'My Girls' Review: Wall Street Journal


‘My Girls’ Review: A Perfectly Normal Crazy Family

Whenever she called Carrie or Todd on the phone, Reynolds greeted them the same: ‘Hi, dear. It’s your mother. Debbie.’

By Jeanine Basinger

It might seem unnecessary to give serious attention to “My Girls: A Lifetime With Carrie and Debbie,” Todd Fisher’s memoir about his life with not one, but two, legendary females: his mother, the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds, and his sister, Carrie, the writer best known as Princess Leia of the cinnamon-bun hairstyle. Don’t we already know their story? As it turns out, we don’t. At least, we don’t know it the way a devoted son and brother can tell it: as an insider’s tale of loyalty, tolerance and mea culpa. Mr. Fisher’s book surprises. Yes, Debbie and Carrie marry badly. Yes, they use booze and pills to keep going. Yes, they have raging egos and eccentric habits, but they also eat popcorn and watch movies in bed together, sharing a grimly humorous perspective on celebrity life: They’re stuck with it. Stuck, of course, in mansions like the one Mr. Fisher describes as the house he grew up in, with “a grand staircase,” “formal dining room and outdoor informal dining room,” “secret storage area,” “rehearsal areas,” “electronically controlled skylight,” “eight commercial-sized refrigerators” and a “fully furnished hair salon.”

Todd and Carrie Fisher are the children of Reynolds and her first husband, pop singer Eddie Fisher, whose biggest fame today is for the spectacular manner in which he ditched Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor about two months after Taylor’s third husband (and Fisher’s best friend), Mike Todd, died in an airplane crash. “Debbie and Eddie,” as the author’s parents were known—no last names necessary—were 1950s Hollywood’s crown princess and royal consort, a showbiz Meghan and Harry. Their top-of-the-heap romance was the definition of the era’s American dream. Two talented kids from ordinary circumstances made it big, got married across religious barriers (he was Jewish) and produced the correct balance of attractive offspring—a cute little girl (Carrie) and a handsome little boy (Todd, named for Taylor’s husband).


By Todd Fisher
Morrow, 388, pages, $27.99

Mr. Fisher’s book isn’t a “mommy was a horror” movie-star saga. Think of the books written by the children of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis or Marlene Dietrich. Instead of the usual tale built around the solo performance of a fascinating but troubled personality, he tells a story about how he and Debbie and Carrie were a fiercely involved and committed family, albeit a fatherless one for most of the time (not for Debbie’s lack of trying).

After the original dad bunked off, Reynolds found a second (The Shoe King, Harry Karl, who would steal her money) and a third (real-estate mogul Richard Hamlett, who would also steal her money). Given their bad luck with fathers, the trio finally just grew their own: Todd Fisher himself. The author turned patriarchal in his teens, when he discovered his mother being cheated out of program sales during a Broadway show and observed Karl’s lawyers shoving her around in their divorce negotiations. Mr. Fisher’s role expanded beyond son and brother into lawyer, bouncer, doctor, stage manager, business adviser, psychiatrist, gate-keeper and pal.

Miraculously, he did not lose his own identity or his own chance at life. “I grew up,” he says. Mr. Fisher found a hobby making movies—and he had a good head for business. No matter what chaos engulfed him, he did his own work. (His intelligent and touchingly hilarious documentary about his mother and sister, “Bright Lights,” had its world premiere at Cannes in 2016, just half a year before Carrie and Debbie died.)

Following the family pattern, Mr. Fisher married badly (Debbie and Carrie didn’t like his first wife), then happily until cancer took his second wife, and finally triumphantly to his current partner, Catherine Hickland, a stage hypnotist and no doubt a magician, having successfully evaded the family landmines. But Mr. Fisher’s “lifetime” really is one of loving service to his family threesome.

No matter what Debbie and Carrie wanted, needed or demanded, Todd Fisher was there for them. When 20-year-old Carrie was afraid that her latest film would ruin her career and turn her into a joke, he escorted her supportively to the feared premiere. The film turned out to be “Star Wars.”

When Debbie fought to save Hollywood history by preserving the MGM costumes and props that no one wanted, he built her a perfect storage facility on his ranch. The sale of these rescued items later gave her financial security in old age.

Mr. Fisher recounts Debbie and Carrie’s conflicts with impeccable neutrality. When Debbie threw Carrie a spectacular 17th-birthday party, “Mom” had too much to drink and twirled her skirt high enough to show she was a no-panties advocate. “I was there,” writes Todd of the infamous scene. “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” He notes, however, that Carrie later made it a big deal in her best-selling book, “Postcards From the Edge.” It became known as the “skirt-twirling incident.” Mr. Fisher believes that Carrie thought “Mom was perpetually trying to compete with her.” But “the truth is, she couldn’t have been more wrong: She was perpetually trying to compete with Mom.” This “put Carrie in the sad position of running hard to win a race that she didn’t even realize she was running all by herself.”

Mr. Fisher never loses sight of his mother and sister’s deep love and obsessive commitment. “The connection between them had been so strong since the day Carrie was born that Mom’s world could be peaceful only if Carrie’s was too.” He portrays both women vividly, but in the end Debbie Reynolds, the old-fashioned movie star, steals the show. Whenever she called one of her children on the phone, she announced, “Hi, dear. It’s your mother. Debbie.” She was “fun and funny and playful and smart and beautiful.” A tiny woman, packed with determination and grit, she taught her children “there’s no such word as can’t in our family.”

Mr. Fisher is never cruel about her but doesn’t flinch from describing the demons that drove her. Often drinking too much, she suffered from insomnia and would drive around town all night until she finally fell asleep in her car. His beloved sister had her own problems. He shares her failed rehabs, her face-down crashes to the floor in strange hotel rooms, and her bipolar struggles matter-of-factly, concluding: “I just accepted it as Carrie being Carrie.” His sibling devotion is real but he reflects a clear-eyed honesty: “There wasn’t a time when Carrie and I weren’t close,” he writes. “She could be the most brilliantly fun sister in the world . . . my best friend . . . and then turn on me in the blink of an eye.” He is especially objective in describing the culmination of Debbie and Carrie’s inability to be without each other. Carrie Fisher died from the excesses of her life on Dec. 27, 2016, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, already weakened by a stroke and various illnesses, died 24 hours later—as close in death as they had been in life.

Todd Fisher’s book tells a reader all about both of them, but his story is really about three people, not two. It’s a family story, part comedy, part tragedy, both an homage and a cautionary tale. “I owe my girls a thorough, honest, unapologetic account.” he writes, and that is what he delivers, calmly presenting their crazy celebrity as if it were perfectly normal. If an American family has a daughter fall unconscious in a London hotel room in the middle of the night, doesn’t every mother call Ava Gardner to go over and check her out?

—Ms. Basinger is chairwoman of the department of film studies at Wesleyan University and the author, most recently, of “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.”