On the Passing of Stars

2012 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night Gala - Red Carpet

Movie lovers of all generations are still reeling from the deaths of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, within a day of each other. Photos, memes and personal testimonies flooded the Internet as an expression of collective shock and grief.

Fisher’s character in Star Wars (1977) and Reynolds’s participation in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) dominated the references to their careers, not surprising since Princess Leia and an energetic Reynolds hoofing alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are iconic in popular culture. Coincidentally, both Fisher and Reynolds were 19 when hired to appear in their most famous roles. Common cultural consensus has deemed those roles significant in retrospect, but in the context of their lives, their most interesting work lay ahead of them.

While making the original trio of Star Wars movies, Fisher rewrote some of her own lines. The extent of her contributions has been exaggerated, but this experience marks the beginning of her career as a much-sought-after script doctor and a memoirist. Script doctors are uncredited writers often hired to add dimension to a character or punch up the dialogue with humor or distinction. This phase of her life was jumpstarted when Steven Spielberg hired her to rework the dialogue for Julia Roberts, who played Tinkerbell in Hook (1991). How much she contributed is known only to Spielberg, because she accepted another rewrite job before Hook was completed. Other films that took advantage of Fisher’s talent for witticisms included Sister Act (1992), where she was brought onboard at star Whoopi Goldberg’s request.

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Fisher also doctored So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) and The Out of Towners (1999), among many others. The only Adam Sandler comedy I can stomach is The Wedding Singer (1998). I wonder if it is because Fisher was hired to “write the girl’s part to make it balanced,” as quoted in Peter Sciretta’s wonderful overview of her script doctor career (http://www.slashfilm.com/carrie-fisher-script-doctor/). I was surprised to discover that Fisher contributed to several blockbuster action films, including Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) and the underrated Last Action Hero (1993) She was hired to give the mother/son relationship in that film some warmth and depth. As Sciretta quotes Fisher from an interview: “I write good love scenes and I write good women.” Perhaps Fisher’s legacy as the action-oriented, independent, smart-mouthed Princess Leia can also be found in the female characters she shaped while employed as a script doctor.

Though Singin’ in the Rain launched her to stardom, it was not really Debbie Reynolds’s movie. It belongs to Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Instead, a series of romantic comedies produced during the 1950s constructed and cemented her star image as the spunky, resourceful heroine. Her domain was not the glamour, sexuality or sophistication of the other female archetypes of that decade; her characters won the hearts of the leading men with her youthful vitality and energetic spirit. Reynolds proved adept at physical comedy, and she could roll out a one-liner with the timing of a vaudevillian, then cap it off with a calculated expression or gesture. My favorite comedies from this era include The Mating Game (1959) and Susan Slept Here (1954). The latter stars Dick Powell as a middle-aged screenwriter who rescues and falls for Reynolds, a 17-year-old delinquent girl. Many of today’s cultural watchdogs, who don’t understand the way star image works, would likely be offended by the premise, but this romantic comedy by Frank Tashlin has a quirky charm.

However, I prefer the films in which Reynolds tweaks or bends her star image. In A Catered Affair (1956), a family drama by Paddy Chayefsky set in working-class New York, she costars as the daughter of Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine. Her spunk and energy are contained by the gritty realism of the milieu, and the truth of her circumstances. In the raucous comedy Goodbye Charlie (1964), Reynolds stars as Tony Curtis’s best male friend, a skirt-chasing chauvinist who is reincarnated as a woman. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Goodbye Charlie has been dismissed by film critics and historians alike. But, movies tossed into the dustbin of history sometimes offer unexpected moments of delight and discovery. Reynolds is genuinely funny playing a dirty dog of a man trapped inside a woman’s body. The film calls out certain masculine types and behaviors through Reynolds’ use of vocal inflections and stereotypical male gestures. Small wonder that male critics then and now are unusually harsh in their criticisms.

Reynolds had more skill and range than given credit as evidenced in her role in the Divorce American Style (1967), a comedy in which the funny moments reveal ideas about marriage that are not so funny. Reynolds and Dick Van Dyke play an upper middle-class couple whose 17-year marriage has become strained by boredom and familiarity and by their reliance on the creature comforts of suburban life. Van Dyke and Reynolds seem an odd pairing on the surface, but their skillful timing as comic performers serves a scene in which the two go into their bedroom and angrily prepare for bed. They slam drawers, slide closet doors back and forth, brush their teeth and hang up clothes with perfect precision and coordination—without uttering a word to each other. Through this display of domestic choreography, their broken marriage is distilled in one scene. Divorce American Style was influenced by the Italian films, Divorce, Italian Style (1962) and Marriage—Italian Style (1964). FilmStruck offers both Italian films for your streaming pleasure, though, sadly, Divorce American Style is not available. Here’s hoping FilmStruck will add the film because it reflects the era’s probing of the foibles and strengths of modern marriage.

The deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds turned out to be the final and most brutal blow in a year that seemed to take more than its share of cultural icons. Gene Wilder’s passing left a hole in the hearts of those who knew his comedies so well they can recite key lines (“It’s Franken-steen!). Prince and David Bowie were legends in the music industry, but both explored film as a medium of expression. Anyone growing up as a television junkie in the 1960s and 1970s felt a pang of sadness at the loss of Patty Duke (The Patty Duke Show), Hugh O’Brian (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp), Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams), Abe Vigoda (Barney Miller), Doris Roberts (Soap; later, Everybody Loves Raymond), Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch), Alan Thicke (Growing Pains), and Robert Vaughan (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). Character actors who were beloved because they appeared in so many favorites will be missed, such as Alan Rickman, George Kennedy and Ken Howard. The most devastating loss in terms of historic significance were the directors who died in 2016: Jacques Rivette, Jan Nemec, Alexandre Astruc, Abbas Kiarostami, Hector Babenco, Andrzej Wajda, Guy Hamilton, Arthur Hiller, Etore Scola, Michael Cimino and Curtis Hanson. All of these names grace my film history texts.

Perhaps it is an exaggeration that 2016 took an unusually wicked toll on our artists and stars. But, I understand this sentiment because the passing of legendary figures creates a sense of loss not easily defined. Stars and their characters mean something to us: They symbolize an idea, value or ideal that is important to us– Princess Leia’s independence, Debbie Reynold’s spunky tenacity, Gene Wilder’s lovable eccentricity. In addition, their films or television shows are touchstones in our childhoods; we mourn the stars because their work made an impact on our lives. And, these touchstone moments unite us as a culture, as a group—no small feat in a country that is so divided by politics, race and class.

Susan Doll

23 Responses On the Passing of Stars
Posted By AL : January 2, 2017 2:40 am

Thanks again, Susan.
I thought I’d mention (again)that when I was 15 yrs old, I was the vice-president of “The Only Official Debbie Reynolds Fan Club”. Because of my exalted status Debbie invited me to spend the day with her at MGM. It was the last week of December 1955. She was shooting THE CATERED AFFAIR. I was met at the gate by her mom (Maxine), and as we began walking to the sound stage where Debbie was filming I told her how thrilled I was to be there and she said “Oh yeah? Well take a good look, Al, ’cause it’s all over but the funeral”.
She was shooting a very dramatic scene with mediocre NY actress Joan Camden, who just could not produce the real tears required for the scene. After 28 “takes”, Debbie took charge by gently recounting that she had the same problem in the final scene of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and that Gene Kelly had a tried-and-true solution: a piece of raw onion rubbed directly on the eyeball. Voila!It worked! Take 29 and off to lunch…
Debbie said “I know a shortcut” and led us into another sound stage where the Ballroom set was being assembled for THE SWAN. As we walked diagonally across the set, I recognized the magnificent floor–it had been created for the Wilkes foyer in GONE WITH THE WIND. It was constructed so that it could be disassembled–like puzzle pieces. It has been used in countless MGM films. I tread where Gable had tread!
We got to the commissary; we sat next to Mike Todd Who spoke to Deb about the New Years Eve party they were having with Liz. To the right, sitting together were Anne Francis and Jeffrey Hunter; next table Jeanne Crain–Deb took me all around and introduced me to every one of these Stars–and they ALL seemed to be there! Deb sat on Walter Pigeon’s lap while he signed my autograph book. The incredibly sultry Ann Sheridan said “Lemme get this straight: you’re the president of HER fan club and you want MY autograph?” Needless to say it all became a giddy, profound Blur. Imagine.
After lunch we went to another stage for Debbie’s next scene. As soon as we walked in the door I felt an intense “Presence”. I turned and locked eyeballs with a glaring, hostile, intimidating Bette Davis! She was the only person Deb did NOT introduce me to. She explained that they had a Hell of a time getting BD to allow my visit to this set.
anywayz: The scene was shot in ONE take–ala BD’s haughty decision. Then Eddie Fisher appeared and I had my picture taken with America’s Sweethearts! As they were leaving, Deb assigned a PR guy to be my Guide touring the Backlots, saying to him “Be sure and show Al the Tarzan lake”.
There’s more to be told about this Monumental experience but I’ll stop for now. This actually happened. I was 15 years old…

Posted By Susan Doll : January 2, 2017 9:46 am

Al: What an amazing experience. I am sure that, like me, all of the Streamliners readers are envious.

Posted By Doug : January 2, 2017 11:26 am

I’m grateful to Al for sharing, and I appreciate hearing of Fisher’s work as a writer/script doctor; she had a talent for expressing herself well in both the written word and acting.
I enjoyed “Goodbye Charlie” but had no idea that it was a Vincente Minnelli film-I thought it was more like a Blake Edwards effort-I checked IMDB and Edwards did cover the same ground in “Switch” with Ellen Barkin.
I appreciate Fisher’s seeking out off beat roles in her career-”Under The Rainbow”, “The Blues Brothers”, “Amazon Women on the Moon”-she could have played it safe and done only prestige
films, star studded dramas which garner Oscar noms…but I think that would have bored her.

Posted By lisa : January 2, 2017 11:35 am

Great piece centered on two great American female performers that will be greatly missed. I agree that the loss feels personal to us because of, not only, the characters DR and CF portrayed, but how we felt we knew them.
I also agree that The Wedding Singer is the best Sandler vehicle.
Al: What a rare and enviable experience! Sounds like you should write a memoir!

Posted By Steve Burrus : January 2, 2017 11:51 am

Sue I am sure/cer tain thatr most obituaries on Debbie Fisher only note her signature role of “Princess Leia” in the Star Wars movie trilogy but I think her many abilities as a writer were stronger talents than acting. And Al that was an amazing story of yours’!

Posted By Steve Burrus : January 2, 2017 11:58 am

Al just curious, did you see E rnest Borgnine anywhere on that set? A “pre-McHale’s Navy” Borgnine.

Posted By Cary : January 2, 2017 2:24 pm

Thanks so much for this wonderful piece! I especially appreciate your emphasis on Fisher’s oft-overlooked screenwriting talents. 2016 was rough. Here’s hoping for a happier 2017.

Posted By Donald : January 2, 2017 2:26 pm

Another Debbie Reynolds film worth checking out is “The Gazebo,” something of a comedy noir written by Carl Reiner. I “met” her at the press junket for “Mother.” She was “on” from the get-go. She breezed into the conference room for her a.m. roundtable interviews singing, “Good Morning,” and then with pitch-perfect timing, stopped herself and said, “Wait, we alredy made that movie.” She came fully-loaded with anecdotes and bits, no doubt, from her nightclub act, including jokes about her ex-husbands. After growing up with her films, from “The Rat Race” “My Six Loves” and “Molly Brown,” it was a thrill to bask in her Old Hollywood legend.

Posted By Lauren : January 2, 2017 2:58 pm

Now I know why I love The Wedding Singer, despite my hatred of Adam Sandler. As a Star Wars nerd, I always loved Leia’s sass and bravery. She was the only principal character who didn’t haul ass when things got tough, and who wasn’t afraid to look Vader in the face and give him guff. I also loved her performance in When Harry Met Sally. Debbie was a musical legend. They will both be missed. Thank you for this post.

Posted By LD : January 2, 2017 4:10 pm

Carrie and Debbie did an interview on Oprah 6 years ago. They sang a duet and Carrie’s voice was very impressive, inherited from both parents, no doubt. Both were intelligent and off the charts multi-talented. Thanks to all that have shared their memories.

Every year when TCM runs “TCM Remembers”, there is at least one person who has passed on that I didn’t have a clue about. This year it was Robert Vaughn. Now, all the Magnificent Seven (8 counting Wallach) are gone but never to be forgotten.

Posted By Kate : January 2, 2017 5:49 pm

A note of thanks for such good ‘inside skinny’ on Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. We’ve been listening to interviews and just watched Wishful Drinking last night. What a talented family! A sad loss for all of us. Thank again for the great stories… what a treat.

Posted By Ed Husayko : January 2, 2017 6:40 pm

Great column Suzi Doll! Did you know Debbie Reynolds was almost cast as Judy in Rebel Without a Cause? I love Natalie Wood, but never cared for her in Rebel.

Posted By AL : January 2, 2017 7:48 pm

Susan, Steve, Doug, Lisa–thank you for your lovely responses to my recount. It was abbreviated–I always try to be concise. (I didn’t mention that I was also the vice-president of the Marlon Brando fan club and a member of the Piper Laurie fan club!).
LISA: Others have suggested that I write a Memoir. Now that I’ve segued from Old to Elderly, I realize more-and-more that I was Blessed with a very interesting life, a fact that I am very grateful for.
STEVE: alas, Borgnine wasn’t filming that day–but I’ll never forget how awed I was by his performance in MARTY, which I saw when it was first done on early LIVE TV! I was just a child, but he impressed the Hell out of me!

Posted By robbushblog : January 2, 2017 9:17 pm

What made this double-passing so sad and tragic was the suddenness of the two deaths – one right after the other. It is heartbreaking to hear how Debbie just wanted to be with her daughter and some 15 minutes later or so suffered a fatal stroke. I spent my New Year’s night watching each actress’s most iconic movie. It seems like practically yesterday that we saw the return of Princess Leia in THE FORCE AWAKENS. I’m almost certain that the box office grosses for ROGUE ONE might have been affected by Carrie’s death as well. 2016 was a rough year, but the double-loss of Debbie and Carrie was one heckuva double-whammy way to end it.

Posted By Sue Sue Applegate : January 2, 2017 10:03 pm

Lovely article, Susan Doll!
And thanks to Al for sharing his lovely story about Debbie Reynolds.

Posted By Maryann : January 3, 2017 3:54 am

My favorite Debbie films were when she was paired with Glenn Ford: The Gazebo and It Started With Kiss. They had great chemistry together.

Posted By kingrat : January 3, 2017 6:48 pm

Great article, Susan, and wonderful memories from AL.

For anyone not familiar with Robert Vaughn, his performance in THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS is outstanding. That’s a good way to get acquainted with his work.

Doris Roberts fans shouldn’t miss her brief turn as phony faith healer Dorelda Doremus (real name: Irma Perlmutter) in MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN.

Posted By AL : January 4, 2017 7:14 pm

Doris Roberts first blew-my-mind in A NEW LEAF.

Posted By Ruth Connell : January 5, 2017 3:13 am

I’ve been a fan of Debbie’s since I was a young girl. She has always been one of my all time favorite actresses. In your lineup of filims paying tribute to Debbie, Please remember the one with her signature song. Tammy And The Batchelor. Also a very good filim wich you have never played that I know of is Say One For Me.!

Posted By George : January 5, 2017 2:59 pm

Carrie Fisher is also in the next Star Wars movie, due Dec. 15, 2017. It will be her final film appearance.

Posted By George : January 5, 2017 3:07 pm

Rather, it will be Fisher’s last movie unless she’s resurrected via CGI, like Peter Cushing and Fisher’s 1977 self in ROGUE ONE.

Posted By KathleenSampley : January 15, 2017 3:57 pm

I whole heartedly agree with the performance of Robert Vaughn in the young Philadelphians to get an idea of how wonderful and actor he was. I believe that is my favorite role for him.

Posted By swac44 : January 18, 2017 8:09 pm

This post makes me want to revisit Postcards From the Edge, written by Fisher and directed by Mike Nichols, based on her semi-autobiographical novel, with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine handling the daughter/mother dynamic. I remember watching it when it came out and wondering how much of it was pulled from real life. Obviously there’s some exaggeration, but I’m guessing there are also some revealed truths as well.

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