When the affectionate showbiz documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds did the festival circuit last year, already slated for a March debut on HBO, it was a pleasant diversion — a sweet and entertaining reminder that the mother-and-daughter showbiz pair were national treasures. Then came their deaths, on consecutive days Christmas week, one last kick in the gut from a year full of them, and suddenly one of the new year’s funniest movies had become one of its saddest. HBO moved up Bright Lights’ premiere from March to this Saturday, in what could play as a rather ghoulish bit of exploitation. But it doesn’t, because the film is such a celebration of both extraordinary women, and the bond they shared right up to their final days.
Directed by documentarian Alexis Bloom and actor-turned-filmmaker Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit), Bright Lights begins with its subjects looking at home movies and providing wry audio commentary, a device I frankly could’ve seen a whole movie of (“This got ugly so fast,” Carrie muses, a couple of minutes in). The film that follows is many things: a career profile of both women, a look at the many scandals and trials they’ve weathered, an ethnography of the evolution of their relationship, and a snapshot of a year or so in their lives (one of the last, as it turned out). Their cameras capture Carrie’s famous, off-hand wit, as she describes her mom laid out on the dressing room floor after a show “but in a good, dignified, movie-star way,” or as we see her going to fan conventions to do “the celebrity lap dance.” And a great many wonderful little stories are told; one of my favorites is Carrie recalling how “Warren [Beatty] had to come over to convince Debbie” to let Carrie say her most famous line in Shampoo.
But the documentary’s best scenes and most memorable moments simply observe these two remarkable women and their interactions. They live next door to each other, sharing a “compound,” their homes “separated by one daunting hill. I usually go to her,” Carrie explains, and then, after a pause, adding, “I always go to her.” Their vibe is something like a cheerier, self-aware Grey Gardens. “I think I’m my mom’s best friend, more than a daughter,” Carrie says, and later expands on this idea. “If Debbie’s unhappy, it lives on my grid,” she says, so she fills her role – providing companionship, support, and affection.
These were eventful lives, and it’s to Bright Lights’ credit that it covers so much territory while seeming neither to skim nor get bogged down in details and events. Connections are drawn between the women’s parallel trajectories and their tabloid scandals, without rehashing all the dirt. Fisher’s much-praised candor about her mental health is on full display, and there is a rather extraordinary home movie of her having something of an episode at the Great Wall of China. Both women struggle with aging as icons, when one’s youthful “perfection” is immortalized onscreen, and in attempting to preserve those perceptions; we see Carrie doing a bit of her Lucasfilm-mandated Star Wars: The Force Awakens exercise regimen, while we see that Debbie is full of life and energy on stage, but often frail and even confused off. Yet she is a trooper – she may struggle a bit (“Let me start over again,” she tells an audience a few bars into a song, “and maybe something will come out”), and she’s still got that intangible, inexplicable thing, that grabs an audience’s attention and holds it. And she’s also wonderfully aware of her place in Hollywood, that she is both a legend of that industry and a custodian of it, the latter most evident in the movie memorabilia collection that she spent her life collecting and then, sadly, had to sell off when she couldn’t find it a home. But she doesn’t regret it: “I love having my ghosts, and I love having my memories.”
As best as I can recall, the film hasn’t been altered in light of its subjects’ deaths, and there are moments of accidental poignancy: Carrie asking Debbie, regarding her brother Todd, “What does he get in the will and what do I get?”; a heartbreaking scene between Carrie and her dying dad (she confesses that she became funny so he’d want her around — “I wanted to be your best girl”); Carrie’s acknowledgement that “I like Christmas, I like the lights.” And though it ends with a charmingly homey scene – a family around the Christmas tree, enjoying each other’s company – even that scene is imbued with unintended pathos, as we spend much of the film getting to know Todd, and after observing the closeness of the family, it’s hard to imagine the pain he must be in.
But that’s not the takeaway. I keep thinking back to the rare footage, seen early on, of 15-year-old Carrie singing, in a gorgeous, belt-y alto voice, as part of Debbie’s nightclub act. Carrie confesses that she didn’t pursue this talent, in rebellion against her famous vocalist parents. But in her current interview, Debbie still feels that disappointment. “Love that voice,” she says, teary-eyed, full of emotion. “Isn’t it a great voice? Wish I had it.” In that moment, she’s not some musical legend – she’s a proud mother, a feeling mirrored by a throwaway moment late in the movie, when they begin a two-person red carpet interview with Debbie telling the reporters, “I am Princess Leia’s mom.”
Theirs wasn’t always an easy relationship, and at its best, Bright Lights captures its evolution – from Carrie’s barely fictionalized novel and script Postcards from the Edge, a roman à clef that’s just a couple of steps from Mommie Dearest, to a relationship of mutual acceptance, love, and reliance. By the last years of their lives, they’d become a comedy team, their lives spent developing and honing a double act that could be heard in the rhythms of their dialogue and the interactions of their personae. That two-act, more than any of their films or songs or books, may have been their real legacy, and this wonderful film provides a welcome opportunity to hang out with them one last time, and marvel at who they were together.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds debuts Saturday night on HBO.