The image is almost too much to take in, at the very end of a year hellbent on heartbreak and grief.
As the news spread on social media Wednesday of Debbie Reynolds’ death at 84, one day after the death of her 60-year-old actress and author daughter, Carrie Fisher, a particular moment of brilliant symbolism captured by photographer Lawrence Schiller backstage at the Riviera Hotel showroom in Las Vegas, one night in 1963, was shared and reshared alike.
There’s Reynolds far in the background, on stage, making her living. She’s barely recognizable but the pose is amazing: a star with her arms reaching out to an unseen crowd. In the foreground, perched on a little stool in the wings, there’s Fisher at age 6 or 7. Her face is mostly hidden from view. Her eyes, which we only see in our mind’s eye, are taking in her mother’s act from a distance.
It’s a riddle in bittersweet black and white: Girl A wonders if Star B will ever love her in the same way she loves Audience C.
Theirs was a triangular relationship. While it was never easy either for Fisher or Reynolds, the audiences who knew and loved these two stars of their respective, overlapping eras of American popular culture, well ... we made out like bandits.
Everything in that photo is gone now, including the Riviera. Everything.
Reynolds won a Miss Burbank beauty contest in 1948 and that got the judges, who were casting agents for the big Hollywood studios, interested in her career. She made a handful of musicals for MGM and in the number “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” from “Two Weeks With Love” (1950), she made an impression on Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, who remembered her favorably around casting time for a project called “Singin’ in the Rain.”
That picture is more than a picture: It’s a key part of American life, and an endlessly renewable source of energy. “The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and ’Singin’ in the Rain,’ ” Reynolds wrote in her autobiography. Kelly was extremely hard on the young woman who, at 19, was more gymnast than dancer. But she too was an endlessly renewable energy source, as well as a fast study under exacting conditions.
It was enough to make you cry, watching the 1952 “Singin’ in the Rain” highlight “Good Morning” hours after learning of Reynolds’ death, even with (and really because of) the kinetic joy in that number, the pleasure in seeing Reynolds make good alongside Kelly and Donald O’Connor in a musical comedy that will never die.
Think of it: This was Reynolds’ first leading role, and her finest hour on screen (though her sole Academy Award nomination came 12 years later, for “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” already well past the prime of the American screen musical). In 1957, she was pregnant with Fisher when Reynolds made “Tammy and the Bachelor,” and became a Hit Parade vocalist singing the movie’s Oscar-nominated theme song of love and cottonwood trees.
Fisher was the product of Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, who bounced out of his marriage and family to console Elizabeth Taylor, newly a widow, in her hour of need, or something like that. The scandal was bigger than Sputnik, and Carrie Fisher’s turbulent creative and emotional life in and out of rehab, and her push-pull relationship with a cast-iron, endlessly touring mom, became the thinly disguised stuff of Fisher’s 1987 book, “Postcards from the Edge.” Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine starred in the movie.
Fisher made her second feature film, “Star Wars,” when she was 19. It was a lot to handle. In the months prior to her death, she made the talk-show rounds in support of her final book, “The Princess Diarist,” in which Fisher wrote discreetly but honestly about her three-month “one-night stand” with co-star Harrison Ford. “Singin’ in the Rain” may have similarly changed Reynolds’ life, but that movie was just a medium hit for MGM. Whereas “Star Wars” became a franchise, a religion and the longest line of toys in the history of the movies.
They were so different, Reynolds and Fisher, one a practiced and charming concealer, the other a confessor and self-critical, self-searching truth teller, open about the facts of her mental health and bipolarity, a wag and a bawd and, like her mother, an entertainer to the end. In the HBO special “Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher,” the most fabulous, complicated, fraught and beautiful showbiz mother-daughter act since Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli became the subject of a documentary.
At one point Reynolds, before receiving the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, doesn’t look as if she’ll be making the awards show after all, and Fisher’s resulting panic attack is very difficult to watch. Fisher says on camera: “You know what would be really good? To get to the end of my personality and just lie in the sun.” Her life, her warring personalities, became material in the best sense. She had one of the sharpest wits in the industry, though she considered herself an accidental or reluctant actress, as opposed to Reynolds, who lived and breathed performance.
Reynolds’s final on-camera work came in 2013, as Liberace’s mother in “Behind the Candelabra.” Her finest late-career hour surely was Albert Brooks’ “Mother.” Fisher had recently completed shooting the next “Star Wars” movie. I don’t know if it’s cruel irony or pure poetry to lose them both so close together, but it feels terrible either way, and for the moment that backstage Vegas photo from 1963, the year after Reynolds made “How the West Was Won,” is the only fragment beautiful enough to do them both justice.