One rainy day, while I walked toward the Metro in D.C., a man offered me his umbrella and sang “Singin’ in the Rain” – the song from the fabulous 1952 movie musical of the same name.
I’ve been thinking of my encounter with chivalry since I, like millions of generations of fans, was shocked to learn that Debbie Reynolds, 84, the iconic star, whose roles ranged from Kathy Selden in “Singin’ in the Rain” to Bobbi Adler in the groundbreaking TV show “Will & Grace” died on Dec. 27 after suffering a stroke. Reynolds died a day after her daughter Carrie Fisher, 60, herself an icon, succumbed to a heart attack on Dec. 26. A documentary “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, will air on HBO on Jan. 7.
Fisher’s death sent shockwaves through the countless number of her fans. We loved her as Princess Leia of “Star Wars” and adored her razor-sharp, vulnerable and honest writing in work such as her novel “Postcards from the Edge” and her one-woman show and memoir of the same title “Wishful Drinking.” “Postcards,” Fisher said in interviews, was fiction though it drew on her relationship with Reynolds and experience in recovery from substance abuse. The novel was made into a movie of the same name starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. HBO’s 2010 adaptation of “Wishful Drinking” will be shown again on Jan. 8.
Though they were from different generations and had different styles, Reynolds and Fisher each exuded seemingly boundless energy, talent, and a determination to keep working at their craft no matter what was happening in their personal lives. Both are beloved by many, hetero and queer, from the ladies who lunch to “Star Wars” geeks.
Watching Reynolds dance with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in “Singin in the Rain,” a classic musical about Hollywood as silent films were going out in the 1920s, is like watching a force of nature. You wonder how anyone could move like that. Especially, when you remember that Reynolds was only 19 and had never danced before when she was cast for the film. Kelly, a perfectionist, reportedly didn’t want her to have the role. Years later, Reynolds recalled that her feet bled while she rehearsed dancing for the film and said, “The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’”
My friend Grace saw “Singin’ in the Rain” when she was 14 in Guatemala. “We lived for it! My cousin Diego and I couldn’t stop dancing after we saw it!”
Yet Reynolds, who appeared in many films from “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination) to “How the West Was Won,” never rested on her laurels. My young queer friends loved her in “Will & Grace.” She played Liberace’s mother in the HBO movie “Behind the Candelabra” in 2013.
Fisher in her acting, screenplays, novels and memoirs had an original, brave, comic voice. Fisher shared stories of her life – from shopping with her gay Republican best friend to finding comfort from her dogs. Yet, her anecdotes were never solipsistic. Fisher spoke of “finding community in sharing” and her sharing fostered community.
Though her work drew on the personal, we identified with and were comforted by her experiences. In “Postcards,” she penned the mordant line “instant gratification takes too long” to describe her character’s struggle with recovery from addiction. In an era when mental illness is still much stigmatized, Fisher who had a bipolar disorder, bravely spoke of the need for “bipolar pride.” Fisher touchingly wrote of how in the midst of a bipolar episode, she signed herself into a mental hospital with the signature “shame.” “We’re only as sick as our secrets,” Fisher said.
Thank you, Debbie and Carrie, for bringing us joy and giving us pride. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.