The deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds within a day of each other during the holiday season was a poignant shocker and a cruel sucker-punch that summed up a year of too much loss. Remember them this weekend with Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a documentary about their complex relationship, filmed a few years ago as Reynolds was winding down her professional life, amid fears of declining health. This rich, brisk, bittersweet movie, directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, presents a kind of memorial that gives fans of both legends a chance to grieve. But the film transcends utility. It’s a sober yet gracious cautionary tale about fame and fandom and a powerful portrait of love in action.
Bloom and Stevens lean on home movies, archival footage, and interviews to tell their story. They also capture pivotal late-life moments with their cameras. Bright Lights begins in 2011, as Reynolds, once “America’s Sweetheart” and star of Singin’ In The Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, was preparing a solo cabaret show in Connecticut at age 79, much to Fisher’s worry. It ends with a behind-the-scenes look at Fisher’s effort to get an ailing Reynolds ready for the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she received a lifetime achievement honor. In between, we see Fisher prepping for her return to Princess Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and we also see Reynolds auctioning off her extraordinary and costly collection of golden age Hollywood memorabilia. So much in Bright Lights gains added layers and stronger emotional charge because we know the subjects have passed. “I love having my ghosts, I love having my memories,” says Reynolds as she struggles to surrender certain prized items to that aforementioned auction. We know the feeling; we’re having it right now.
The intended interest here would seem to be profiling two people raised in — and by — Hollywood, albeit in two very different eras, resulting in two very different Hollywood personalities and perspectives on fame. Reynolds was a starry-eyed child and teenage beauty queen who became a contract actress at Warner Bros. at the age of 16 and quickly found herself working opposite her idols. Her parents didn’t think much of her being an actor, and may not have thought much about their daughter in general, but they didn’t mind benefitting from the fortune she made for herself. (Regardless of the truth, you get the sense Fisher was no fan of her grandparents.) The studio system became Reynolds’ finishing school; she was taught to live every moment as if on camera, even when her life was falling apart, as it did in 1959 when husband Eddie Fisher left her for her friend, Elizabeth Taylor, igniting a tabloid storm. (There’s a fantastic, funny moment in Bright Lights in which a house alarm goes off while Reynolds is doing an interview and she doesn’t flinch; it plays like a still-life study of how hard-wired she was for celebrity.)
Reynolds raised Fisher and her brother, Todd, in the wings of her go-go-go, lights-camera-action life, and even tried to groom her daughter for showbiz. Fisher recalls resenting this – from her perspective, it felt like her mother couldn’t connect with her unless she, too, was on a stage, performing their relationship instead of living it out — while falling into it all the same. Her early career is framed as a complicated rebellion. She resisted her mom’s hope that she become a singer, defied her wish to shy away from the edgy material in her film debut, Shampoo. The film presents an abundance of meaningful ironies without spelling them out or hitting us over the head with them. Reynolds, a fan who became a star, used her wealth to amass the biggest collection of Hollywood memorabilia in the world, hoping to preserve it in a museum, and sure, profit it from it, too. She ultimately had to sell the collection lest it sink her. Fisher, Hollywood royalty and contrarian, became famous for playing a princess and rebel leader in a movie that also made her an object of fan worship, her likeness forever part of a collection of movie merchandise.
Bright Lights also covers two other narratives that have defined Fisher’s personal and public life: drug addiction and bipolar disorder. There’s an extraordinary sequence cut from a home movie shot in the late eighties that captures Fisher suffering a manic episode while visiting the Great Wall of China and crashing into depression when she back at the hotel. She names the mania “Roy,” she names the depression “Pam.” For us, it’s an intimate confrontation with mental illness, and you’re moved by the footage itself and Fisher’s willingness to be known in this way.
Much of Bright Lights was filmed in the homes of each actress, located on the same parcel of gated property that Fisher dubs “the compound.” Reynolds’ house is a model home of old Hollywood success, immaculately kept and impersonal. The true treasures are closeted and the cameras are never allowed inside her bedroom, especially on days when she can’t leave it. Fisher’s personality-overload refuse is willfully the opposite of her mother’s, decorated with an eclectic array of found art, pop culture artifacts, idiosyncratic touches, and naughty bits; the cameras are allowed everywhere.
Fisher, a smart screenwriter and one very meta creature, once drew upon her relationship with her mother to write a great comic novel about mother-daughter actresses, Postcards from the Edge (she also wrote the script for the very fine movie adaptation), as well as a one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, and several memoirs. Bright Lights functions as postscript to these works, and Fisher plays to it. At one point, while bringing her mom a soufflé, she feeds us a metaphor for their relationship, noting that their homes are separated by a small hill. The movie opens with clips from home movies of Fisher as a child and mother and daughter discussing Fisher’s belief in her unhappiness and the practice of self-documentation. “I thought if you filmed children, you had happy children,” says Reynolds. “Exposure!” responds Fisher with a sharp laugh, recognizing and calling out painful irony. Bright Lights is one last home movie for the both of them, more honest and complete in the telling.
Bright Lights does dig into Fisher’s complicated relationship with Star Wars. But the movie is most interested in showing us the Fisher who worked hard to make peace with the pains, disappointments, and mixed blessings of her life. We see her interacting with fans at conventions and delighting in their adoration of Leia; and in a heartbreaker of a scene, we see her meeting with her estranged father, three months before his death and declaring her love with him.
Fisher lavishes Reynolds with the same compassion. What you hear in their banter isn’t bitterness or defensiveness, recrimination or complaint, but earned, grace. You get the sense that, long before this documentary, these two women fought all the battles that needed to be fought between them, said all the things that needed to be said, and committed to the work of taking care of each other to the best of their ability in their remaining days. For Reynolds, that included supporting Fisher in the work of reclaiming and redeeming her exposed and overexposed life, and narrating her story her way, with her art, even with this movie. For Fisher, that included doting on her mother without condition, perhaps in a way Reynolds didn’t or couldn’t dote on her as a kid, and more, engaging her mom as Reynolds wished to live – on the stage, in front of a camera, before the bright lights. The most powerful scenes come late when Fisher sings to her mother or with her, including the very end, in which they treat their family and friends to a veritable impromptu cabaret act. We may never have lives as big as these two stars. But we could love each other as they did, if we wish. A