly year for celebrities, especially ones who left before their time. Two of the most heartbreaking to me are Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. At 60 years old, Carrie was way too young to go. At 84, Debbie was probably ready but it was the way she went – one day after Carrie’s death – that really moved me because she clearly died of a broken heart. After three husbands (and one assumes many lovers), it’s touching that it was her daughter Carrie who was truly the love of her life.
The mother and daughter pair epitomized the differing roles women have had in our society. Debbie was a product of the studio system, her every move and role controlled by the men who ran MGM. She was the fresh-faced ingénue, singing and dancing her way through numerous movies – several a year – during the 1950s and 1960s. As was true for many women back then, Debbie’s life was about looking good, taking care of family and pleasing men, all while working hard. Her first husband called her the “iron butterfly.”
Carrie, on the other hand, made her own way. Like other women her age, she embraced feminism, her own sexuality, and the openness of the times in which plumbing one’s emotional scars made for a bestseller. Unlike Debbie, Carrie’s life wasn’t tightly controlled and she struggled to find her path to happiness. She rebelled against her mother’s workhorse ways and the superficiality of Hollywood and celebrity. She refused to rely on her own fame and became a novelist and script doctor. Instead of putting on a good face, Carrie bravely allowed people to see inside of her challenges with addiction, mental illness and emotional intimacy. She also was a strong advocate for the relatively unpopular causes of mental illness and self-acceptance.
Yet despite their differences, the two women were remarkably similar. They shared the same middle name (Frances) and both found overwhelming fame at a young age. Singin’ in the Rain and Star Wars – two of the top ten movies named by the American Film Institute – boast two older men and one 19 year old woman in the lead roles. Those women were Debbie and Carrie. Both married short, adored Jewish singers and had the marriage implode. They each became single mothers and experienced a slew of relationships that didn’t last. Both exhibited the same humor, toughness, vulnerability, and resilience that enabled them to become the beloved icons they were. But most of all, they had the same fierce love for each other.
In a 2011 joint interview with Oprah, you could see and feel the palpable connection Carrie and Debbie had. Despite years of navigating the emotional minefields many mothers and daughters traverse as they figure out their relationship, the love and respect the two had for each other was clear. You could hear it in the anger Carrie had for her father and the other men who hurt her mother, both emotionally and financially. You could hear it in Debbie’s shaking voice as she described her sorrow at knowing the difficulties Carrie faced with her bipolar disorder. Above all, you could see it in the smiles they gave each other, the laughter, the patting of the shoulders and in Debbie’s caress of her daughter’s face as the two sang together. Here was true love.
So it came as no surprise to me to hear that Debbie died one day after she’d said her final goodbye to her daughter, Carrie. No parent should ever outlive their child; it disturbs the natural order of things. However, I think it went even deeper for Debbie. Gone was her best friend. Gone was the woman for whom she’d prayed and fought and with whom she’d cried and laughed. Debbie was so proud of Carrie and what she’d accomplished. It wasn’t for nothing that she called herself Princess Leia’s mother. Nor was it an accident that her final film project was a documentary about Carrie and herself. It’s called Bright Lights.
The world may remember these two women by the iconic roles that they played: Princess Leia and the Unsinkable Mollie Brown (among others). But I will remember them for the strong, fabulous and funny women that they were in real life and for the love they shared as mother and daughter. Rest in peace, ladies.