Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher were two peas in a pod. They were also as different as a mother and daughter could possibly be. In December 2016, the world suffered a tragic loss when Fisher died at the age of 60 and her mother Reynolds died one day later at the age of 84. Their fates were inextricably linked not only as family but also as entertainment legends.
I can name a handful of amazing documentaries that benefit from being in the right place at the right time. Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016) is one of those documentaries. Filmed from April 2014 to January 2015, directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens started this project as a look into the twilight years of star Debbie Reynolds. However, Fisher was such a powerful force both in and out of Reynolds' orbit that it naturally progressed to include her. With the help of producer, brother and son Todd Fisher, the filmmakers dive head first into the lives of these two Hollywood heavyweights.
"Age is horrible for all of us. But she falls from a greater height." - Carrie Fisher
Bright Lights explores the close bond between the two stars and the fraught years that led up to that point. The filmmakers are not afraid to explore the scandals that plagued the family for years. Reynolds' acrimonious divorce from Eddie Fisher, who left her for actress Elizabeth Taylor, is examined at length. On a visit to Todd Fisher's Nevada home, we view his collection of film posters. On one wall is a series of posters that depict the progress of Reynolds' relationship with his father Eddie Fisher. It starts with Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), two films emblematic of Reynolds' stardom. Then it continues to The Tender Trap (1955) where it's said that Frank Sinatra warned Reynolds to never marry a singer. Then there is Bundle of Joy (1956), a remake of Bachelor Mother (1939) that stars both Reynolds and Fisher. It continues with Butterfield 8 (1960) and Cleopatra (1963), two films that hammered the nails into the coffin of the Reynolds-Fisher marriage.
The documentary spends a lot of time in the present day with the pair but is also chock full of clips from home movies showing both Fisher and Reynolds in their prime and at their worst. I was particularly taken with the clip of a 15 year old Fisher being cajoled onto the stage of Reynolds' nightclub act. She sings and her voice is incredible; a gift she inherited from her father. It really blew me away. Fisher reveals that she rebelled against her mother's efforts to direct into a career as a nightclub singer. A tearful Reynolds chokes up at the thought of what could have been.
Bright Lights has a very melancholy feel. Life has been tough for Reynolds and Fisher. The audience gets an insight into the struggles of being an aging entertainer and the complications of growing up in a showbiz family. Then there is the elephant in the room: Eddie Fisher. He abandoned the family years ago and we see some heartbreaking footage of Carrie having a loving conversation with the ailing Eddie a mere three months before he died in 2010. This moment and others are difficult to watch. But life can be difficult and although Reynolds and Fisher come from unique circumstances there is still much the audience, including myself, can relate to.
Then there is the lowest point in Debbie Reynolds' career: the failure to start the museum that would house the Hollywood costumes she collected over the years and the subsequent auctions. We see the third and final auction and how Reynolds struggles to part with many gems including the iconic suits the members of the Rat Pack wear in Ocean's 11 (1960). As a hopelessly devoted fan of that film it broke my heart to see her go through this. The auctions have been a point of controversy in the industry.
Whether you're a fan of Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds or both, there is much to take in about both of their lives. I wasn't as familiar with Fisher's life story but was interested to learn about her Star Wars legacy, her personal problems but also her many strengths. It was tough to watch Debbie Reynolds struggle in her old age and I kicked myself for not knowing she had performed in the neighboring state of Connecticut just a few years ago. I could have attended! In the performance Reynolds' voice cracks and her body threatens to give out on her but she persists. Carrie and Todd jump on stage to give her a reprieve. It's evident that Reynolds's greatest loves were her children and being an entertainer.
Bright Lights (2016) ends with Reynolds accepting the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in January of 2015. Reynolds was very sick leading up to this moment and we see both Fisher and Reynolds struggling. Knowing what happened almost two years later I finished the documentary with an overwhelming sense of sadness but also of joy that I got to live in a world where Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds lived, loved, laughed and shared their pain and joy with us.
Bright Lights is currently available on HBO.