Obviously recent events have rendered this tender yet incisive portrait of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds even more poignant. This HBO documentary was originally scheduled to air in March, but its release was moved up following Fisher and Reynolds’ deaths last week. As such, it serves as paean, portrait and epitaph to two extraordinary women who lived out their struggles in the heart of Hollywood, dealing with their personal demons in the glare of public scrutiny.
Except it’s not as grim as all that. The dynamic at the heart of Bright Lights, the relationship between mother Reynolds and daughter Fisher, is a loving and affectionate one, if not the most typical, and it’s plain to see. Using to-camera interviews, masses of archival footage, and fly-on-the-wall observation, director Fisher Stevens take us into a world that is at once amusing and more than a little disturbing. The upper echelons of Hollywood are a strange place populated by strange people, and their customs are sometimes hard for the outside observer to parse. Todd Fisher, Carrie’s brother, at one point cautions against “marrying outside the showbiz species” because only people accustomed to this world can understand each other. A little later he narrates the complicated family history, peppered with divorces, scandals and whatnot, using a series of framed movie posters as his story skeleton – a perfect illustration of how fiction and real life are irrevocably intertwined in this world.
For all that Fisher, Reynolds and their circle are hothouse flowers – there’s more than a touch of Grey Gardens in the way their lives at the family compound are depicted – they’re still human, just people trying to do the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. All and sundry are eminently comfortable being on camera, and that perhaps makes the film incredibly intimate as they open up about their most pressing fears and concerns. Fisher worries about her mother’s health and her insatiable need for the adoration of an audience (at the time of filming, Reynolds was still doing a stage show in Vegas), while Reynolds frets over her daughter’s mental issues and worries how Carrie will fare after she is gone. There’s a core of sadness here that is always palpable, as our subjects wrestle with ageing, mortality, illness, and the need for love, comfort and acceptance.
Yet there’s so much joy, too. Reynolds’ “old Hollywood trouper” attitude, even this late in her life, is delightful, and it’s clear that Fisher was beloved be everyone – friends, family, employees and fans (there’s an extended sequence at a convention where we get to see how gracious she is to her fans, and it is genuinely heartwarming). There was little to no self-pity in either of these women, and a lot of the pathos comes from our knowledge, outside of the film itself, of their ultimate fates.
Bright Lights is an extraordinary work, and while that is in part due to the timing of its production, that doesn’t lessen its value as portraiture and cultural artifact. All that aside, it stands now as an incredibly touching tribute to two people who loved each other so much they couldn’t spend even a day apart. Keep the tissues handy.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds premieres in Australia exclusively on Foxtel this Sunday, January 8, at noon.