“She’s me, and I’m her,” says actress/writer Carrie Fisher in the delicious new feature-length documentary Bright Lights. Fisher’s remark caps one of her grueling gigs at a Star Wars fan convention and refers to her breakout film role as Princess Leia. But she might as well be talking about her mom, Hollywood superstar Debbie Reynolds.
A master of hilarious one-liners and off-the-charts repartee, Carrie Fisher died suddenly at age 60 on December 27, 2016, followed by her mom’s passing a day later. If you were shocked by the timing of this heartbreaking loss, do yourself a favor and watch Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll be grateful you tuned in to share the grand finale of the Carrie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds experience.
Bright Lights made a splash earlier last year in happier times at the 2016 Cannes, Telluride and New York Film Festivals. It debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, January 7, 2017, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)
Filmmakers Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, an accomplished actor in his own right, no doubt originally conceived Bright Lights as a wildly entertaining cinema véritè portrait of Hollywood royalty as Debbie, Carrie, her brother Todd Fisher, his wife actress Catherine Hickland, and their devoted staff recall the family’s lifetime in the limelight and the challenges that threatened to derail them. In light of the recent unexpected back-to-back deaths of Reynolds and Fisher, Bright Lights takes on new and poignant resonance.
Jam-packed with wonderful clips from Debbie and Carrie’s films and TV appearances, myriad home movies and lovely family photos, the film paints a portrait of a complicated, intense and loving mother-daughter bond that transcends show business and the demands of their accomplishments as artists.
With reflections from Carrie’s brother, Todd Fisher, and their significant others, the family’s tumultuous past quickly falls into place. Mother-daughter-son survived setbacks that would have crushed many mortals (substance abuse, mental illness, feckless fathers, dissolute husbands, bankruptcy); but they seemed to have patched themselves together with stronger glue in the end.
Carrie’s early fall from grace began around age 13 when her erratic behavior (undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder) and her lapse into drug abuse took root. She replayed the fallout to comic effect in her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge (Simon & Schuster, 1987), and her adapted screenplay for the 1990 film directed by Mike Nichols. Those episodes were painful to Debbie who tearfully puts them into perspective… and clearly in the past tense.
As they met the needs of their sassy, aging mom who was not content to retire from show business and wait to die, Carrie and Todd faced new hurdles that many daughters and sons can easily relate to. Carrie’s efforts to get Debbie prepped and on-stage for her periodic gigs in Las Vegas and the burbs and, most especially, for the love-fest awaiting her acceptance of the 2016 Screen Actors’ Guild Life Achievement Award are especially touching.
A hill separated Carrie and Debbie’s houses on the Reynolds’ family “compound”; but the invisible ties that bound them more closely as mother and daughter clearly meant that Debbie could not live without Carrie by her side, and vice versa. Bright Lights sits comfortably alongside of Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper (see my April 9, 2016 review ), as one of the best documentaries in recent memory to depict the mother-child bond respectfully, warts and all, no matter how lofty the subjects and how hard the fall.
On its most elemental level, Bright Lights works as an entertaining profile of Hollywood royalty and as an unusually upbeat addition to programs featuring films about mothers and daughters (Grey Gardens, Terms of Endearment, Mildred Pierce, Gypsy, Imitation of Life, Stella Dallas, etc.). But it is also an evergreen choice for adult family programs in libraries and counseling centers dealing with aging parents, the challenges faced by family care-givers and grief.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, January 7, 2017, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates in the weeks ahead and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.)–Judith Trojan