Writer’s Workshop: Carrie and Debbie

The prompt Write about a celebrity death that hit you hard. Why do you think it impacted you the way it did? sent me back through the archives of the blog, and I landed on a Stream of Consciousness Saturday entry I wrote on New Year’s Eve 2016. I was doing a recap of the year, and I mentioned Carrie Fisher had died that Tuesday and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died a day later, on Wednesday.

I remember Carrie’s death really hit me, and I think the reason was I always feel a certain connection with people who were born in 1956, the year I was born. I don’t know if that’s just a peculiarity of mine, or if others feel the same way about people born in their year. But that’s neither here nor there: the fact remains that she had died unexpectedly at only 60 years old.

The problem with celebrity is that everyone knows your problems. We had all heard about Carrie’s drug problem, which, as she (and the rest of us) learned was a result of being bipolar. The cocaine and whatever else she did made her feel better about herself and the world. When we were younger, there was a stigma attached to mental illness: you didn’t talk about it, nor did you admit that you had a problem. You simply put on a false face and dealt with it in a manner that didn’t tell the world there was anything wrong in your head. Being a drunk or a junkie was easier than being a manic-depressive, not to mention more socially acceptable.

Which is really stupid, but that’s how it goes. Hopefully we’ve outgrown that. I’m not holding my breath.

Her last major role in a Hollywood production was as General Leia in one of the later Star Wars episides. It was a reprise of the role she had played 40 years earlier, and she received a lot of flak because she was no longer a slender and attractive 20-year-old woman who looked really good in a gold bikini. A lot of the people who were complaining were men who had also aged considerably, and probably not as gracefully as she had.

I admired Carrie for her ability to adapt. When the offers to be in major motion pictures dwindled to a trickle, she wrote. She wrote four novels, the first being Postcards From The Edge, for which she also wrote the screenplay for the 1990 movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. She wrote four nonfiction books and another screenplay, for These Old Broads, which starred her mother, Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine, and Elizabeth Taylor. She was a sought-after script doctor, cleaning up Sister Act and The Wedding Singer, just to name a couple.

If Carrie’s death came as a surprise, the death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, was a shock. First, because it happened the day after Carrie’s death, while she was planning her daughter’s funeral. Second, because she seemed to be doing pretty well for a woman her age. I tell the story in the earlier post about the taxi driver who had the honor of driving Ms. Reynolds to an antique show, and showed me the picture she had signed for him. He was a man in his 50’s, and he spoke of her with the same awe that people of my generation spoke of Carrie. And third, Debbie Reynolds was a week younger than my mother, yet another sort of connection.

Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016. By Riccardo Ghilardi – Crop of File:Actress Carrie Fisher © Riccardo Ghilardi photographer.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55103929 [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
Debbie Reynolds, 1932-2016. Allan Warren [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

22 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Carrie and Debbie

  1. Wonderful post, John. I also thought it was a little strange that Debbie passed so soon after Carrie. It is hard to say goodbye to those in the entertainment world who have brought us so much pleasure with their craft…actors, musicians, writers, and leaders, as well. I firmly believe of a power greater than us who orchestrates it all. When it is our time…it is our time. I grieve for the families and loved ones because they were the closest. Fortunately, we are able to revisit them through the legacies they left us, and we remember the best parts of them. Thanks, also John, for your kind words on my “heartmelt” post.

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    1. No problem, I enjoyed your post. Funny thing is, had the prompt come up this week instead of last, I could talk about Orson Bean. He and Betty White were on all the game shows I watched as a kid…

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  2. I think John F. Kennedy’s death hit me hardest. I was a child, but the national wave of grief and shock was palpable to me even if I didn’t fully understand what happened. Then more recently, I learned President Kennedy actually had a on-going plan to nuke the moon! A special Air Force division was assigned to, special space suits made for them, training for outer space ensued, studies were made–the whole ball of wax. I was stunned. I saw an investigative documentary with a guy interviewing people involved in that project in that era. The documentation was released under the Freedom of Information Act, so they could talk about it. The point of the plan was posturing US power against the Soviet Union, which was ahead of us in space at the time, kind of like “We can nuke the moon, what you got?” One of the scientists explained that studies revealed nuking the moon would’ve almost no damage. Maybe a slight surface crack. The project was never carried out. Can you imagine?

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    1. My brothers and I were all home, sick, that day. I had the hardest time getting to sleep that night, I think because of all the sadness and constant news updates. My dad finally said, “Johnny, Kennedy’s probably up there watching all this and laughing his ass off.” I got sleep shortly after that.

      You might be interested in the book “The Reporter Who Knew Too Much.” It’s about Dorothy Kilgallen, who got to interview Jack Ruby during his trial and was “suicided” after that, because the powers that be thought she might know who killed Kennedy (i.e. had him killed) and why. Lots of cloak-and-dagger…

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  3. When someone our age dies, it does feel closer to home. Intellectually, I know it’s normal that we’ll experience this more as time goes by, but for now it’s still strange. It doesn’t surprise me that Debbie Reynolds died the day after her daughter. I’m surprised that doesn’t happen more often, because losing a child has got to be one of the hardest things. I don’t want to imagine… But I will always have a good, warm feeling about seeing General Leia and Han Solo together as characters my age, still caring about each other, worried about their adult wayward child, aging normally, and still fighting the good fight until the end. Still my heroes.

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    1. I’ll bet it happens more often than we hear about. Spouses are probably more common than parents and children, but it does happen, and I think for the same reason.

      My high school graduating class is keeping a list of all our classmates who have died on Facebook. It’s amazing that almost 10% of my graduating class has died…

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  4. I was quite shocked when Carrie died, followed so quickly by Debbie. It bothered me a lot when John Lennon was murdered and when George Harrison died. Beatles should be immortal.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. George had been fighting cancer for a while, and while I was sad when he died, I had time to process it before it happened. John Lennon’s murder was a different story, but I have to admit it didn’t upset me that much.

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  5. It was a bit surprising that they passed so close. I think the celebrity death that hit me the hardest was Tom Petty. Don’t know why really, but I actually cried.

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  6. I remember! This was such a tragic passing especially for the Star Wars fandom. Absolutely heartbreaking to lose them one day apart but it speaks volumes about what a close death like that can do to a relative. So sad!

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    1. You hear all the time about spouses dying within months of each other, but not a parent and child like that. Carrie was Debbie Reynolds’s oldest child (another thing we had in common) and I think they were quite close, and maybe it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Or it might have been a coincidence: Debbie miught have died that day, anyway. Mom always said that people choose the ones they want to be with when they die, and Debbie was with Carrie’s brother Todd planning the funeral, so maybe that had something to do with it.

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  7. Carrie was super talented and sad she left us so young. I feel her death was the last hurrah for Debbie, which led to her demise. Carrie looks a lot like her mother in that picture.

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  8. It was a shock when they both passed away and so very, very sad. Carrie was so intelligent and detailed her pain and relationship with her mom in the movie Postcards. It’s a shame that she fell back into the drugs which were in her system when she died on the plane. I do remember seeing Carrie and her mom at some awards show and I was concerned about Debbie who seemed to wander off in her talk about her favourite film( not singing in the rain which is what she said then but Thoroughly Modern Millie which she always talked about in previous interviews and in books). Carrie was right by her side and doing her best to bring her mom back to what was supposed to be said. I immediately thought her mom might have early onset dementia plus she looked a little frail. This is just my opinion but I was concerned. Funny you write about this because Kirk Douglas just passed away at 103. This is a great age to live to but I am still saddened that another great from the old Hollywood era is now gone. My “shock” was when Jimmy Stewart died. He died July 2, 1997. For a month before I was thinking about him and hoping he would not die in July because I got married July 5th. I even mentioned to my mom that I hope Jimmy Stewart does not die the week before I marry or on my actual wedding date. When he passed away, I was so sad so I did a little tribute in my wedding speech..yes, I did.

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    1. We got married shortly after Terry Kath, the band Chicago’s original guitarist, died (in fact, I think his funeral was ending on the West Coast just as our wedding began). Since I knew what Mom would have said if I had done a tribute to him, I refrained from eulogizing him.

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