Perhaps it is possible to produce a documentary about a close mother-daughter relationship that does not immediately conjure thoughts of Grey Gardens, but Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds is not the film to accomplish that particular feat. Like its predecessor, Bright Lights is funny and tragic and cringeworthy and, more than anything else, utterly fascinating in its portrayal of a strange, seemingly accidental intimacy between the two late Hollywood icons. Capturing both their relatable family dynamics and the removed reality of their shared stardom, the film provides a fitting tribute to the inseparable two.
The documentary picks up briskly at Carrie’s early childhood and the peak of Debbie’s career, when the widely publicized affair between Debbie’s first husband, Eddie Fisher, and her best friend, Elizabeth Taylor, played out in newspaper headlines. Presented as the undoing of the perfect American family, everything that followed tidily results from his absence.
Carrie Fisher – flanked by her ever-present companions Gary (her French bulldog), a can of Coca-Cola, and a cigarette – commands the screen with brashness and ease as only she can. Could. There’s no artifice, none of her mother’s MGM-ingrained poise, and so little pretension to any of her scenes. She totters through the film, alarmingly human and… Fragile? No. Unguarded. Eccentric. Quietly pleased to be back at work on the sci-fi saga that made her an international celebrity in her own right, even if celebrity at some later stage means nothing more than posing for photographs and signing autographs for $70 a pop. The “celebrity lap dance” she calls it, noting the only difference is that her fans don’t get to stuff the money in her underwear.
Debbie Reynolds spends the film working diligently to hold on to the things and people she’s fated to lose. The mantra of her life, “I ain’t down yet,” guides her resiliency. Even when she’s sick, bruised, and exhausted, neither age nor poor health matter if there’s an audience to entertain. The movie star’s practiced smile rarely slips. For a few brief moments, though, the audience gets a glimpse at a mother deeply proud of and concerned for her daughter. In hindsight, those moments (as well as the film’s final shot of Debbie’s empty, festively decorated living room) are heartbreaking to watch.
Among the documentary’s many, many gems, mother and daughter each offer their own, particularly fitting parting words:
(Debbie) “I love having my ghosts, and I love having my memories. It’s like you have a friend forever. It makes me smile when I even just say their names.”
(Carrie) “We have to stop, as my therapist likes to say.”