Bright Lights is heartbreaking — for the obvious, devastating reason, but for a more prosaic one, too.
Codirected by Alexis Bloom and actor Fisher Stevens, the documentary — about the mother-daughter bond between Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher — will inevitably turn on the waterworks partly due to timing. HBO acquired Bright Lights at Cannes last year and originally planned to air it this March, but moved the premiere up to this Saturday for obvious, morbid, and understandable reasons following their deaths at the end of 2016. Even without its tragic timeliness, Bright Lights is a bittersweet heartbreaker. The film is a tribute to two women who’d each overcome some of the worst life had to offer, and a testament to the life they eventually managed to build together. Reynolds and Fisher were twin forces of nature, which Bright Lights makes clear above and beyond its new role as a eulogy.
Most of the film’s topics will be familiar to those of us who’ve spent recent weeks awash in memorials and remembrances. From Reynolds: Singin’ in the Rain, her high-profile divorce from actor Eddie Fisher, her multiple-decade tenure at MGM, a less high-profile divorce from a reportedly gambling-addicted second husband, a run on the performance circuit into her 80s. From Fisher: an A-list childhood, Princess Leia, her drug use, a bipolar II diagnosis, and a second act as an acclaimed writer and humorist. These women lived their lives in headlines, and so it’s possible to tell their stories as a collection of them.
But Bright Lights is more than a highlight reel: It synthesizes these two remarkable life stories, showing that this celebrity-kid relationship extended well beyond troubled adolescence or even independent fame. In 2010, Bloom and Stevens filmed at “the compound,” the sprawling Beverly Hills property where Reynolds and Fisher lived in adjacent houses. Fisher’s home is delightfully kooky: festooned with Wizard of Oz props and Princess Leia sex dolls, it’s a deliberate reaction against the grand, austere home she grew up in. Reynolds’s is just down the road; she has a whiteboard where she leaves Fisher messages when her daughter is out or just needs alone time. The Grey Gardens comparisons beckon, but this is a portrait of prosperity, not decay — codependence, maybe, just the mutually beneficial kind.
Reynolds and Fisher were estranged for more than a decade, during Fisher’s 20s. Even before then, Fisher refused to follow in her parents’ footsteps and pursue singing despite a remarkable talent that Bright Lights reveals via footage of Fisher accompanying her mother onstage at the tender age of 15. It was Fisher’s way of rebelling, she explains, establishing an identity separate from her parents even though she was destined to share their world. Late in both of their lives, they made up for lost time by forming their own bubble. Fisher and Reynolds’s relationship has been mythologized before, sometimes by the women themselves. Reynolds always insisted that Shirley MacLaine’s domineering ex–movie star in the Fisher-penned novel turned film Postcards From the Edge wasn’t meant to be her, though that’s certainly how many took it. As recently as 2011, the two made a legendary joint appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, in which Reynolds proved that Fisher wasn’t the only one with a gift for charming raunch. (After Winfrey plays a clip from Fisher’s one-woman show in which she cracks that her father, who famously left Reynolds for her friend Elizabeth Taylor, consoled the other woman “with his penis,” Reynolds holds her fingers about 2 inches apart.)
There’s no shortage of celebrity parents with celebrity children, but few so perfectly typified their respective eras — one a studio-era polymath, the other a blockbuster star turned heroine of the second-wave set — as Reynolds and Fisher. What was especially remarkable was how they held onto that identity even as the eras that gave rise to it passed, a point Bright Lights emphasizes by following them into vibrant, energetic old(er) age. Even as the public turns elsewhere, people’s lives continue, a fact that’s not necessarily as tragic as the faded-star narrative makes it out to be.
Through marriages, divorces, destitution, hospitalization, and even other children, Bright Lights frames the two as the sole constants in each other’s lives — perhaps because they’re uniquely equipped to understand each other’s situation. Fisher’s ambivalent relationship with Princess Leia (“I’m her custodian,” she explains to the camera while taking a post-Comic-Con smoke break) is very different from Reynolds’s insistence on staying in show business as long as she physically could. Yet they’re two approaches to the same process of managing the connection between image and age: preserving something of yourself even as the world does its best to take it away, either by forgetting you completely or remembering you as something you’re not.
To the extent that much happens in the movie, which was largely shot when The Force Awakens was in production and Reynolds was preparing to bring her six-decade career to a close, it’s Fisher expressing concern over Reynolds’s pushing herself to her limits. There’s a painful dramatic irony to that dynamic under the current circumstances. Even so, it’s a testament to Fisher’s care for her mother, and the duo’s Gilmore Girls–like equilibrium as equals rather than parent and child.
Ever the poised performer, Reynolds (whom Fisher wryly calls “tsu-mommy” in the movie’s opening scene) is shown touring in Connecticut and Las Vegas into her 80s, ferociously dedicated to her craft. That dedication extended beyond her own career: Bright Lights also shows Reynolds’s failed efforts to set up a museum with the Hollywood memorabilia she famously collected. Unable to find a partner, she eventually auctioned most of it off, but not before amassing an archive that included Marilyn Monroe’s subway dress and props from Cleopatra. Reynolds took on the additional weight of advocating for an entire epoch as well as herself.
Debbie Reynolds never left the stage; at the time of filming, Carrie Fisher was preparing to reenter it. Bright Lights revels in the joy of these women’s continued efforts, amplified — not dimmed — by everything that made them so unusual.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.