Two weeks ago, Bright Lights was ‘just’ a well-made, touching and humorous documentary about the complicated relationship between Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Now? With Fisher snatched away before her time and her grief-stricken mother suffering a fatal stroke a mere day later, the film’s poignancy has multiplied exponentially.
Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens introduce us to a somewhat curious mother/daughter living arrangement. Both live in the same compound, in neighboring houses separated only by a large gate. It’s a life of cozy, secluded domesticity, the two gently bickering in a way that very slightly echoes the classic 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.
Though they’re neighbors, the two women’s houses couldn’t be more different in style. Debbie Reynolds’ is all cool pastels and orderly presentation – she’d once hoped to open a museum of Hollywood memorabilia (we see a pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers casually resting on a shelf). Meanwhile, Fisher’s is a riot of kitsch, clashing patterns everywhere, folk art festooning the wall and what looks like a parrot hologram. There’s even a life-size Princess Leia ‘sex doll’ in the garage – possibly the funniest moment in the film is Fisher skeptically jabbing at its conical rubberized breast.
Once we’ve got the present pinned down, we take a trip down memory lane. Using a combination of home movie footage and clips from films, we get a potted history of Debbie Reynolds’ movie career – her abortive marriage to star singer (and father of Carrie) Eddie Fisher and her marriage to industrialist and gambling addict Harry Karl. Her life is a cacophony of dazzling Colgate smiles, sequined frocks, fierce eye makeup and a lightning storm of paparazzi flashbulbs.
At her peak, Reynolds is practically superhuman, brimming over with energy and charisma. When we cut to her in the present, shuffling through her self-constructed Hollywood graveyard, it’s difficult not to get a tingle of Sunset Boulevard. It’s an unfair tingle though, as Reynolds is no recluse, performing a solo variety act well into her 80s. She even gets a standing ovation and, considering the average age of her audience, that’s a big deal.
Peppered throughout are shots of Fisher as a child, emerging from childhood pudge to become a teenage proto-Leia. It’s often difficult to square the footage of a laughing, cartwheeling teenager with the narration explaining her deep depression and bipolar tendencies, which she unsuccessfully tried to treat with what sounds like the total export produce of Bolivia. Judging by this documentary, she was still a cokehead to the end, though she’d swapped white powder for red aluminum cans.
Overlaying everything is the extratextual knowledge of the two women’s impending deaths. It casts everything through a morbid lens: while the 83-year-old Reynolds is all too aware she’s approaching the end, there’s real throat-catching sadness watching Fisher wonder what she’ll receive in her mom’s will, watching her working out in an effort to improve her health, or just the simple kindness and patience she has for awestruck Star Wars fans who can’t quite believe they’re shaking hands with Princess Goddamn Leia.
HBO are risking appearing ghoulish in bumping transmission of Bright Lights forward a couple of months, leaving themselves open to accusations of capitalizing on these women’s deaths. But the doc is a great showcase for the pair’s qualities. Reynolds comes across as a pleasantly batty person addicted to entertaining and hellbent on leaving nobody unsatisfied with the Debbie Reynolds product. But Carrie Fisher exudes an obviously hard-won survivor’s aura; approaching life with the confidence of someone who knows who she is, what she wants and where she’s going. Not to mention the tender, quietly heartbreaking way she steers her mother away from harm without her noticing.
There’s no better time to watch Bright Lights, the film acting as a perfect memorial (albeit unintentionally) to two wonderful women and their relationship. Granted, I wouldn’t have been as moved by it if I’d have watched it a month ago, but sadly, reality is what it is.
What would have been a straightforward, reality TV-esque insight into two very interesting women is elevated beyond measure by the recent tragedy of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds' deaths.