The incredibly unfortunate news of actor Debbie Reynolds’ sudden death at age 84 has, by now, saturated the news. Reynolds was rushed to the hospital on Wednesday Dec. 28 in the afternoon; a short while later, she died. In thinking about the life and celebrity of Reynolds, it’s tough not to settle on a defining moment early in her fame: her unplanned role in the love triangle with her husband Eddie Fisher and best friend Elizabeth Taylor. It’s become one of the most talked about bits of celebrity intrigue, eventually becoming a major narrative of Reynolds’ life; arguably, it defined the public’s perception of the rest of her romantic life too.
Reynolds and Taylor were old friends. Both had grown up on studio lots, working and going to school together. Reynolds gave an interview in 2015 with People magazine and spoke about the beginning of her friendship with Taylor: “I went to MGM when I was around 17, and Liz was there too, but she was already a star. We went to school together on the lot, when she was in between films. I was just a beginner, and she and I were not in any manner alike, but we got along very well because I was in awe of going to school with Elizabeth Taylor.” The closed quarters of being a contracted star at MGM meant that kinships or feuds were formed quickly, depending on how big the personas involved were and, of course, how easily those in question clicked.
But Reynolds and Taylor remained close. After smashing into fame with 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain, Reynolds’ star was beginning to burn as brightly as Taylor’s in Hollywood. Reynolds found love with Eddie Fisher, marrying the actor and singer in 1955. Carrie Fisher was born shortly after in 1956. In 1957, Taylor married Fisher’s best friend, producer Mike Todd. All seemed to be going well — best friends married to best friends, each couple in the throes of marital bliss. And then it happened. Years of friendship came crashing down, scrutinized by the public and turned into tabloid fodder.
News broke that Taylor and Fisher had become romantically involved following Todd’s death in an airplane crash in 1958. Fisher left Reynolds to be with Taylor very shortly after. Those are the facts; the narrative spun by the media involved the images of Reynolds and Taylor permanently marked as a likable housewife pitted against a poisonous home-wrecker. Suddenly, these best friends were at odds and the public was forced to pick sides.
What really matters, though
It’s not useful to speculate about Taylor’s motivation for going after Fisher (although you have to admit, it doesn’t look good, even close to 60 years later). That time is better spent looking at Reynolds and understanding how she persevered. She was, at 26, a single working mother to two children — Carrie and Todd — who had to maneuver the rigors of motherhood with the trappings of fame.
Her perseverance is admirable; I’m not sure many of us can speak to the kind of high-profile spotlight that comes with going through a divorce after your best friend breaks up your marriage. Even more astounding, and something that I think speaks highly of Reynolds’ character and what we should all remember, is that she was able to forgive Taylor. Yes, forgive her. Reynolds’ attributed forgiving Taylor to her strong faith, saying that “I’m very religious. I believe that things happen and you have to go along with them. You don’t have to be angry and become an ugly person. You don’t have to become what the people are who are attacking you. Love blinds all.” The forgiveness may have come after a considerable amount of time had passed, but it remains, nonetheless, extraordinary.
There was still more heartbreak ahead
When Reynolds did find love (or so she believed) again, it turned out that having been down the road of disappointment before was like a training ground for her. Her second marriage, to millionaire businessman Harry Karl, was a disaster. The 13-year union ended with Reynolds ultimately living out of her car after Karl had gambled away his — and Reynolds’ — fortune.
Reynolds’ third marriage to Richard Hamlett ended in divorce too. When all was said and done, Reynolds readily admitted the men she’d married were the worst kind of men and that she fell for the wrong types. “My marriages have been one of the greatest voids in my life… I have very poor taste in men and I married all the wrong men. I’ve never found the right man and never hope to at this age… I am still unmarried and all the wonderful men who I met then married somebody else.”
And while love was never particularly kind to Reynolds, we cannot forget her resilience, her brilliance, her refusal to blame herself entirely when looking back at her romantic life. She may have been ready to cite a kind of dispassionate approach to marriage or perhaps her own ignorance at the kind of men she married, but it never stopped her. She worked, she cared for her children, she thrived.
Marriage failed, motherhood succeeded
Where marriage seemed to fail Reynolds, motherhood succeeded. No, her relationship with Carrie wasn’t always easy, but they came together and reconciled. Carrie’s own navigation of Hollywood, addiction, mental illness, intense pop culture success and marital highs and lows played out in the public eye as much as her mother’s drama. The two may have been different women, but their life experiences in public and private were contributing factors when it came to mending fences.
Carrie Fisher died on Tuesday, Dec. 27. Reynolds died only a day later. Now, as we remember Reynolds, we remember her for the great career she built and the relationships she had with her daughter and granddaughter, Billie Lourd. We may remember that shocking love triangle from way back when, but we also know that every scandal has a silver lining — a career and motherhood were Reynolds’.
Reynolds was a Hollywood institution, a pop culture icon and a fearless and empowering woman; in short: she will be greatly missed.
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