HBO's Carrie Fisher & Debbie Reynolds Doc Will Break Your Heart (But You Knew That Already)

Photo: Courtesy of Fisher Family Archives/HBO.
HBO’s documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds is a romance between a mother and a daughter, and the story of a family in which show business is as much a member as any human being. Although their film was intended as a love letter, not a eulogy, directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens have given us an incredibly satisfying remembrance of two incredibly remarkable women. It’s the kind of joyful, unruly wake that I’d like to think Fisher, in particular, would have wanted.

Carrie Fisher died on December 27, less than a week after suffering a heart attack. She was 60. Her mother, Debbie Reynolds, passed away the very next day, at 84, following a stroke. According to Reynolds’ son Todd Fisher, “The last thing she said this morning was that she was very, very sad about losing Carrie and that she would like to be with her again.”

Fisher was a celebrated writer whose bracingly funny prose worked toward destigmatizing addiction and mental illness. As an actress, she was known throughout this galaxy, and probably the next, for her portrayal of Princess turned General Leia Organa in Star Wars. Fisher chronicled her famously eccentric relationship with her mother in both her memoirs and the semi-autobiographical novel Postcards From the Edge, made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.

Reynolds was about as bright a star as ever shone in Hollywood, best remembered for her breakout role in Singin’ in the Rain, playing the title character in Tammy and the Bachelor (and for singing the No. 1 single “Tammy”), and her Oscar-nominated turn in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. An outspoken mental health advocate in her own right, she also amassed an extensive collection of motion-picture memorabilia in the hopes of founding a museum, a dream that she was never able to realize.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Pictured: A very young Fisher with her mother.
Bright Lights debuted at Cannes last May and was set to hit HBO in March 2017. After the actresses’ deaths, the network moved the premiere up to January 7.

“I think I’m my mom’s best friend, more than a daughter,” Fisher observes in the documentary.

Their bond is undeniable — they live next door to one another, bicker like they’ve been married for decades, sing together, hold hands, and even wear the same pair of bedazzled sandals in different shades. Their connection is undeniable, and not infrequently dysfunctional. Fisher tells friend Griffin Dunne that her mother offered to “supervise” her having sex when Carrie was a young woman, ”because she apparently has some tips on that.” The comparison to Grey Gardens, another mother-daughter documentary, is inevitable. But Reynolds and Fisher’s connection is far warmer and sweeter — not to mention that Beverly Hills’ answer to Big and Little Edie had excellent senses of humor, even better shrinks, and gorgeous homes that were more likely to grace the pages of a magazine than get raided by the health department.

An abridged version of Fisher’s childhood could be pieced together through a series of tabloid front pages. Debbie Reynolds married Eddie Fisher, a chart-topping pop singer, in 1955. Carrie was born in 1956 and her brother Todd in 1958. Then Elizabeth Taylor happened. The woman popularly considered the most beautiful in the world married Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher’s best friend. When Todd was killed in a plane crash, Taylor and Eddie Fisher grieved together. As Carrie wrote of her late father, and his soon-to-be second wife Taylor, in her autobiography Wishful Drinking: “He consoled her with flowers, and he ultimately consoled her with his penis.”

After her divorce from Fisher, Reynolds soon remarried to Harry Karl, a shoe-store magnate who later also revealed himself to be a compulsive gambler, drinker, and philanderer. “Nothing [about him] was interesting until we found out about the hookers,” Carrie recalls in Bright Lights.

Much of the documentary finds Fisher grappling with her octogenarian mother’s mortality and declining health, a dynamic that’s especially heartbreaking considering it was ultimately Debbie who would lose Carrie. Reynolds insists on performing around the country, despite the obvious toll that it takes on her. Fisher describes her exhausted mother lying on the floor after a recent show — but “in a good, dignified, movie-star way,” she adds facetiously.
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Debbie is undeterred: “Like George Burns says, I’m going to stay on stage until I drop dead, and then I’m going to have myself stuffed like Trigger. And then I’ll put me in a museum.” Despite her age, Reynolds remains impeccably elegant and quick with a joke. “Turn around this way because your rear end is to the camera,” she chides her daughter, who’s bent over a suitcase to help pack for her mother’s engagement at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut.

Performing is transformative for Reynolds. The theater may be far from full, but it's moving to see the emotions that register across the faces of her mostly senior citizen audience when she sings “Tammy.” On stage, she’s vital, but that only makes her everyday frailty — which worsens over the course of the film — all the more apparent. Backstage, a crew member lovingly adjusts the fit of Reynolds’ pantyhose on her toes; another gently escorts the actress down a series of low steps.

Fisher’s relationship with Hollywood isn’t remotely as sentimental as her mother’s. We travel with Carrie to a sci-fi convention, where — touching up her hair and mascara behind a curtain on the show floor — she’s booked for what she calls a “celebrity lap dance.” Pint-sized Princess Leias and Jedis with plastic lightsabers have queued for hours for a two-second interaction with Fisher and a $70 autograph.

Despite her professed ambivalence, Fisher gives a lot of herself to her fans (one of whom cries upon meeting her), cuddling perfect strangers for what seems like an endless series of photos. Afterward, she’s utterly drained, lying down on a couch with her dog Gary in what can only be described as a “dignified, movie-star way.”

In Bright Lights, Fisher is the same force of nature we loved to watch in movies and read in her own words. But some moments have become more poignant in retrospect, reframed by her unexpected passing, as when she spots a decorative plate that reads, “Prepare to Meet Thy God” while out shopping in London. “Oh, when?” Fisher quips.

Todd likens his mother to the Titanic-surviving character she embodied in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, just as Carrie notes Star Wars fans talk to her as if she herself were Princess Leia. And to be fair, both women overcame more adversity than any iceberg or Sith Lord.
Pictured: (From left) Todd Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher.
Before the Vegas show that she promises will be her last, Reynolds rides her motorized wheelchair through the casino where she’ll be performing. The legendary star herself observes in a voice-over, “The only way to make it through life is to fight. If you feel sorry for yourself, and you let yourself go down, you will drown.”

Later, the camera captures Fisher, who publicly discussed her struggles with bipolar disorder, experiencing a manic episode while getting a manicure at home. She shouts lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and produces tubs of glitter that she and the nail technicians apply to their faces.

“You know what would be so cool? To get to the end of my personality, and just, like, lay in the sun,” Fisher says, in what amounts to one of the film’s most painful scenes.

The documentary tends to meander, content to luxuriate in exploring its subjects’ relationship. But in what effectively serves as Bright Lights’ climax, an unsteady and nervous Reynolds attends the 2015 SAG Awards to receive a Lifetime Achievement honor, presented by Fisher. “Don’t look like you’re holding me up,” she whispers to her daughter as they walk into the venue. “We should look like we’re walking and talking happily.”

Back home after the ceremony, Debbie’s concern for keeping up appearances has been subsumed by genuine happiness. Carrie and Todd ask their mother if she’d consider accepting more lifetime achievement awards, but Reynolds demurs.

“I can’t answer, because it’s too special, and I won’t be here then, I will have gone on,” she says. “You don’t get a chance to have a moment like this very often.”

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds premieres on HBO on January 7 at 8 p.m.

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