By Maureen Lee Lenker
One of the highlights of the 2017 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival was its tribute to the monumental talents of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. It was a loss that came at the end of 2016 like a one-two punch to movie fans around the world.
We’ve already profiled Debbie Reynolds’ Hollywood Legacy in our blog, but Todd Fisher was on hand to honor his mother and sister and offer personal insight on their lives throughout the festival weekend. The tribute included screenings of Singin’ In the Rain (1952) and Postcards from the Edge (1990), but perhaps most special was the display of Reynolds’ costumes in Club TCM. Three iconic outfits -- the “Good Morning’” dress from Singin’ In the Rain, and two costumes from The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), including her famous red dress -- were exhibited for all visitors at the festival home base in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Todd kicked off the festival with a private tour of the costumes for press and select TCM Backlot members. And as Classic Film Correspondent for Night Owl TV covering the Festival, I was lucky to be granted a one-on-one interview with him. Throughout, he talked about his mother and sister’s legacies, what his plans are for the heaps of movie memorabilia he still owns, and what he hopes people will remember about Debbie and Carrie.
You might expect Fisher to carry the weight of such a deep and double loss around with him visibly -- but rather than wallowing, he seems much more preoccupied with carrying the torch of his family’s legacy. During the tour, he told tales of his mother specifically relating to the costumes on display. Then he turned to how proud he was to have a relationship with TCM because the network believes in preserving Hollywood history just like his mother. He explained that Debbie Reynolds had hosted her own version of TCM’s popular franchise, “The Essentials,” for him and Carrie growing up. The MGM star installed a 35mm projector in a screening room in her house and borrowed prints from the studios to ensure her children saw films she considered a crucial part of Hollywood history. Every once and awhile, Todd and Carrie were permitted to select a film they were wanting to see.
Fisher says that Debbie Reynolds differed from many other classic Hollywood stars and studio moguls because “none of them were fans, but she was.” He explains, “Debbie always understood the importance of the film industry as it related to our culture ... the things that had shaped fashion and culture along the way and inspired so many generations of people to be better.” He says this appreciation and understanding were what drove her to amass her legendary collection of Hollywood memorabilia, costumes, and props.
Despite a series of auctions, Fisher says that several hundred costumes still remain in the collection. Reynolds didn’t collect many of her own costumes (excepting the red Molly Brown dress which she bought at the 1970 MGM auction), but Fisher began collecting items from his mother’s Hollywood wardrobe in his twenties. He notes that Reynolds purchased Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s costumes from Singin’ In the Rain but let her own go -- when Fisher began collecting, Reynolds bought her dress for him as his 22nd birthday present. The family now owns the complete set of “Good Morning’” costumes.
Treasures like these deserve to be seen and not only in a limited viewing at the TCM film festival. Fisher says he is more than happy to make items in the collection available to the forthcoming Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum. But he says he’s not holding his breath. Fisher has seen various unfulfilled plans for a Hollywood film museum falter since he was ten years old. “I’ve actually seen this thing started and stopped many times,” he says. “Now, I really hope that’s not what happens here.” To date, Reynolds and family are still the only people to operate and run a Hollywood museum along those lines -- a now defunct project in Las Vegas.
Todd Fisher could talk for hours on end about his mom and sister and the incredible memories he shares with them. He speaks to Reynolds’ under-appreciated talents as a mimic and tells me that she actually won the Miss Burbank contest (that got her a screen test with MGM) with her skills as an impressionist. While fans delighted in her mimicry of major stars like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, Fisher said his mom loved to do the unexpected and his first memory of her impressions was her take on Barry Fitzgerald.
While we all revel in Fisher’s tales of his mom and sister at events like the TCM Film Festival tribute, not everyone is so fortunate to get this insider’s glimpse at their legacy. So, what does he hope audiences and fans will remember about Carrie and Debbie as the years pass? Not their most famous film roles or their radiant on-screen beauty, but their incredible survival instincts which Fisher says Reynolds passed along to both him and Carrie. “Never say never, never die, never down, always survive -- even though you’re down, you get up and you go again,” he says is the message Reynolds imparted to her fans and her children through her actions and her roles. “That is what Debbie handed to Carrie and I, and that is what I hope she handed to the rest of us,” he says.
Todd says she taught them to always hold your head high through adversity in life, a lesson he says his sister took up and imparted to her own fans. “Carrie continued that tradition and that inspired other generations of women, that I’ve watched now marching on Washington and other places,” he says. In the wake of this loss, Fisher says he’s been touched and inspired by members of the Women’s March who marched with signs featuring Princess Leia as a symbol of resistance and rebellion. “Not because of the politics, what inspires me is their choice, that they chose Carrie’s face, they chose Carrie’s legacy to be their leader of their personal resistance, whatever that means to you,” he says.
For Todd Fisher, it is this legacy of survival, of grace under fire, of being truly unsinkable no matter what life throws your way that he hopes fans will carry with them as they remember Debbie and Carrie. “They inspired us all through their art and through their words, but most of all through their actions -- to live a strong life, to overcome, to live your dreams, to make them happen. Even when people tell you they can’t happen, you make them happen.”