In a final slap at the very end of 2016, Debbie Reynolds passed away on Wednesday, just a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher. According to her son, Tom Fisher, Reynolds was upset over her daughter’s unexpected death, and the stress and emotional pain caused a stroke. Reynolds was an incredibly well-known and feisty actress who acted in more than 50 movies, shows, and plays over the long course of her career. As “America’s Sweetheart,” Reynolds was known for being upbeat and positive, and playing beloved and memorable roles across the decades.
Reynolds was born as Mary Francis Reynolds to Nazarene Baptist parents who viewed films as sinful. They were hard-working, blue-collar people, with her father working for the railroad in Texas and her mother working at home as a laundress. They later moved to California hoping for more stability for the family.
In 1948, at the tender age of 16, Reynolds won the crown as Miss Burbank, a coup that rapidly catapulted her into movies. This is when she began going by the name Debbie. Personal drama followed not long after: her husband, Eddie Fisher, publicly left her for her best friend, the infamous Liz Taylor. This foreshadowed a common theme of the rest of Reynolds’s life, where personal relationships and romances were frequent gossip fodder, contrasting with her lighthearted movie roles.
Reynolds’ fresh-faced appeal perfectly placed her for popularity in the 1950s and ‘60s, especially in comparison to her former friend, Taylor. Her apparent innocence and demure appearance helped frame her as the relatable wronged wife, scorned by a famous husband and an unfaithful friend. This personal tragedy was also formative to her career. She seldom played dramatic roles, sticking instead to movies that made her and her fans happy.
“Drama’s unhappy, and playing someone unhappy would make me unhappy,” she told The Boston Globe in 1990. “Ain’t for me, honey.” While she didn’t want to be unhappy, she was passionate about helping others who were. Reynolds was involved in advocacy and providing assistance to people suffering from mental illness since 1955, when she helped form the Thalians, a group dedicated to helping increase access to mental health care. She was the president emeritus of the organization at her death.
It’s tragic that Reynolds died a mere day after her daughter. Reynolds’s relationship with her children was sometimes uneasy, but always held love. That love and affection reportedly led to her death, with her last words recounted by her son: “She said, ‘I want to be with Carrie.’ And then she was gone.”
In her later years, she lived closely with her daughter, sharing a driveway. Left behind is Reynolds’s granddaughter, Billie Lourd, and her son. The loss of Reynolds and Fisher so close together, the week of Christmas, is a terrible shock and leaves millions of fans reeling.
Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Reynolds is to be found in deciding her best and most lasting role. With so many different and important roles, especially ones that often became deeply intertwined into the culture of the day, it’s hard to pick one where she shone most brightly. Reynolds was an icon, in the truest sense of the word, immediately recognizable, hardworking, versatile, and immensely talented. How do you pick one favorite role from so many? How do you narrow down her best and finest moments? From the earliest moments of “Singing in the Rain” to her more recent appearances on “Will & Grace,” Reynolds has been a part of entertainment for as long as most of us can remember. It’s hard to imagine someone more formative in Hollywood’s history.
So many greats from the entertainment industry have passed away in 2016. The loss of Reynolds firmly closes the Golden Age of Hollywood, and ends an era. Reynolds’s death both completes the year, and leaves a hole in the hearts of her family and fans.