Two Hollywood legends gone in 30 hours!
The deaths of a Hollywood mother and daughter – legends both in different ways – just hours apart is a raw reminder of how Hollywood has changed.
Debbie Reynolds lived for old Hollywood, which was already fading by the time she became a star in 1952 in Singin’ In the Rain. Carrie Fisher had mixed feelings about the New Hollywood in which she grew up to become an alcoholic drug addict with bipolar disorder and the kind of fame that could do anyone’s head in. The amazing thing is not that Carrie predeceased her mother; it is that she lived to 60 in the first place. Where Debbie grew up in a Hollywood of highballs and cocktail parties, Carrie grew up in a playground of cocaine and Quaaludes and speedballing accidents in the garage. Debbie was Old Studio; Carrie was New Hollywood, where the kids (Coppola and Lucas especially) hoped to end Old Hollywood hegemony once and for all. George Lucas sort of did that for a while, by taking back control and shifting his empire to Marin County; then he sold the farm to Disney for $4 billion in 2012, thereby conceding that Big Hollywood always wins in the end. One of the more interesting things about Rogue One – perhaps one of the few interesting things – is that Carrie Fisher appears as her younger self in a digitally generated character so lifelike that it’s hard to tell her from the flesh-and-blood actors on screen. Even as she departs this life, we see that she can never fully do so now that Disney owns her face. She used to joke that had sold that visage to George Lucas.
“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”
We can expect to see Carrie Fisher returning whenever Princess Leia is needed for a new Star Wars script – she might have seen the funny side of becoming thus immortal. Hollywood giveth, but mostly it taketh, even after death.
In a sense, Fisher never really had much choice about being a celebrity. As she said, she was born into Big Celebrity, and it could only diminish. Eddie Fisher was the most successful singles artist of the early 1950’s, just as Debbie Reynolds was establishing a career in movies. The difference between mother and daughter was that Debbie sought fame and stardom with both hands. Like most of the Hollywood stars of the time, she had to work for it. There was luck involved too: had her family not moved from El Paso Texas to Burbank in 1939, she would never have been a student at Burbank High School, right near Warner Bros. They put her on contract just after she won a Miss Burbank beauty contest in 1948, aged 16. At age 17, she appeared in a small but memorable role playing Helen Kane, in the musical Three Little Words, at MGM, with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton. She sang Kane’s biggest hit – I Wanna Be Loved By You – but the studio used Kane’s voice. Even so, Reynolds was noticed – and nominated for a Golden Globe as best newcomer.
She oozes sex in this clip, with a kind of kinky, hands-all-over-him comedy that must have gone close to upsetting the censors. Already we can see what a great comedienne she is: compact, coquettish, wily, a post-war pin-up of the new kind of girl – not exactly good, but not exactly bad either. Her sexuality is semi-conscious, a little bit countrified and innocent, but still rampant. By the time she’s cast in Singin’ in the Rain two years later, she’s only 19 but there’s a world of difference in demeanour. Kathy Selden is a woman, not a girl. She’s funny, talented, temperamental and a real showbiz trouper, even if she has yet to break into movies. In both these roles, she’s playing a late 1920’s flapper – but Selden now has ambition, and a blazing presence on screen. She’s almost boyish in this role – which adds an interesting tinge to the homosexual undertone of the relationship between Gene Kelly’s character Don and his sidekick Cosmo Brown, played by Donald O’Connor. They’re all just pals together, ain’t they, except that Cosmo fancies Don Lockwood something bad, and so does Kathy. And well Don is just head-over-heels for her, and he loves his old pal like a… brother? ‘Fellas,’ says Don Lockwood, ‘I feel like this is my lucky day,’ after they have decided to turn their silent turkey, The Duelling Cavalier, into a musical. Fellas?
Look at the way the scene plays with gender– Reynolds adopts a man’s hat for the raincoat sequence, while O’Connor wears her cloche hat. If you follow O’Connor’s eye-line in the first half of the clip, he’s mostly looking at Don, not at Kathy. She’s literally the meat in the sandwich for most of the scene, but what energy and joy Reynolds brings to the role. The choreography here is risqué – that tumble over the chair for instance – but she’s game for it. That enthusiasm – not just the singing and dancing talent – made her a star.
It’s a horrible day in Hollywood history, Thursday December 29, 2016, for the loss of these two powerful, talented and beautiful women. Here they are in a rare appearance together on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Vale Carrie, Vale Debbie.