So, I’m uploading/importing files to Kindle Direct and, apparently, that can take a minute, unless I start typing something else, I figure, and never mind that I need to vacuum and dust, and I thought, I’ll write that post now.
Last night I watched the HBO sort of documentary, it was more personal than that, “Bright Lights,” about Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. It was an exceptionally well done, intimate, revealing, glimpse into the lives of these two enigmatic, iconic, stars. That sounds canned.
I grew up watching old movies, was a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood. There was the glamour of it, of course, but I was drawn to the stories behind the stories, how the “movie stars” became movie stars. In those days, the Hollywood studio system controlled every aspect of the lives of the actors and actresses under contract to them. Everything was about the canned image, the keeping up of appearances. Love affairs and scandals were kept from public view, as much as possible, and nonetheless, became the stuff of legend. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosellini, Elizabeth Taylor and, well, Eddie Fisher, the husband of Debbie Reynolds, for one, among others.
I read quite a few movie star biographies because so many of them were “rags to riches” stories, the kind of thing that got so many naive young ladies to get on a bus and head out to Hollywood back in the day, however, what it was that appealed to me about those stories was that there was always a strength of character presented, presented, as in, a lot of those stories are loaded with fabrications as well, because that’s what they did, they put the best face it on it all that they could. There’s something to be said for that, there’s a lot to be said for that sometimes. Debbie Reynolds was a product of that Old Hollywood system, and that made for some tough dames. The old school, “Never let ’em see you sweat, kid.” I’ve known women like that, women who said things to me, in my youth, like, “That’s when you really know you’ve got ’em by the balls!” But, only as an aside, you’d have never in a million years heard them utter such a thing in “public” or in polite company. Stoic. There’s great strength in that.
Debbie Reynolds personified this kind of stoic strength, putting the best face on it, right to the end. In this documentary, it is so there at the surface as she’s telling Carrie how they should be seen, how they should appear to be while they are in public, as they’re going to an awards show where she will be the recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award, even though she’s barely well enough to be there. It’s apparent after her final show appearance on stage, as she’s carting around a casino afterwards saying that you can’t let life get you down because life is hard and if you do, it’ll kill you, you’ve got to keep going. It’s there in her making light of her “bad” marriages right to the end, because it’s how she owned it and controlled it. I was reminded of why I read those old biographies, because those women had great big balls to go play in the rough and tumble world that is Hollywood, especially back in those days, they had moxie, they had independent spirit, they had intestinal fortitude, and they had backbone for days. The show must go on! I took strength from those examples, what they said to me was, Yes, life’s a total bitch sometimes. This is how you do it! And that was Debbie Reynolds, without ever saying the word “bitch,” that you know of.
Enter Carrie Fisher. The prodigal daughter of Old Hollywood, the opposite of her mother in so many ways. At the very beginning of the documentary, she’s taking a soufflé that she has made out of her own oven in her very lived in kitchen and she’s spewing the words, “Fucking criminy.” She chain drinks Coca-Cola’s like they’re going out of style, she smokes, splashes herself with glitter, has a player piano in her bathroom. The walls are green, purple, blue, red, whatever, and on them are such delights as a painting that she describes as “A very unhappy woman who looks like Kevin Spacey.” When she appeared in her first movie role in the film “Shampoo,” her mother didn’t want her to say the line, “Want to f____k?” wanting her to use the word “screw” instead. Warren Beatty went to the house to talk to Carrie Fisher’s mother about that, the f-bomb stayed. Carrie Fisher, the daughter who had to find the strength to say, “I can’t do it your way. I can’t do it the old way.” And in that, showing everyone a different kind of strength, a different kind of resilience and backbone.
It was an incredibly moving portrait to be able to understand the depth of meaning that was on display in this representation of a true changing of the guard, the transitioning from not only one generation to the next, but from one era to the next. It occurred to me that I was raised with so many of those old ways because they weren’t just the ways of Old Hollywood, they were the ways of the world, the old social mores, not just about the way that a woman or a lady should behave, but about the way that people in general should behave, like not sitting down at a table, to eat, without taking your hat off. It wasn’t a matter of being phony or fake, keeping up something of a facade for “the sake of appearances,” though some certainly used that to be fake and to hide horrible things, it was that the world was a different place, people understood things in terms of there being no point in wallowing in it or focusing on the ugly because yes, life was hard, but it went on, and best to get on with it. They also understood the great buffer that manners and a mannerly society can often provide, for everyone. BUT, I was always of a mind of, I can’t do it your way.
I understand Debbie Reynolds stoicism. I understand Carrie Fisher’s, “Fucking criminy.”I realized, that has been so much of my own struggle, and I’m sure that of many other women of my generation.
As I watched, I realized that there are a couple of generations now to whom those old ways are completely unknown, and to whom they must seem patently ridiculous, if not unfathomable, not only as ideology, but in practice. Actress Loretta Young, who was single at the time, had a child with actor Clark Gable, hid the pregnancy, gave the child up for adoption, so that she could adopt it back as her own, without the public ever knowing, in order to protect their careers as Gable was married to Maria Langham. Who now would ever think of such a thing? Or try it if they did?
I think of Carrie Fisher in “The Blues Brothers,” as the mystery woman with her arsenal, just blowing shit up.
This is how social structures are rebuilt, reformed, as though they were fashion, and in some ways, they are.
I was moved by the revelation of this relationship, enduring friendship, between mother and daughter. I thought it was wonderful to get to see inside the homes of two great stars who very obviously actually lived in their houses, that were essentially only a walkway from one another. The sterile super-mod glass, chrome, polished marbles of celebrity mansions so often presented to us these days are complete bores, totally lacking in creativity, by comparison. Debbie Reynolds went into debt collecting up old movie memorabilia in the hopes of building a museum to share and preserve it, though that never happened, her affection for, and care of, this time in movie history was completely admirable, filled with affection and sentimentality. Carrie Fisher’s home was filled with things that she loved seemingly without a moment’s thought for whether or not any of it “went together,” or what anyone might think of it, and it was amazing.
There was something so exceedingly normal here, at one moment they’re all standing around in formal wear in the driveway, Carrie, her daughter, actress Billie Lourd ( Scream Queens), Carrie’s brother Todd, his wife, actress Catherine Hickland, limousines waiting to take them all to an awards show, and they’re waiting on grandma, Debbie Reynolds. They could have all been heading to Bingo together for the fanfare involved, except that they weren’t. What struck me about it was that it was less staged, less fake, than any A-list star wafting by in their sunglasses, looking at the ground, that you’ll see anywhere today. Secure in themselves, so famous that it was normal, and they were over it. Carrie Fisher was completely over being famous, and that’s famous. But there’s a lesson in that for everyone, about how to be.
These two women, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, gave us two completely different examples of resilience, and strength, of backbone par excellence, they did it right. I think that Carrie Fisher personified, in so many ways, a new kind of modern which is, simply put, being and embracing oneself. Completely inspirational.