“My question is,” Carrie Fisher begins, roughly midway through the new documentary about her life and relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds. “When you die when you’re fat, are you a fat ghost? Or do they go back to a more flattering time?”
Like so much in Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, the HBO documentary premiere that was moved up in the wake of Fisher and Reynolds’s deaths a day apart last week, the moment sneaks up on you.
It’s a drive-by shot of hilarity that reveals so much about the wit, self-awareness, and insecurities of its subjects. It’s a laugh-line that becomes darker, and more tragic, as much of the documentary, which premiered last year at Cannes, does now. But so much of it is also now so much sweeter, hopeful, and painted with a more vibrant, blanketing love.
The tagline for co-directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Steven's film is “a different kind of love story,” referring to the unique bond between Fisher and Reynolds, one that took decades of breaking and mending before becoming as strong as it appears in Bright Lights.
There’s the simple pleasure of spending an intimate 94 minutes in the lives of two entertainers who crackle with so much humor, wisdom, and knack for entertaining. The footage of Reynolds preparing for and performing her final one-woman show is worth the price of admission alone.
The film delves into the actresses’ back stories, which we’ve become scholars in with the glut of coverage this past week: Fisher’s prickly relationship with fame, her drug use, her mental illness, and how that affected her feelings about being the daughter of a showbiz legend; Reynolds’s Hollywood breakout, her divorces, her memorabilia preservation, and her constant worry for her daughter.
How beautiful that, after all those things and all those years, the defining story of both of these lives has somehow become this partnership between mother and daughter. Bright Lights, more than anything, is an ode to the unlikeliness of that—and also the immense power of that.
As details about planned memorial arrangements begin to leak out, Bright Lights, which airs Saturday, is all the more urgent. It is in almost every way, from how they talk about their love to how they remember their own pasts, a eulogy for Fisher and Reynolds’s lives, fittingly told in their own terms: unfiltered, and by themselves.
And so poignancy reigns from the first images—home movies of Reynolds playing with a toddling Fisher and her brother, Todd—and the first dialogue, in a voiceover from Fisher: “Hello. We’re here with a woman who alleges to be my mother. I don’t buy it for a minute but this is how we’ll find out.”
“I have proof!” Reynolds can be heard saying, in protest. “I have the films and I have the certificate.”
Fisher scoffs: “You have the films that I’m happy.”
“Oh, yes. Because you doubted it for so long,” Reynolds replies. “You knew I was going to doubt it later, so you filmed me being happy,” says Fisher, transitioning their zippy banter to something more meaningful, tinged with history.
“You have to concentrate on the fact that you have had, sometimes, good times.” “I KNOW THAT I HAD GOOD TIMES.” “See how you yell at your mother?”
It’s all warm and lovely and cozy and caustic and motherly and daughterly. Fisher and Reynolds, we learn, lived almost Grey Gardens-style, next door to each other on a sort-of compound, “separated by one huge, daunting hill,” Fisher says. “But I always come to her.”
Worry permeates the entirety of Bright Lights. Worry over happiness. Worry over health. Worry over whether this is the proper camera angle to be shooting a documentary interview from.
Fisher fears that Reynolds might literally be working herself to death, continuing to book gigs across the country as her body struggles to shoulder the fabulous gold beaded gown she wears for performances, let alone the energy required to pull it off.
“She’ll forget she’s not 35,” Fisher says. “It doesn’t make sense to her that her body is not cooperating. She just thinks that if she ignores it, it will go away.” Age is hard for everyone, she says. “But she falls from a greater height.”
We first see Fisher when she’s carting a soufflé over the daunting hill to share with her mother before helping her pack for a show in Connecticut she desperately doesn’t want her to perform.
“I tried to stop her but that is like throwing yourself in front of a… what are those called? Not tiramisus. Tsunamis. See? She’s Tsumommy.” Reynolds likes performing in the moment, she says. But afterward she’s lying on the floor—“but in a good, movie star kind of way.”
It’s great that Fisher’s inextinguishably acerbic nature flames from the screen, and Reynolds’s doggedness in the face of failing health and a body that can’t keep up with a verve for showbiz remains intact in a documentary filmed before the stars’ passing. It amplifies the compassion they felt for each other.
Any sort of navel-gazing shot through a rose-colored lens about their relationship—the kind of nostalgia that would ruin the integrity of a documentary crafted in memoriam—is thankfully absent.
Everything, from their tart one-liners to their aching love and dependence on one other, is blessedly authentic. It’s almost like one of those letters a person might leave a loved one to open after they’ve died, to let them know that everything is going to be OK. Bright Lights is that letter from two of Hollywood’s greatest, most impactful entertainers and people to the audiences and fans whom they adored.
Fisher gives a tour of her characteristically quirky house, as much a reflection of its owner as any residence could be: tchotchkes in overflow, portraiture of male children dressed as girls, signs with raunchy phrases, a player’s piano in the bathroom, a Princess Leia sex doll, and her suitcase, named Robert. “It’s like scavenger hunting,” she says. “This is the opposite of the house I grew up in.”
We’re with Reynolds backstage before her gig in Connecticut. She shows off her script, the edges worn out and carried in a beat-up folder: “It’s not Macbeth, you know?” Her show is a mix of storytelling and songs. “I should’ve married Burt Reynolds,” she tells the crowd. “I wouldn’t have to change my last name. And we could share wigs.” Ba da dum.
“It’s like the old days,” she says about her act. “But I’m like the old days.”
We know Debbie Reynolds as the iconic girl next door. And we know Carrie Fisher as the girl who corrupts the girl next door. But watching them interact, it’s so clear how they became so much the same.
The way Reynolds lilts into a song while telling a story, filling the silence with a few bars of this or that, has made its way to her daughter, too. At one point Reynolds and Fisher show up for a taping wearing the same shoes.
When together, they pet and hug and smile at each other constantly. We should all aspire to say “I love you” to family as often as they do. “I think I’m my mom’s best friend, more than her daughter,” Fisher says.
Every film must have a narrative, something that drives you from beginning to end. In Bright Lights, it’s Reynolds’s failing health and how she and Fisher must come to terms with what is sure-to-be her impending death. Even before Bright Lights would end up becoming part of our collective grieving process, it is a vital look at how we prepare for loss—juggling fear, sadness, regret, peace, and anticipation—with the love of these two women beating beneath it.
The camera follows Fisher backstage in preparations for the 2015 SAG Awards, where Reynolds received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Fisher is an anxious tizzy trying to wrangle special allowances for her ailing mother, who is really too sick to attend the ceremony but insists on delivering an acceptance speech.
Where could she lay down backstage? How long would she need to sit upright at a table? Eventually, Fisher breaks down and weeps. The worry—and the love—crushes her.
When the evening is finally over, after Reynolds makes it to the stage to deliver a speech that seemed loopy at the time, but which now plays as a triumph of will and showbiz survivorship, the mother and daughter are back at a hotel.
“The whole thing was wonderful,” Reynolds says. “And there’s no business like show business.”
“You know, I have to say something,” Fisher interrupts. “Everything about it is appealing.” Then they’re off, breaking out in a bit where they banter with the Annie Get Your Gun lyrics, until Reynolds stops them.
“No, I can’t be funny about tonight,” she says. “It was too special.”
Would she accept future Lifetime Achievement Awards, Fisher asks?
“I won’t be here then,” Reynolds says, eerily matter-of-fact. “I will have gone on. You don’t have a chance to have a moment like this very often.”