Posted by Susan Doll on January 2, 2017
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.
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.
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