The mother-daughter duo of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher seemed to embody Tinseltown’s ups and downs. Their talents were very different but complementary, writes Amy Nicholson.

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher's first public bow was a Louella Parsons column announcing "the most welcome baby in the world". Carrie was a foetus. Her father, Eddie Fisher, was still hoping for a boy. Six months later, Debbie gave birth just before the premiere of her and Eddie’s first, and only, film – the appropriately titled romance Bundle of Joy – and Louella was proven correct. Infant Carrie was born to two young and ill-matched stars and an extended family of hundreds of loving fans who swamped her with stuffed animals and dresses. Debbie pasted six-week-old Carrie’s cards into a scrapbook to say: “See all the commotion you caused!”

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Fans didn’t see Debbie and Carrie’s farewell partnership in the film Bright Lights until after both mother and daughter had died, just 24 hours apart in the last days of 2016. “We’re here with a woman who alleges to be my mother,” says Carrie in the documentary’s droll opening line. “I don’t buy it for a minute.”

Of course, Carrie could never dodge her DNA. And anyway, Debbie was more than a mother: she was Carrie’s muse, gadfly, champion and eternal scene partner, from the baby photos that ran on the cover of Modern Screen to the comedy act they improvised on the way into an auction of Debbie’s vast collection of Hollywood costumes.

“I’m Princess Leia’s mother!” announced Debbie at the duo’s grand entrance.

“What is it that connects you when you’re not on a red carpet?” a reporter asked.

“We are always on a red carpet,” deadpanned Carrie. “We have a red carpet connecting our homes.”

Technically, their houses were connected by 50 yards of red brick, a short path between Carrie’s kooky, rainbow-hued house and Debbie’s stately, memorabilia-filled mansion. (“I usually come to her,” huffed Carrie in Bright Lights as she toted a hot soufflé. “I always come to her.”) But it was celebrity that tied them together like a microphone cord, sometimes, for Carrie, restrictively so. In the pair’s early press photos, Debbie is poised and smiling while young Carrie, a brow-furrowed, anxious-looking child, looks anywhere but the lens.

Every time they left the house, Debbie would get mobbed. Once, Carrie and her younger brother Todd, who recalled this story at the memorial service for his mother and sister, tried to drag their mother out of a toy store, but she insisted on signing every autograph. Tutted Debbie: “These are my people, just like you are my people.” Equality was maddening. If Carrie couldn’t be special to her mother, she’d settle for being a superstar to the world.

I dreamed of looking like her one day – Carrie Fisher on Debbie Reynolds

Carrie’s parents lived for attention, sometimes against her will. When she was four months old, Eddie decided she’d be a singer. She had an ear-splitting wail that matured into a torch-song roar. At 15, Carrie could channel Janis Joplin, and Debbie would summon her daughter to the stage to unleash that voice. “I wish I had it,” Debbie would gush, before taking back the mic.

“The biggest thing that I did that broke my mother’s heart was not do a nightclub act,” admitted Carrie in Bright Lights. “My mother would say, ‘Do drugs, do whatever you need to do, but why don’t you sing?’”

Silver screen, silver spoon

The trouble with Carrie, according to Debbie, was that clothes and jewellery and the tangible benefits of fame meant nothing to a girl who’d grown up wearing a toddler-sized fur coat. “It certainly meant something to me,” said Debbie. She’d grown up broke in Burbank, and her biggest dream was to become a gym teacher. Then, at 16, she impulsively entered a beauty pageant. She didn’t expect to win – that didn’t happen to poor, religious nobodies named Mary Frances whose only stage experience was being the prop-hand of her high school play. Yet she won, and Jack Warner instantly signed Mary Frances to a studio contract, renamed her Debbie, and trained her to smile big, be nice and behave. 

Debbie was an instant hit. In her second credited film, Three Little Words, she cameoed as singer Helen Kane, the inspiration behind Betty Boop, who, like Debbie, is a big-eyed child who accidentally becomes a singing sensation. Debbie only had two minutes of screen time, but her kooky innocence earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. Her next movie, Two Weeks With Love, gave her a gold record for Aba Daba Honeymoon, a goofy, bouncy trifle that showcased Debbie’s sheer joy in performing. She was fresh and happy and delighted to entertain. And then she was cast in Singin’ in the Rain, and America’s favorite ingenue ascended into legend.

When Carrie was 16, her mother made more in a week than her grandfather had in a year. By then, Carrie had convinced herself that her future would look very different from her mother’s, in part because she didn’t consider herself a prize-winning beauty. “I dreamed of looking like her one day,” Carrie wrote in her memoir, Wishful Drinking, until “I realised with profound certainty that I would not be, and was in no way now, the beauty that my mother was.”

Carrie would have to be her own kind of star. Debbie’s grinning grit made her the perfect girl everyone wanted to be. Carrie, so sceptical and cerebral, would peel herself open to show audiences the neurotic, fragile parts of herself – and them – that most people prefer to hide. 

Going her own way

Still, Carrie the intellectual dropped out of high school to join Debbie on Broadway in a production of Irene where she sat at her mother’s feet while she swanned around in a flouncy gray cape. Then she shot a short scene in Shampoo as a teenager who seduces her mom’s lover. “You know, I think you got exactly the same eyes as your mother,” coos Warren Beatty. “I’m nothing like my mother,” spits Carrie’s character, though in real life, she and her mother – the black-clad cynic and the golden goddess – did look alike, once you studied their faces close up. Both had the same down-tilted eyes; the difference was the way they took in the world. In every photograph, Debbie beams like she’s staring at her own bright future. Carrie has the wary goodwill of a girl who suspects a prankster is about to jump out of the bushes – and why wouldn’t she? After Eddie left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor when Carrie was 23 months old, people with cameras were always hiding in the bushes.

Thinking it would be a forgettable B-movie, Carrie hid in the back at the Star Wars premiere

As celebrities, Debbie and Carrie were symbiotic. They’d both become international superstars at 19, Debbie for Singin’ in the Rainand Carrie for Star Wars. And they’d both struggled to grow past that break-out role in the public eye, which never stopped begging them to revive their greatest hits, Debbie onstage at casinos and Carrie at comic book conventions and in Star Warssequels.

Perhaps Carrie hadn’t intended to become that famous. She thought Star Wars was going to be a forgettable B-movie. At its first screening, she hid in the back. But like her mother had trained her, she cheerfully signed autographs. She did a lot of her own writing, too, including the screenplay for the film Postcards From the Edge about – what else? – a mother and daughter actress duo who, as Carrie’s surrogate Meryl Streep quips, were “designed more for public than private”.

When Carrie wrote the original novel in the mid-80s, she and Debbie were estranged. “I did not want to be Debbie Reynolds’ daughter,” she told Oprah. She was grown up; she’d been married; she’d battled a drug addiction – it was time to break up the act. They barely spoke for 10 years. Her ‘fictional’ mother in Postcards from the Edge, a theatrical, overdressed legend named Doris, hewed so closely to her own mother’s image that Debbie actually volunteered to play the part, reasoning that everyone would think it was her anyway. The premiere was uncomfortable, but Debbie attended anyway. In most of the photos, Shirley MacLaine – Debbie’s double – stands between them. “People felt awkward with me at the party,” said Debbie. One woman came up to her and sighed, “I felt so sorry for you.”

If only that woman could have read Carrie’s script. When Debbie – er, Doris – dashes into her daughter Suzanne’s hospital room after an overdose, Carrie described her character as “tough, but at the same time, touching, almost adorable”, insisting “there should be no doubt about Doris’ sincere feelings and concern for Suzanne”.

Even at their worst, Carrie and Debbie trusted in their rare bond. Once they reconciled, you couldn’t miss it. Not only were they neighbours, but they physically couldn’t seem to get enough of each other. In public, they’d hold hands and lean into each other like two kids sharing a secret. Fittingly, they were entombed together – Debbie buried, Carrie the contrarian insisting on cremation – under a statue of two embracing goddesses.

It makes sense that the pair’s last project was to let the people in the bushes into their home for a documentary. Carrie, as ever, let the truth rip. Debbie continued to keep an eye on presenting the perfect image, at one point telling her daughter to turn around “because your rear end is to the camera”.

And towards the end of their final bow, Debbie finally got her wish. She and Carrie are continually singing. They harmonise in the driveway, tease each other in trills. Then in Las Vegas during Debbie’s last week of live performing, Carrie surprised her on stage with a song. “I’ll never say no to you,” she crooned. Who could? The crowd gave them a standing ovation.

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