It was almost impossible to hear about the passing, just one day apart, of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, without thinking of those elderly couples who’ve been together for years and then die with dramatic proximity: first one, then the other, as if they simply couldn’t bear to be without each other. In those cases, the proximity doesn’t seem tragic — it seems like some dying-of-the-light expression of ultimate romance.
“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” is a droll, spirited, and disarmingly intimate documentary that now feels karmically timed. The film is set to premiere on HBO on Jan. 7, and for fans of Fisher and Reynolds, it offers a beautiful kind of closure, feeding our fascination with these late, great, cross-haired showbiz legends and inviting us to revel in the prickly and affectionate, warring and adoring glory of their lives and personalities. “Bright Lights” captures the essence of what they had together — not just a bond but a mother-daughter marriage. One that lasted two lifetimes.
Early on, we see home-movie clips of Carrie growing up, accompanied by the sound of Fisher and Reynolds having a friendly debate — you can sense that it was once not so mellow — as to whether Carrie was a happy child or not. Reynolds, her voice crackling with “I did nothing wrong!” vivacity, says: Sure, you were happy! Carrie says: Not so much. Given everything we know about Fisher’s later life, it’s natural to assume that we would side with her, except that Carrie, in the clips, really does come off as a spirited and ebullient child, and the message that Reynolds conveys — What, exactly, did I do to you that was so terrible? — provokes a surprising sympathy.
A little later, we see a bit of what she did, in a startling clip that captures the generational battle royale of their egos. It’s 1971, and Reynolds, in the middle of one of her stage shows, brings Carrie up on stage. Fisher is just 15, with straight shiny ’70s hair, and it seems as if two things are happening at once: Her mother is giving her an “opportunity,” but she is also, in some passive-aggressive way, setting her up for a flop. Even if Fisher gets through the performance, how could this girl look anything but earthly next to a veteran Hollywood goddess?
Fisher launches into a rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which at first makes you chuckle (Paul Simon alert!), but not only can she sing, she does it with a moody rock & roll verve that’s shockingly confident for her age. She really is her mother’s daughter, only with that crowd-pleasing sunniness edged into defiance. We can already see the quality in Fisher that made her indelible in “Star Wars.” As written, Princess Leia was holding the Rebel forces together like a student-council president, but the way Fisher played her she smoldered with a dash of honest fury. That’s what made her a star.
“Bright Lights” was co-directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, and if the movie seems, at times, like a reality show, its execution is far more penetrating and sincere, rooted in a soulful tango of past and present. The film has an elegant free-form structure, with clips of old newsreels and home movies layered in, so that in the space of just 94 minutes you feel like you’re seeing Carrie Fisher’s life story; Debbie Reynolds’ life story; the pulse of showbiz fundamentalism that coursed through this family; a parable of the choices imposed on — and made by — women in a Hollywood ruled by men; an examination of the ways that gossip works on people from inside the fishbowl; and the tale of a mother-daughter bond that is primal enough to outlast most of what’s around it.
In “Bright Lights,” the two are living next door to each other in Beverly Hills, and Carrie will come over in the morning with a soufflé, which feeds Debbie, Carrie, and Carrie’s dog. The movie catches, as well, how this mother and daughter feed off each other: with an understanding that has aged like fine wine, but with some demons still bumping around in the trunk of their relationship. “Bright Lights” isn’t a postcard from the edge. It’s more like a smiley-face “Grey Gardens,” or maybe “All About Eve: The Golden Years.”
The movie catches them in 2014, when Fisher is preparing to shoot “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” (we see her being monitored, according to studio contract, for weight gain) and Reynolds is still trotting out her legend in self-styled cabaret lounge performances. Fisher keeps nudging her mother to retire, but is she looking out for her, or is she weary of a lifetime of being overshadowed? There’s a practical dimension to the mommie-dearest metaphysics. “I share everything with my daughter,” says Reynolds, “especially the check.” At which point Fisher turns to the camera and says, sounding just protectively tongue-in-cheek enough to let you know that she means it: “She pays for everything.”
Fisher was just 13 when her bipolar disorder kicked in, and she was also reeling from the Hollywood surrealism of life at home. “Bright Lights” takes us back to Reynolds’ marriage to Eddie Fisher (Carrie’s father), the superstar crooner who left her for Elizabeth Taylor, resulting in one of the formative scandals of global gossip culture. The movie also touches on Reynolds’ follow-up marriage to a gambler and hooker-izer who burned through all her money. That was the one-two punch that did a number on Carrie’s childhood. Through it all, Reynolds held onto the perky, poppin’-fresh goodness of her screen image, drawing that image right out of who she was (or vice versa). In “Bright Lights,” she’s never not “on.” She’s like a more serene Betty White who speaks in soft-edged zingers.
Fisher, of course, has her own voracious fan base, even as we chart her evolution into a ruefully hard-shelled caustic wit. When she shows up at a “Star Wars” convention to sign autographs for $70 a pop (a ritual she refers to as the “celebrity lap dance”), she’s generous to her fans, but she’s divorced from the blaster-wielding princess everyone still wants a glimpse of. She’s now the anti-princess, who built a new persona — messed up, emotionally ragged, but hilariously and heroically honest about it — out of all the ways that she had suffered. She met Paul Simon the year after “Star Wars” (they had a long relationship but divorced in their first year of marriage), and there’s a touching moment when she remembers back to that era and says, in a way that still echoes with breathless abashment, “Suddenly, I’m with the people who are the best at what they do. The best actors, and the best directors.” It’s a little heartbreaking, because the subtext is that Fisher saw herself as a guest among these people. She didn’t realize that she was now one of the best actors.
Growing up under a legend, Fisher couldn’t experience herself as a legend. So she found a life of expression and achievement by taking herself off the pedestal, becoming a (great) writer, because she wondered if she even existed when she was up there. Reynolds, by contrast, never came off the pedestal. In “Bright Lights,” the two take a limo ride to the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Reynolds is set to receive the honor for Lifetime Achievement, and we get a rare glimpse of the human side of mythological stardom: a fantastic construct built out of beauty and talent and luck and anxiety and endurance and winging it.
“Bright Lights” is a small movie that looms, at moments, entrancingly large because of how exquisitely it captures the lanyard of competition and support that bound Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, two vastly revered stars who loved, resented, wounded, and sustained each other. They had their battles, but their spirits were joined at the hip. It’s Reynolds, late in the film, who enunciates the hard-won philosophy that speaks for both of them: “The only way you make it through life is to fight. You don’t get there the easy way. If you feel sorry for yourself and you let yourself go down, you will drown.” These two never went down, and neither one of them got there the easy way. Watching “Bright Lights,” it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to presume that they’re still together, and always will be, holding up their mirrors of love.