Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Genuine Hollywood Ending

Debbie Reynolds and daughter Carrie Fisher
It was hard absorbing the news that legendary actress Debbie Reynolds died just one day after the passing of her daughter Carrie Fisher.

Life and family, love and loss, death and grief, each are so powerful in their own ways.

Both collectively, and in and of themselves, they define us as inescable parts of the rich tapestry of human experience.

But in each of those, both profound joy and profound sadness can be found; as anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can attest.

While I never knew or met her, actress / writer Carrie Fischer's recent death has been on my mind a lot over the past few days.

As a fan of science fiction and film from an early age, she loomed so large against the backdrop of my coming of age from her prominent role as Princess Leia in the first three Star Wars films.

For millions of people around the world, those were more than just movies - they were defining cultural icons that impacted society and changed not just how audiences saw science fiction as a film genre, but the film industry itself.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars
From special effects and sound, to merchandising, licensing, marketing, distribution and of course, how a "blockbuster" is defined in terms of box office.

I was just nine years old when the original Star Wars was released back in 1977 and as I've blogged about before it wasn't just THE entertainment event of the year; it was a true cultural phenomenon.

There was nothing like it before, it was as if the film had landed from outer space - which in a sense, it did.

It was in theaters around the country for months and I saw it in various theaters eleven times.

In the suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland where I grew up, that's just what people did. Remember when you used to attend the birthday parties of classmates in elementary school?

In 1977 and 1978, I swear I attended at least six different birthday parties where cake was served, the candles were blown out, presents were given, then the adults piled all the kids into cars and hauled our screaming assess off to see Star Wars.

Looking back on that time from the vantage point of adulthood, it wasn't just a film that both kids and adults could go see together and be entertained by what was happening onscreen - it was a welcome and riveting cinematic escape for both young and old.

I'd bet my last dollar that tired moms, dads, grandparents, uncles and aunts everywhere back then were relieved to have someplace to take kids for two hours where nothing had to be wiped up, cleaned, washed or cooked - just get them to the theater, buy tickets to Star Wars, grab 'em some popcorn or Goobers and presto!

A couple hours of bliss; bless you George Lucas.

Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden in Singing In The Rain
In later years, as I began to develop a deeper interest in film as an art form and began writing screenplays and watching and studying a wider variety of classic film, I came to appreciate Carrie Fisher's mother, Hollywood icon Debbie Reynolds.

If there's a single performer who manifested the idea of a Hollywood "Star" more then Debbie Reynolds I'm not sure who it was, or is.

The first movie I saw with her was the classic 1952 musical Singin' In The Rain.

Recognized by many film critics and fans alike as the best musical of all time, this MGM classic directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan arguably ranks as one of the best films in history period.

For those who've seen it, it's important to remember that amazingly, Reynolds was only 17 years-old when she began pre-production on this film and she couldn't dance before she was cast in the role of Kathy Selden.

She turned 18 during the filming and was 19 when it was released; and the film and her performance eventually enshrined her as one of the biggest and most popular stars of Hollywood's "Golden Age".

Singin' In The Rain is a classic American "rags to riches" story set against the backdrop of the transition of the film industry from silent movies in the 1920's to sound productions that seamlessly merges the apex of cinematic musical comedy with the dancing talents and creative genius of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor.

Donald O'Connor, Reynolds & Gene Kelly in Singin' In The Rain
If you've never seen it, just buy a cheap used copy of the DVD and watch it - it's hysterical, touching, entertaining, transformative and heartwarming filmmaking set to some of best, and most recognizable musical scores in film history.

Reynolds' raw physical talent, singing ability and infectiously optimistic personae leaps off the screen as she holds her own against two of the most gifted veteran performers in entertainment history.

 And it's really funny.

Now my point is not simply to gush about one of my favorite American films.

I wanted to emphasize the fact that one of the amazing aspects of Debbie Reynolds being the mother of Carrie Fisher is that they both made their on-screen debut in different genres of film that would not only become iconic examples of American filmmaking; but their respective roles would cement them both as performers who would forever occupy an almost mythical status in the collective subconscious of American entertainment.

So while it's sad, maybe there's something magical about Carrie Fisher and her mom Debbie Reynolds dying within a day of each other.

When I used to live in New York, I used to work in an Irish bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, called McAleer's; the owners were two Irish-American gentlemen of the old school named John and Frank McAleer - two guys who came over from Ireland to America together and made their fortune.

One day John McAleer died, it was sometime in the morning as I recall, and about two or three hours later his brother Frank, who I knew well, worked with and respected, dropped dead.

Within hours of each other - true story.

I don't know everything, but I firmly believe that people can die of a broken heart; perhaps some people brought close by the circumstances of life just can't bear the idea of someone they love passing into an existence beyond this world without accompanying them.

By all accounts Debbie Reynolds could be defined as a "controlling mother"; but what mother isn't?

Maybe she just didn't want to live without her daughter; perhaps she just wanted to be there to protect and guide her - even at the cost of her own life.

Regardless, both of them will exist forever in the roles they made classic on screen, and any way you look at it, there's something beautiful about the two of them leaving this life together - it was a genuine Hollywood ending.

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