Carrie Fisher & Debbie Reynolds' Singular Bond: Inside Their Complicated But Fiercely Close Relationship

Mother and daughter duo Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher experienced intense highs and lows but ultimately were the great loves of each other's lives.

By Natalie Finn Dec 28, 2020 4:00 PMTags
Watch: Todd Fisher Reveals Mementos From Late Mom Debbie Reynolds

Carrie Fisher's relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, was the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Its own chapter in the proverbial annals of show business lore, thanks largely in part to Fisher's 1987 novel Postcards From the Edge, mother and daughter gave their devoted fans exactly what they wanted when they appeared in public together, bickering like a Borscht Belt duo in "take my mom, please" fashion.

But though their relationship could rightfully be categorized as turbulent, the thornier aspects of their collective history demanding center stage, Fisher and Reynolds were fiercely devoted to each other and, ultimately, the great loves of each other's lives.

The extent of their bond became shockingly clear in 2016, when Fisher died on Tuesday, Dec. 27 and, a little more than 24 hours later, Reynolds had a stroke and died. Carrie was 60 and had been in the middle of an international press tour for her latest memoir, The Princess Diarist. Debbie was 84 and, according to son Todd Fisher, who was with her, her last words were about wanting to be with Carrie.

Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher's Mother-Daughter Moments

"There have been a few times when I thought I was going to lose Carrie," Reynolds said in 2011 when she and Fisher sat down for an instant-classic interview with Oprah Winfrey. "I've had to walk through a lot of my tears—but she's worth it."

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"My lowest point in Carrie's and my relationship was really when we discovered that she was ill—or that she had this mental health problem, and that it was going to be with her forever. That was…very hard."

Fisher struggled with manic depression and substance abuse throughout much of her life. She was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 24, but didn't really accept it for about five years. At 40, she suffered a mental breakdown and checked herself into a psychiatric ward, where—as she told Oprah—she used her left (non-dominant) hand to sign in as "Shame." Fisher attributed a combination of medication and electro-convulsive therapy (she sang its praises in her memoir Shockaholic) for helping her keep her illness in check later in life.

But when she was most struggling, Fisher didn't feel like accepting help from her mom. "I didn't want to be around her," Fisher recalled that dark time in the 2011 Oprah interview. "I did not want to be Debbie Reynolds' daughter."

Yet as Fisher knew all too well, there was no getting away from being Debbie Reynolds' daughter.

Carrie Fisher: A Life in Pictures
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Even after she had scored the role that would forever define her career as an actress, Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher was first and foremost known as "Hollywood royalty," the daughter of Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher.

"Forgive me for just staring at you, but I know your mom and I know your dad well, and when somebody looks at an offspring for the first time, they say, 'Let's see, do I see some of the mother?'" was how Mike Douglas, hosting Fisher on his talk show in 1977 when she was promoting Star Wars, began their interview. "You got your father's eyes for sure."

"Yeah, well," Fisher agreed amiably, but you can see the tenseness in her smile as Douglas makes a point of informing the audience exactly who her parents are.

Ironically, Douglas continued, "But you're going to be able to forget all that—not forget them—you won't have to be identified that way after this."

"Oh, I don't mind," Fisher said. "I like my parents."

But it was just a tad more complicated than that.

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Carrie was barely 2 years old when Eddie infamously left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor, whose husband Mike Todd—the namesake of Carrie's brother, Todd Fisher—had just died in a plane crash.

"He defined me more by his absence than by presence," Carrie told The New York Times about her father in 2010 just before the premiere of her HBO special Wishful Drinking—adapted from her one-woman show that stemmed from her unabashedly candid 2008 memoir.

"In my opening night of Wishful Drinking in San Francisco, Mama was there and he came too," Fisher recalled. "And she hid behind my rack of clothes so she wouldn't have to see him.

"I forgave but I don't forget," Reynolds characterized how she felt about her first husband's betrayal, 50 years later.

Carrie Fisher's Most Memorable TV Appearances

Both Fisher and Reynolds would recount on multiple occasions how Fisher hated having to share her mother with her fans—or her career in general—when she was a little girl. Reynolds became America's sweetheart after starring in the seminal 1952 MGM musical Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly, and that film opened the door to more starring roles in musicals and B comedies, as well as a supporting role in the classic How the West Was Won. Her sole Oscar nomination came for her titular role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

But even when the screen work started to dry up in the late '60s, Reynolds worked tirelessly on TV, in Las Vegas and later on Broadway.

As the writer and acclaimed chronicler of personal foibles that she would prove to be, Fisher took it all in, the highs and the lows.

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"I thought everybody had movie star parents," Fisher said in her first-ever appearance on The Tonight Show in 1983, when Return of the Jedi came out. She and Johnny Carson talked about first meeting when she was 13 and in Las Vegas as part of her mother's nightclub act.

She recalled hanging out with fellow children of showbiz heavies, such as Dean Martin's kids. "We were allowed, sort of, once a week, we were let loose on the gutter and we could get dirty."

"There are more photographs of me…" Fisher trailed off. "I had a horror of it. I grew up on a movie star map. I could get traumatized by that, still photographs and those white bulbs going off. I was in Modern Screen at 2 hours old, and it wasn't even a good picture."

It was part of her quest to in any way detach from that life that led to the longest period of estrangement for her and Reynolds, who each remembers that time somewhat differently, though both through the lens of someone trying to keep her head above water emotionally.

"She didn't talk to me for probably 10 years," Reynolds recalled that period to Oprah.

"We talked really badly," Fisher corrected her. "We didn't get along. We had the extra, larger-than-life relationship. This is a very powerful person but in order to have my own identity, I have to forge some kind of character out of nothing."

"I wanted my own life," Fisher added. "Her life was crazy at that time, and I was in it, and I," she turned to Reynolds, "was your confidante. I did know what was going on in there and it was chaos, and it was hard for all of us."

The period in question involved Reynold's second marriage, to Harry Karl, which ended in 1973 after he bankrupted the both of them. To The New York Times in 2010, Reynolds mused on why she and Fisher butted heads so much.

"I think we've always been open and honest — that's why we didn't get along," the entertainer said. "As a parent you must give your opinion. And if that causes a breach, then it causes a breach. Carrie and I have disagreements and stalemates, but we still walk away loving each other."

Fisher's discerning eye and her ability to translate the indignities she witnessed as a child into mostly humorous and almost always scathing stories helped define her as a singular talent, both in her writing and her presence on stage and screen. But she inherited her propensity for sharing from her mother, who also penned a couple of memoirs and took on her own life in a one-woman revue.

HBO Films

Postcards From the Edge, which was turned into a movie starring Reynold's old friend Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep as attention-hogging mother and substance-battling daughter, seemingly laid bare the heart of Fisher's issues with her screen-legend mom—but Reynolds, who was very religious, insisted she never drank the way MacLaine's character did.

"I love to get up and entertain at parties and I love to sing and get on the piano and Shirley put a lot of my traits in the part, but I don't have the disease of alcoholism, thank God," Reynolds told the U.K.'s Telegraph in 2010. "I don't drink hard liquor, just wine. To me it's a social thing. I could never drink vodka the way she did in the movie. I don't even like vodka."

Reynolds' career experienced a rare-in-Hollywood resurgence in the mid-1990s, when she played the titular Mother in Albert Brooks' 1996 comedy, in which he played a successful author who moves back in with his mom in hopes of getting his love life issues sorted out.


Stealing scenes as always, Reynolds played Kevin Kline's supportive mom in the 1997 comedy In & Out, then had an Emmy-nominated recurring role as Debra Messing's mom in the hit sitcom Will & Grace. She also turned in an acclaimed performance as Liberace's mother, Frances, in the 2013 HBO movie Behind the Candelabra.

But Fisher, who more often than not had fun with the fact that she'd forever be linked to her role as Princess Leia, had watched her mother go through leaner times—and that stuck with her.

"What the scary thing about it though is, is watching celebrities fade," Fisher said. "Celebrity is just obscurity, biding its time. Eventually all things will disappear."

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In what turned out to be the final years of both their lives, Fisher and Reynolds drew ever closer, sometimes drawing comparisons to Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, the eccentric mother and daughter at the heart of Grey Gardens. Fisher and Reynolds didn't live together, however—but they were next-door neighbors in Beverly Hills.

"I usually come to her. I always come to her," Fisher says in the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

Fisher became an advocate for mental health issues, and so did her mother. Reynolds served as the president of The Thalians, founded by entertainers in 1955 to promote awareness and treatment of mental health issues, for decades. The organization raised millions of dollars for the Mental Health Center at L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and military veteran assistance through UCLA's Operation Mend.

Reynolds was so devoted to the cause, "she persuaded her daughter Carrie to pretend that she suffered from mental illness," Jane Fonda jested while honoring Reynolds with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2015. Reynolds was recovering from surgery and was unable to attend the ceremony in person.

"It honestly feels super weird to be up here without her. I've never seen her miss a show in her life," granddaughter Billie Lourd, Fisher's daughter, said in accepting the award on Reynolds' behalf.

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"I would say that Carrie and I have finally found happiness," Reynolds said in 2011. "I admire her strength and survival. I admire that she is alive, that she has chosen to make it. It would have been easy to give up and to give in, and to keep doing drugs…I always feel, as a mother does, that I protect her. Who will do that when I'm gone?"

But she needn't have worried, regardless of how life eerily unfolded in the end, because Fisher had learned everything there was to know about strength and survival from her mother.

"She's an immensely powerful woman, and I just admire my mother very much," Fisher told NPR in November 2016, just weeks before her death. "She also annoys me sometimes when she's mad at the nurses, but she's an extraordinary woman. Extraordinary. There's very few women from her generation who worked like that, who just kept a career going all her life, and raised children, and had horrible relationships, and lost all her money, and got it back again. I mean, she's had an amazing life, and she's someone to admire."

Celebrity Deaths: 2016's Fallen Stars

Fisher, Lourd, and Reynolds' son Todd joined the entertainer onstage for a farewell Vegas show in 2014, Lourd sending her granddaughter's pride through the roof by singing "At Last."

Reynolds would regularly lament that Fisher didn't sing more, telling the Los Angeles Times that her daughter had a great voice. "She has Eddie Fisher's voice. See, I said his name," she quipped.

Whether that was part of the reason why Fisher didn't sing much, she made her mother quite happy when they joined forces on Oprah for a duet.

Watch: "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" Cast on Carrie Fisher's Final Performance

"You remember when you were just a little girl, you wouldn't ever perform," Reynolds reminded Fisher, who looked as if she'd heard that one before. "Always shied away and I always said, 'I loved you to sing because you have a great voice.' But you wouldn't do it, and I went to New York and I did a play called Irene and there's a song I wanted you to sing."

And with that, they launched into "You Made Me Love You" and "Happy Days Are Here Again."

This story was originally published on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 at 1:20 p.m. PT.