by Joe Kleiman
Debbie Reynolds was known for many things – as an Oscar-nominated actress, prolific stage performer, a highly talented chanteuse, and the mother of an iconic actress.
During the 1990’s, Reynolds was also a proud member of the attractions community, owning her own hotel and casino just off the Vegas Strip, where she performed in her showroom and shared her extensive collection of film costumes, props, and Hollywood memorabilia in the hotel’s museum.
This week, we lost both Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher.
In November 1962, audiences in London were astounded at the spectacle of MGM’s How The West Was Won, one of only two works of fiction to be filmed in the three-strip Cinerama process (it would open in North America the following year). The film would be a template for many giant screen and IMAX films to follow over the next fifty years.
In How The West Was Won, Reynolds played Lillith Prescott, a character that in many ways mirrored the progression of Princess Leia, the feisty iconic character portrayed by her daughter Fisher, over the course of four Star Wars films. Both characters were headstrong and willing to question authority, both fell in love with a rogue, and both ended up as the matriarchal leader of their respective clan.
And yes, there was sexuality. Prescott, in one scene of How The West Was Won, wears the rather skimpy costume of a saloon hall performer. In Return of the Jedi, Leia is forced to wear the now famous gold bikini by the giant slug and galactic gangster Jabba The Hutt. It is sexuality at its most demeaning, but it’s not enough to hold down the calculating and intelligent Princess. It is easy to overlook that while the boys are fighting the baddies, it is Leia that kills the notorious criminal overlord. This is not the traditional princess.
From the moment Leia picked up a blaster in the first Star Wars film, perceptions changed on what a princess could be. From the 1930’s through the 60’s, the concept of a princess, especially in Disney animated films, was built around a damsel in distress (or in a coma) that could only be rescued by true love.
Themed entertainment designer Cynthia Sharpe points out: “I’m of the same generation as Brenda Chapman (who directed Brave) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (songwriter, along with her husband, of Frozen). We are the generation who finally had a strong heroine in pop culture: Leia. So it stands to reason that the women who came of age watching Leia and the strong female characters who followed her would want to continue to push that forward for a new generation of little girls in plush theater seats.”
When strong, empowered women become models for young girls on the screen, by default, the design of attractions based on those films begin to change. As the group of women who grew up identifying with Princess Leia take the mantel of attraction design firms around the world, this concept begins to take footing.
At Universal’s Islands of Adventure, female tour guides on Skull Island: Reign of Kong, portrayed through prerecorded audio and animatronic figures, are given equal billing to their male counterparts.
At Disneyland, while the decades old Fantasmic continued to have princesses dance on barges with their princes, Mickey and the Magical Map features a stirring number where Pocahontas, Mulan, and Rapunzel all stand before the animated map, proudly singing their anthems. And although the character Flynn Rider joins them on stage, it is not as Rapunzel’s savoir, but rather as her partner, her equal. It is girl power at its strongest.
The loss this week is enormous, but the legacy is as well. Two strong women have left us, leaving behind characters that will positively influence young girls for generations to come.