An inimitable Hollywood mother-daughter duo

Some years ago, I had the privilege of a long evening with Carrie Fisher, starting at her house in Beverly Hills and proceeding to a nearby restaurant and she talked about her memories of Star Wars, about her electric shock treatments, about everything - that I came away with a few hundred impressions.

One stood out: She was obsessed with the subject of mothering. While giving me a tour of the house, she mentioned again and again that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, lived next door. This proximity rattled her, but it reassured her, too.

At dinner, Fisher volunteered that she was in the middle of a spat with the father of her daughter about a child-rearing issue. I don't recall the details, but I do remember how agitated she became, even handing me her phone and insisting that I read the e-mail that she and her estranged partner had exchanged.

I also remember thinking that if anything could wound this seemingly bulletproof survivor, it was the suggestion that she was an irresponsible mum.

Fisher died last Tuesday and then, last Wednesday, so did Reynolds, reportedly while helping to plan her daughter's funeral.

They’re merciless together, but neither can shake the obligation or resist the inspiration of the other. They’re a screaming, sobbing love story of the most complicated and honest kind.

Was it grief that did Reynolds in? A story in The New York Times by my colleague Benedict Carey presented that as a definite possibility, and an interview that Fisher's brother, Todd, gave to Good Morning America also suggested as much. He said that Reynolds was lost "without having Carrie to look after".

Whatever the truth, it's impossible not to regard the coincidence as a heartbreaking confirmation of the singular embrace in which Fisher and Reynolds held, and sometimes smothered, each other.

It's also hard not to reflect on the relationship between these two movie-industry legends as a case study - upsized for Hollywood, sensationalised accordingly - of the currents between almost every parent and child: the pride and the shame, the protectiveness and the destructiveness.

I spent time with Reynolds, too, though in 1996, more than a decade before I met Fisher. I was writing a profile of her because, after a long drought of no movies, she was starring in a new one. Its title: Mother. Its theme: the emotional havoc that a parent can unintentionally wreak on a child.

It was Fisher who pestered Reynolds to pursue the part. She knew that Reynolds yearned for a comeback. And she sensed - somehow - that Reynolds was right for the role.

What a fascinating tandem of accomplishment they were and what a glorious mess.

On one hand, Fisher idolised her mother. Look at Lawrence Schiller's amazing photograph, from 1963, of Fisher at six, watching Reynolds perform onstage.

Schiller later reminisced that the little girl "was really mesmerised by her mother, always". But so were tens of millions of other people and Reynolds diverted her attention to these fans.

Fisher tried to live up to her, following her into show business and, with the Star Wars movies, making an early, indelible mark there. Then she spurned her, refusing to see her for 10 years.

A sort of explanation came in Postcards From The Edge, a 1987 novel by Fisher that became a 1990 movie noteworthy not only for its blunt description of drug addiction, but also for the way the irrepressible mother and exasperated daughter at its centre resemble Reynolds and her. They're merciless together, but neither can shake the obligation or resist the inspiration of the other. They're a screaming, sobbing love story of the most complicated and honest kind.

Reynolds actually put her hand up to appear as the mother in Postcards, reasoning that everyone would think that the character was her anyway. But the assignment went to an actress whose currency on-screen far surpassed hers by then. Shirley MacLaine played Reynolds to Meryl Streep's Fisher.

With Postcards, Fisher switched her focus from acting to writing, and she found particular distinction in thrashing the very rites of celebrity that her mother so dutifully executed, to diminishing returns.

Reynolds weathered that long movie drought by performing in a Las Vegas casino bearing her name and she began her cabaret act there by introducing herself as "Carrie Fisher's mother".

Despite a turbulent domestic life, she honed an image of utter purity. Not Fisher. She presented herself without apology as a cyclone of sin.

But they struck me as more alike than different, both of them exhibitionists to the core.

During an interview with Reynolds, I asked about an odd contraption in her hotel room.

"That's my ab cruncher," she said, then commenced a demonstration, and suddenly I was watching a 64-year-old thrust and jiggle on the carpet.

During my evening with Fisher, I listened to an almost nonstop monologue of wordplay, secrets, provocations: whatever she needed to hold the audience's interest.

This inimitable mother-daughter duo were the very definition of game. They recognised and respected that shared DNA.

And they spent some of what would turn out to be their last years collaborating on a documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds, to be shown on Saturday on HBO.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'An inimitable Hollywood mother-daughter duo'. Print Edition | Subscribe