In ‘Bright Lights,’ Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds Share Their Beautiful, Messy Love with the World
Inside a new HBO documentary, premiering Jan. 7, that explores the late mother-daughter duo’s fabulously flawed life together.
Just days after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’ passing, HBO announced that they would be moving up the debut of Bright Lights, a documentary about the daily trials and tribulations of the mother-daughter duo. It’s a move that’s simultaneously sentimental and a little bit calculating, which is, I think, how Carrie and Debbie—realists and entertainers to the very end—would have wanted it. It feels distasteful to say that Fisher and Reynolds are, in the wake of their untimely deaths, having a moment. But watching Bright Lights, it also seems like exactly their sort of dark humor—in the same way that any fan of Fisher’s autobiographical works would see the comedy in Reynolds dying the day after Carrie, once again stealing her spotlight.
Bright Lights somehow manages to do the impossible, balancing the oversized personalities of two Hollywood legends. Fisher and Reynolds each provide enough charisma—not to mention talent and celebrity gossip—to helm multiple documentaries. And while we get some of that, from touching footage of Fisher bonding with her Star Wars fans to an 83-year-old Reynolds wowing the crowd with a song-and-dance number, the movie succeeds by applying itself to a larger theme. At its heart, Bright Lights is a paean to mothers and daughters. Spanning decades and stepdads, it tells the story of a movie star mother and her singular daughter. Fisher recalls the various disappointments she administered to her mother, her rebellions and resentments.
On the surface, these two women have lived vastly different lives. Reynolds was Hollywood royalty—married three times, hardworking, in thrall to the industry she dedicated her life to. As if in reaction to her mother’s picture-perfect persona, Fisher always rejected convention. While Reynolds took her fame hyper-seriously, Fisher mined her own celebrity for comedy, and was quick to criticize Hollywood’s sexism, hypocrisy, and superficiality. According to Fisher, Reynolds spent her and her brother’s childhoods preening her perfect family for the paparazzi. That veneer of normalcy didn’t gel with Fisher, who spent her adult life speaking candidly about her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder.
Throughout the documentary, Reynolds and Fisher clash over Reynolds’ delayed retirement. Fisher wants her mother to take care of herself, and Reynolds wants what she has always wanted: the ability to perform, and the adulation of her fans. In many ways, this struggle runs through their entire relationship, as Fisher has always suspected that her mother belongs more to others—the viewing public, the studio, the paparazzi—than to herself. “Performing gives her life,” Fisher explains. “It feeds her in a way that family can’t.”
Despite their shared DNA, Bright Lights illuminates the two women’s dissimilar approaches to fame. There’s the idea, which Fisher articulates but struggles to accept, that Reynolds is incapable of sacrificing her core identity as an entertainer. This leads to an inability to engage with her limitations. Fisher muses, “Age is horrible for all of us, but she falls from a greater height.” Reynolds’ one-of-a-kind presence is apparent in an appearance at a Mohegan Sun in Connecticut—a commitment that Carrie highly discouraged. In her dressing room, the octogenarian confesses that she’s only gotten nervous once—and that was when she performed for the Queen of England. On stage, clad in a sparkling dress with a thigh-high slit, Reynolds weaves comedy and musical staples. She doesn’t miss a beat.
In contrast, Fisher struggles with her responsibilities as the “custodian” of Princess Leia’s legacy. At a comic expo, Fisher likens her function to that of a stripper, posing with fans and signing autographs for “cash prizes.” Unlike her mother, who churned out films for MGM, Fisher’s fame didn’t follow a formula. In fact, her brother Todd Fisher recalls accompanying Carrie to an early screening of Star Wars, during which she insisted on hiding in the back for what she was sure would be a “cheesy film.” That potential B-movie became the most iconic film franchise of all time.
At one point in the documentary, Fisher quips that, “The biggest thing I did, that broke my mother’s heart, is not do a nightclub act.” When she continues, it’s a joke and a revelation: “My mother would say do drugs, do whatever you need to do, but why don’t you sing? That was my big rebellion.”
Of course, as Bright Lights makes clear, Fisher’s chosen career was hardly her only rebellion. Like her father, Eddie Fisher, Carrie famously struggled with addiction. Recalling her lowest points, Fisher explains, “I went too fast, I was too much, and I was embarrassed of it. The drugs I liked were painkillers. They calmed me down. T just couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know what it was!” It was bipolar disorder, which Fisher was diagnosed with when she was 29. Before that, the family had no means of accounting for what she describes as her “two moods”: “Roy is rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. Pam is sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs. One mood is the meal, the next mood the check.”
In a particularly touching moment in the film, Reynolds remembers her daughter’s transformation. “Nobody knew what was going on with Carrie. When she was 13 her personality changed. So it’s a constant battle, it takes all of us to assure her that she’s loved and that we’ll get her.” Reynolds begins to cry, adding, “That’s the hardest part.” In a later interview with Fisher, the actress explains that she’s in a manic stage—her first in a while. It’s painful, raw, and ridiculously brave. “You know what would be so cool?” she asks, exasperated. “To get to the end of my personality. And just like lay in the sun…I’m sick of myself.”
No one, from the creators of this documentary to the network that’s airing it, could have imagined that it would be debuting posthumously. It’s a reminder that art isn’t created in a vacuum; that intent can be obliterated by circumstances beyond our control. When Bright Lights deals with death, it’s through the consideration of Reynolds’ mortality. Watching Fisher struggle with Reynolds’ weakening state, unaware that she will die one day before her mother, is a brutal reminder of just how unpredictable life can be. There are particularly painful moments, like when Fisher breaks down while making arrangements for her ailing mother to appear at her SAG Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony. Still, the majority of the film isn’t about fearful premonitions, but rather the joys of the unexpected. It’s about a mother and daughter overcoming decades of disagreements to become, somehow, best friends. It’s about two very different women who wear matching sandals and hold hands with each other when they walk. The premise of the film, articulated in one of Fisher’s early voiceovers, reverberates: “Mother and I live next door to each other, separated by one, daunting hill. I usually come to her. I always come to her.”
While this Grey Gardens-esque arrangement may have been Bright Lights’ original focus, it adroitly transforms into a fitting eulogy. Fans will be mesmerized by the footage of a young Carrie Fisher running around in her bathing suit and belting out a ballad in her mother’s act at just 15. They’ll be struck, as we’ve been for decades, by Fisher’s wit—in one particularly memorable scene she shows off her collection of “ugly children portraiture,” likening one painted infant to “Shia LaBeouf as a young Dutch prostitute.” Then there’s Reynolds, a consummate performer until the very end. Barely lucid in her ride to the SAG awards, she somehow manages to pull off a perfect speech. Riding around a casino to one of her last engagements, unrecognized in an old lady’s scooter, she memorably insists that, “The only way to get through life is to fight.” And try not to cry as the two women perform a duet of “I’ll Never Say No.” It is, as Fisher points out, the perfect song choice.
Throughout Bright Lights, Fisher complains about her inability to deny her “tsu-mommy”—a stubborn, powerful, force of nature. “You know I love you,” Reynolds reminds her daughter as the documentary comes to a close. They both say goodnight.