The true-life tales of Hollywood icons Debbie Reynolds and daughter Carrie Fisher seem almost tailor-made for the world of glitz and glam in which they lived.
Debbie was just 19 years old when she danced her way into movie history alongside Gene Kelly in the classic musical Singin' in the Rain. Audiences also adored Debbie as the innocent southern beauty in the popular movie Tammy and the Bachelor. Her turn in The Unsinkable Molly Brown earned her an Oscar® nomination.
The starlet married singing sensation Eddie Fisher in 1955, and the couple was immediately hailed as America's sweethearts. Their marriage seemed like a Hollywood fairytale with the births of their two children—daughter Carrie and son Todd.
The couple often socialized with Eddie's best friend, Mike Todd, and his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor. Eddie even served as Mike's best man and Debbie was Elizabeth's matron-of-honor.
In 1958, Mike's tragic death in a plane crash crushed Elizabeth—and turned Debbie and Eddie's picture-perfect marriage upside down. Eddie rushed to console his best friend's wife and fell in love with Elizabeth. Debbie and Eddie's relationship crumbled, and the couple divorced in 1959.
Carrie wasn't even two years old when her parents divorced. Eventually following in her mother's famous footsteps, Carrie made her big screen debut at 17 alongside Warren Beatty in Shampoo.
In 1977, Carrie's stardom reached galactic proportions after an independent science fiction film called Star Wars hit theaters. As Princess Leia, Carrie became a sci-fi sex symbol.
In addition to the Star Wars trilogy, Carrie has starred in some of the biggest comedies of her generation, including The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally.
Off-screen, Carrie became a tabloid headline. She struggled to conquer personal demons, including drug addiction and manic depression, and ended up in a mental hospital.
When Carrie turned to writing, her first novel became a best-seller. Postcards from the Edge is the semi-autobiographical story of a drug-addicted actress who grew up in the shadow of a screen legend mother. The book was later made into a hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.
Today, Carrie performs a wickedly funny one-woman show called Wishful Drinking, based on her best-selling memoir of the same name.
Carrie says she didn't realize her parents were famous until she was 2 or 3 years old. "Someone said to me, 'What's it like to have a movie star as a mother?' And I had no idea what they were talking about," she says. "I raced home to see if I'd find out what this was."
Because her parents were famous, Carrie says the balance of her family was shifted. The focus was on the parents, not the children. "Normally a family's organized raising the child," she says.
In fact, Carrie says she never wanted to go into show business because of what she saw her parents go through. "Celebrity is just obscurity biding its time. Eventually, all fame will disappear. And I watched that happen," she says. "My mother was no longer wanted in movies by the time she was 40. My dad, I didn't see as much of, but also his career. So I always knew what was coming."
Carrie says it wasn't always easy to be the daughter of such a glamorous woman. "I thought I looked like a thumb," she says.
"My mother would get up in the morning as my mother and then she would go into this big closet she had," she says. "She'd go in on this end as my mom and she'd come out the other end as Debbie Reynolds. It was like a car wash for celebrities."
Even in her days as a sci-fi pin-up, Carrie says she thought she was fat. "My self-image is just whacked from having the movie star mom," she says.
Debbie says she knew growing up wasn't easy for Carrie. "When she was in grammar school, the teacher one day, she kept calling Carrie 'Debbie,'” Debbie says. "It's okay because I'm Princess Leia's mother so everywhere I go, [I say] 'I'm Princess Leia's mother' now.”
Though it's been more than 50 years since Debbie's husband left her for her dear friend, Debbie and Eddie's divorce remains one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history.
Debbie says she started hearing rumors of a relationship between Elizabeth and Eddie. "He had gone to New York for some business," Debbie says. "But I didn't know it was monkey business."
Elizabeth was also in New York, and Debbie tried to call both of their rooms. She got no answer. "I called his room and he wasn't there. So then I called Elizabeth's room. Eddie took the call," she says. "So then I heard Elizabeth saying, 'Who is it, darling?' I said, 'Would you just roll over and put Elizabeth on the phone?' So he did. She wouldn't take the call. He rolled out of bed and [came] home."
Though Debbie didn't believe in divorce, she says Eddie and Elizabeth guilted her into the divorce. "That was the way to get the divorce," Debbie says. "They didn't need a divorce. They could just go ahead and screw."
When the story broke, Debbie says her home was under siege by reporters and photographers. "There was about a hundred press in the front yard," she says. "They wanted for me to say something [about] what did I think about Eddie leaving with Elizabeth. Well, I didn't think it was really right so really I feel that I was guided by God."
Looking back, Debbie says the affair was tragic for everyone involved. "The whole thing was so sad because Elizabeth was really in deep mourning and so she really turned to Eddie in all of this need," she says. "I was young and I didn't realize that [Elizabeth] was turning to Eddie. In other words, he was Mike Todd."
Carrie says she once asked Elizabeth if she loved her father. "She said, 'We kept Mike Todd alive.' All they did was talk about Mike. And that's all she wanted," Carrie says. "Eddie was Mike's best friend. They adored this man."
Debbie says she's since forgiven Elizabeth. "I don't blame Elizabeth now—now that I have more of a brain about it," she says. "At the time it was just such a shock to me."
Eddie Fisher passed away in September 2010 at age 82. Because Carrie was so young when her father divorced her mother, she says she doesn't remember much about the scandal. "I was defined more by his absence than his presence," she says.
To have a relationship with her father, Carrie says she had to take an untraditional approach. "I realized he's not a parent. If I wanted a relationship with him, he needs to be taken care of," she says. "So I could have a relationship with my dad if I didn't wait for him to be my dad in the traditional sense."
It worked. "The great thing was that my father really appreciated it," she says. "He knew he didn't deserve it."
In 1960, Debbie married shoe millionaire Harry Karl. Debbie says she never asked how many millions he had because she had her own money. After 13 years, they divorced and Debbie was left flat broke. "Somehow in our marriage he lost all of his money gambling and all of my money gambling. It just disappeared," she says. "It just shattered our lives, Carrie's and ours. And that's what destroyed us the most was Harry Karl. It wasn't Elizabeth and Eddie."
Debbie says Harry was deeply in debt. "He owed $10 million. So then I got to pay that off," she says. "Everything went, homes and everything."
The government also took her salary to get back what Harry owed in taxes. "I think it's as if somebody swallowed your stomach and swallowed your heart," she says. "Everything's gone and you're emptied out."
In Carrie's early 20s, she says she had a fairly volatile relationship with her mother. "I didn't want to be around her," she says. "I did not want to be Debbie Reynolds' daughter."
Debbie says that was a painful time for her. "It's very hard when your child doesn't want to talk to you but you want to talk to them," she says. "That was the most difficult time of all."
Carrie says she was angry. "You're individuating yourself. This is a very powerful person and in order to have my own identity, I have to sort of forge some kind of character out of nothing," she says. "I wanted my own life and her life was crazy at that time and I was in it."
Still, Carrie says she had empathy for her mother. Carrie says Debbie often confided in her daughter about her marital problems. "I did know what was going on in there. And it was chaos. And it was hard for all of us," Carrie says. "I wanted to protect her. I felt horrible for her and I hated Harry Karl."
Debbie and Carrie's relationship faced other challenges as well. "There have been a few times when I thought that I was going to lose Carrie," Debbie says. "I've had to walk through a lot of my tears, but she's worth it."
Carrie says she started smoking marijuana when she was 13 years old. Her drug use spiraled out of control in her early 20s, with Carrie taking everything from cocaine and heroin to pain killers and acid.
At age 28, Carrie entered rehab for the first time. "She was doing a film. She had collapsed on the set and they had taken her to Cedars-Sinai," Debbie says. "It was a terrifying night. It was pouring rain, so you can just picture you're in the car with the rain smashing against the windshield and you're crying like mad and you don't know if your daughter's going to be alive when you get there."
Carrie was also diagnosed with manic depression in her 20s. "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," Debbie says. "[I wondered], 'How is she going to get along in life? How can I help her life?' All I can do is love her and always shall."
At first, Carrie struggled to accept the diagnosis. "I knew two other people who I had been told were manic depressive, and these people were nuts," she says. "It was like, 'Come on.'"
At age 40, Carrie suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric ward for one week. When she signed into the hospital, she didn't write her own name. "I wrote with my left hand," she says. "And I wrote the word 'Shame.'"
In the hospital, doctors took Carrie off all her medication to determine if she had an allergy to one of them. "I said to them, 'I won't sleep,'" Carrie says. "And they said, 'No one ever died from losing one night's sleep.'"
Carrie stayed awake for six days straight and began believing everything on television was about her. "I was getting secret messages from the movie The Young Lions," she says. "There were secret messages from the writers."
Carrie says doctors brought her back by fixing her medication. "I went from the mental hospital lockdown to just a mental hospital," she says. "When you're in the mental hospital, it's kind of okay because it can't get any worse."
Carrie manages her manic depression through medication and electroconvulsive therapy treatment—known to some as electroshock therapy—once every six weeks. "Did you see One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?" Carrie says. "Well, it's not like that."
Carrie says she's put to sleep and given a medication so she doesn't experience convulsions. The treatment is administered through small electrodes on her temples. After treatment, Carrie says her mind feels more clear. "My brain gets kind of mired down, sort of like cement. And it kind of blows that apart," she says. "You can move on from whatever if you get into feelings that you cannot resolve through therapy, through medication or anything."
Still, Carrie says she does experience some memory loss. "I don't remember movies I've seen so I get to see them over and over again," she says. "It's actually not bad."
Today, Debbie says she and Carrie have found happiness. "I admire her strength and survival," she says. "I admire that she is alive. That she has chosen to make it."
Still, Debbie says she feels protective of her daughter. "I don't worry about [Carrie]. I just worry about the mental health," Debbie says. "I feel, as a mother does, that I protect her. Who will do that when I'm gone?"
Carrie assures her mom that she's okay. "I enjoy my life. I make choices. I do what I want to do," Carrie says. "I am a strong person. I'm not afraid of almost anything. And that's a lot because of your example."