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 so expansively – about her memories of “Star Wars,” about her electric shock treatments, about Diet Coke, about everything – that I didn’t come away with just a few impressions of her. I came away with a few hundred.
Still, 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. Did I know that they shared a driveway? And that they saw each other daily? This proximity clearly rattled her, but it reassured her, too. It was equal parts intimidation and consolation – in other words, motherhood itself.
At dinner, Fisher volunteered that she was in the middle of a spat with the father of her own daughter about some 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 emails 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, inattentive mom.
Fisher died Tuesday and then, Wednesday, so did Reynolds, reportedly while helping to plan her daughter’s funeral. 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 utterly lost “without having Carrie to look after.”
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Whatever the truth, it’s impossible not to regard the head-turning 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, sensationalized accordingly and on display to the entire world – of the currents between almost every parent and child: the pride and the shame; the protectiveness and the destructiveness; the gratitude and the resentment.
As it happens I spent some 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 idolized her mother. Look at Lawrence Schiller’s amazing photograph, from 1963, of Fisher at 6, watching Reynolds perform onstage. Schiller later reminisced that the little girl “was really mesmerized by her mother, always.”
But so were tens of millions of other people, and Reynolds diverted her attention to these fans. Fisher didn’t much care for that. What adoring child would?
“Walking down the street with her was like being in a parade,” she said at one point. “I had to share her. She belonged to everybody.”
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 for the way the irrepressible mother and exasperated daughter at its center 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 onscreen 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 trashing the very rites of celebrity that her mother so gleefully relished and 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 one of my interviews with Reynolds, I asked about an odd-looking contraption in the corner of her hotel room. “That’s my ab cruncher,” she said, then commenced a demonstration, and suddenly I was watching a 64-year-old with a blond bouffant thrust and jiggle on the carpet in front of me.
During my evening with Fisher, which was social rather than professional, I listened to an almost nonstop monologue of wordplay, secrets, provocations: whatever she needed to hold the audience’s interest.
They were the very definition of game, this inimitable mother-daughter duo. They recognized 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 Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher,” to be shown Jan. 7 on HBO.
In it Fisher notes that their Beverly Hills homes are separated “by one daunting hill,” and also says, of their regular visits: “I usually come to her. I always come to her.” She’s complaining about her subservience. She’s confessing her need. You can read the statement either of those two ways, and both are undoubtedly correct.
The words with which she paid tribute to her mother in a 2010 interview with The Times’ Brooks Barnes had that same double edge. “She should be put on that thing with the four presidents – Mount Rushmore,” Fisher said, praising Reynolds’ unflagging work ethic and inextinguishable cheer. “Right after Teddy Roosevelt, but have his eyes looking down at her cleavage.”
Cleave the cleavage from the comment and it captures how so many of us view our parents. They’re larger than life. Monumental. But our desire to acknowledge that is barely stronger than our determination to cut them down to size.