*Editor’s Note: This review of Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds was published after appearing at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 10, 2016, before their passing.
Midway through Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, the latter Ms. Reynolds laments that “I like my ghosts” while being forced to part with another treasured piece of her Hollywood memorabilia (in this case the complete costume set of the rat pack). It would be easy to conflate that anecdote with the whole Reynolds family’s universe, which exists in the eternally glistening aura of Old Hollywood. But that would be a mistake, as proven by director Fisher Stevens’ defiantly spirited documentary about both Carrie Fisher and the Unsinkable Molly Brown herself.
Each actress has been immortalized by a separate era of the movie business, and both have candidly different approaches to appearing in this documentary—including in how they welcome the camera into their homes—yet the film often succeeds above anything else at being a fly on the wall, witnessing unscripted moments of the women’s complicated relationship with each other and the fame they’ve both enjoyed (or endured) from an early age.
The documentary was Carrie Fisher and brother Todd Fisher’s idea: a chance to have the final nightclub performances in Debbie Reynolds’ career recorded for posterity by Stevens, who has been a longtime friend. However, Carrie herself is a dominating presence in the movie simply through her wit and scathingly blunt viewpoints about life. While Reynolds floats in and out of the film, treating all the world a stage—just as she was taught by MGM and Warner Bros., the latter of whom signed her to a contract at the age of 16—Fisher is amusingly frank and indifferent to her lifestyle, which by her own admission seems to be in reaction to her mother.
For about 20 years, Carrie and her mother have lived as next door neighbors on what Todd describes as “the compound.” But whereas Debbie keeps her home austere and elegant, filled with mementos of a time gone by in the movie industry, Carrie embraces the tackiness of her fame, proudly displaying a house stuffed with hand-shaped chairs and the stranger items from the dark corners of Star Wars fandom (she keeps a Princess Leia sex doll in her rec room). She also does not mind sharing with fans the rather severe and daily weight loss regimens Lucasfilm imposed on her while preparing for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Fisher’s level of unapologetic candor is a refreshing surprise in the realm of Hollywood documentaries; it also offers a striking contrast with her mother. In many ways, the film somewhat appears to also be another attempt at convincing Debbie that it’s time to give up life on the stage, as her final two performances in the film, separated by several months, record a dramatic drop in energy and stamina. It is easy to imagine that between the scenes, convincing her mother to relinquish the microphone was as daunting a struggle as many other adult children have with convincing their parents to put down the car keys.
However, as both children separately describe their mother, Debbie is still the movie star of 35-years-old in her mind, frustrated that she cannot perform as she once had. There is, after all, footage of Debbie 40 years ago claiming she’ll have to retire the nightclub act soon while pressuring her 15-year-old daughter to sing onstage. In fact, it is easy to forget that Carrie Fisher is the daughter of two professional crooners herself, and that she has a fairly impressive voice, which beforehand I had only known from Hannah and Her Sisters. Yet, she is eager to sing with her mother throughout Bright Lights (Carrie reveals she refused, in part, to pursue a singing career because that is what her mother wanted her to do).
In terms of their professional legacies, the most curious elements are seeing how they both still mean something to very different fan bases. Bright Lights amusingly records Carrie going to a Comic Con where folks stand in line for hours at a time in order to pay Fisher $70 for an autograph and a minute of being face-to-face. Fisher herself speaks kindly of their enthusiasm, but she also succinctly describes these events as “Celebrity Lap Dances” where she is asked again and again to sign autographs of “Slave Leia” from Return of the Jedi by men of all ages. But they are no less enamored with Fisher (or perhaps, as Fisher surmises, the closest thing they’ve got to Princess Leia) than the sea of gray hair that shows up to hear Reynolds sing “Tammy” one last time.
Fame might be the most eccentric member of this family.
As the documentary progresses, it touches lightly on the more poignantly sad aspects of both actress’ lives. Again, this documentary in many ways feels like a way to cope with Reynolds having to finally retire the spotlight, and thus her continued deterioration is respectfully, and quietly, noted in a gentle way. Given Reynolds’ age, this is the right choice. Yet, the documentary only offers in vignettes or off-handed remarks commentary on the more salacious aspects of Reynolds and Fisher’s life that Classic Hollywood fans are probably most eager for new details about. For instance, Eddie Fisher’s presence—and his international infamy for leaving Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor—is mostly relegated to the frustrated feelings Carrie and Todd have of their father today, after he passed away in 2010.
Then again, what’s left to say about someone like Eddie Fisher, a man who left his family while he thought he was on top of the world, yet now is most famous for being the ex-husband of Debbie Reynolds and father of Carrie Fisher?
However, similarly, Carrie’s well known battle with bipolar disorder, and how it affected her relationship with her mother, is also only spoken of in mostly abstract and veiled terms. We see glimpses of real pain caused by it, as well as an actual manic episode Fisher has on-camera late in the picture, but the filmmakers and subjects leave most to be inferred beyond small little arguments, such as when the film opens with Debbie insisting that her daughter did have moments of happiness growing up; Carrie later insists they didn’t so much live together as a family as they simply lived around one another.
Nevertheless, the film succeeds at showcasing, quite earnestly, the love these two women have for each other, and a bond just as connected as their two houses are on a single property. The end of the picture involves preparing Debbie for accepting her lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild, which is a struggle at this point for even Debbie to show up and accept it—but it is also just as much a battle for Carrie to see a woman she clearly admires and adores have to be so carefully directed toward the stage. Her previous kingdom. The resiliency of the Reynolds tribe—mother and both children—is what makes the movie such a fascinating, voyeuristic view into Hollywood mythmaking.
Bright Lights opened today at the New York Film Festival and premieres on HBO in 2017.