Who was the bigger star? Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds?


I had this rough impression over the past day that, while the death of Debbie Reynolds got pretty good play in the news, it was mostly because she died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. And while this may be an erroneous impression, it seemed that the play on Debbie was front-pagish, but the passing of Carrie got centerpiece treatment on the news sites I saw.

Perhaps this is a generational thing, but back in her day, it seems to me that Debbie Reynolds was by far the bigger star. Look at the starring roles she’s known for: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Tammy and the Bachelor,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “How the West was Won,” “The Singing Nun,” to mention the most obvious. All pretty much boffo at the box office. And her performance of “Tammy” topped the pop charts in September of 1957.

Some of those things were a bit early for me. “Singin’ in the Rain” was released the year before I was born, and I thought of it as an oldie that occasionally appeared on TV. But I remember the later ones, and I grew up thinking of Debbie Reynolds as a big, established movie star, like, I don’t know… say, the woman who stole her husband away, Elizabeth Taylor. (And what did she have going for her, that a kid would have seen, besides “National Velvet?” She was better known for her tabloid lifestyle with Richard Burton, who stole her away from Debbie’s husband.)

Whereas Carrie is, let’s face it, Princess Leia. But to my kids, and people younger, that’s as big as it gets — maybe bigger than being Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind,” back in my parents’ day. It made her an icon. My elder son invited a girl from school over to play when he was about 6 purely in the hope that he might persuade her to do her long hair up in those braided side buns. She didn’t go for it, so that was a bust. The fascination never left him, or any of us, I suppose.

To me, “Star Wars” was wonderful — I actually reviewed the movie in The Jackson Sun when it came out, and the review was enthusiastic. I remember it grabbed me so that when I was driving home afterward in my orange Chevy Vega, I had to keep shaking off the feeling that I was flying an X-Wing, trying to get into position to blow up the Death Star.

And I was, more or less, a grownup. So I can see how irresistible the pull was for kids. And we all enjoyed seeing her back in “The Force Awakens.”

The accolades for her went on about how in later years she had become an accomplished author, etc. And feminists said things like how much more they liked her as the mature “General Morgana” rather than the enticingly nubile princess. But let’s face it, folks. We cared because she was Princess Leia, period. And I doubt that that’s just true of us boys.

Oh we enjoyed seeing her play a supporting role in “When Harry Met Sally,” and we emitted delighted cries of recognition at her cameos in “The Blues Brothers” and “Austin Powers.” But even then, John Belushi and Mike Myers totally stole those scenes.

As a movie star, as one who got leading roles, she was Princess Leia, period. And don’t get me wrong — I honor her for it.

And maybe that’s enough to overshadow her mother, even though to musical fans, “Singin’ in the Rain” is pretty iconic. Interesting that both of them made the films for which they’d most be remembered when they were 19…

Anyway, I found the comparison interesting, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from either of them. Rest in Peace, ladies…

"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

13 thoughts on “Who was the bigger star? Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds?

  1. bud

    Both are legends in their own way. It’s a bit off putting to ask such a crass question this soon. There will be plenty of time to debate that. Just not yet.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, now I have to ask: Bud is not the only person now to tell me this topic, presented this way, was insensitive and offensive.

    Which surprised me. But then, the idea came to me from looking at things like a journalist. I used to have to make these kinds of calculations every day, in deciding how to play stories in the paper: which event (or which person in the news) was the bigger deal? There was no good or bad to it; such judgments just had to be made, and in a hurry.

    Also, the sociological question of what constitutes a “star” in our celebrity-obsessed culture struck me as an interesting and legitimate one.

    But apparently I was wrong about the “interesting” part, since only Bud commented, and he critically.

    So maybe I was wrong about the “appropriate” part as well.

    What do y’all think? Should I go so far as to take this post down?

  3. Burl Burlingame

    Timing is everything. How would Fisher’s death play if it didn’t happen in the season of a new Stars Wars movie?
    Reynolds herself was clearly the “star,” but she’s been out of the public eye for a while. Fisher is celebrated not just as Leia, but as a writer and columnist of uncommon personal honesty and humor.
    But she played Leia, a character who was a princess who didn’t need a prince. A princess who became a general. As such she inspired a whole generation of young women.

  4. Burl Burlingame

    And this post is an insight into the judgment calls newspaper people perform every day, and on deadline.

  5. Doug Ross

    It’s not even close. Debbie Reynolds was a star, Carrie Fisher was an actress…And not a very good one. She couldn’t carry a movie. Her fame could be boiled down to a few lines in a couple movies and a bikini.

  6. Scout

    It feels like apples to oranges to me. They had very different careers partly due to the difference of the entertainment industry in their respective eras. I think it is possible to appreciate each of them for what they were in their own context without having to make a comparison that forces one to be deemed as lesser.

  7. Tyler

    Debbie Reynolds was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood during her prime years, but then again so was Elke Sommer, who is mostly forgotten today. Carrie Fisher, on the other hand, was never a headliner, never a star, and never a box-office draw, but is forever iconic – even if one does not know her name – as Princess Leia. Debbie Reynolds mustered up a stellar resume of work throughout the 1950s-1960s, and was often recognized at the most prestigious level of the film industry. She exuded infinite charm and grace and “triple threat” ability on the big screen. There is no doubt Debbie Reynolds was the bigger star; she is a Hollywood legend, but, sadly, I fear a certain demographic of people do not remember anything about her other than the familiarity of her name.

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