Review of Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’s Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

By Moira Sullivan

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016). 95 min. Directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens.

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher in "Bright Lights"

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher in “Bright Lights”

Within a year of when the final material was shot for the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (World Premiere Cannes 2016) co-directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, both mother and daughter were gone. For those who saw the film in Cannes in May last year and the new HBO audiences as of January, it is a bittersweet reality of their life experience, a rare portrait, and the last one we have of them.

Bright Lights is a portrait of two show business personalities from their mythology as women of the screen to the reality of their personal lives—almost too close and personal. Carrie’s and Debbie’s present day homes and their eclectic interiors introduce the documentary. They lived adjacent to one another in Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills in homes that are part of Hollywood history. Carrie’s bungalow of artifacts belonged to Robert Armstrong, who plays Carl Denham in the 1933 King Kong. Debbie’s spacious and traditionally decorated home was owned by English playwright and screenwriter Charles Bennett and Bette Davis also once lived here. From interior tours we see collages of photos of past homes and home movie footage of memorable family events through the years.

Co-director Fisher Stevens remarked at Cannes that he wanted to show Debbie and Carrie away from the “bright lights” of stardom. There are no interviews with people seated in perfectly created backdrops: the film is about the relationship between Debbie and Carrie. He also explained that Debbie didn’t understand that it was an alternative style documentary. This compelling fact about the making of this film requires some mention. For the scenes that Debbie was in, she was dressed in full wardrobe and makeup, expecting it to be a traditional feature-length documentary (95 min). Yet, Bright Lights often has the appearance of a reality show. The final version did not reveal Debbie Reynolds as an impeccable show business personality as much as it gives an welcome inside view into her personal life. At the time it was made both actresses were alive and it is unsettling to note that much of the documentary recorded in last year of their lives were the final events of their careers. Both kept working during careers that are ongoing as the documentary is being made. Debbie received the “Screen Actors Guild” (SAG) Lifetime Achievement Award in the beginning of 2015, the highest honor for an actor. At the end of 2015, the seventh part of Star Wars features Carrie for the fourth time in The Force Awakens.

Except through Las Vegas shows and talk shows we have rarely seen Debbie Reynolds beneath the veneer of her persona. As for Carrie Fisher, she always took the top off the illusion of stardom and what growing up in Hollywood was really like. She extolled the reasons why she had difficulties with her upbringing in books and shows, such as Willful Drinking and Postcards from the Edge, clips of which are included in the documentary.

Apart from being mother and daughter, Carrie and Debbie understood and appreciated each other’s talents and gifts. Bright Lights shows how their lives are entwined beyond biological heritage. The documentary illuminates how much Carrie adored her mother from an early age, and Debbie’s devotion to her daughter can be seen in a variety of material from interviews within the documentary and from photographs and short film and home video clips from the past. The film shows us the way in which Carrie’s parents’ fame inevitably put her in the limelight. As Carrie was growing up, Debbie reveals that it was unknown to her that her daughter was manic depressive. Carrie has spoken often about the manic part, which we see evidence of in a home movie when she is on a Christmas trip to the Great Wall of China. We also see Carrie’s depression when she contemplates her mother’s frailness and declining health. In her late 50s, when the documentary was made, she had become her mother’s best friend and caretaker.

Carrie points out that for women over 40 in Hollywood the fall from the limelight is great. This is when Debbie went into obscurity from the screen, though frequent parts on television and night-club shows attended by old fans kept her going.  As Debbie Reynolds’ health declines in the film, she reveals that she has done her last show in Vegas. From 1993 to 1999 Debbie owned the Debbie Reynolds’ Hollywood Hotel. Shrewdly, she bought up wardrobes and props from MGM that were displayed at the hotel. Some of the film’s most affective scenes show her being forced to auction them off due to financial problems, giving up part of her history and that of beloved colleagues.

Carrie is most remembered as Princess Leia and is shown at fan shows signing autographs and taking photos with admirers. We also see her with a Lucas Ltd personal trainer who’s tasked with helping her lose weight before filming commences. We see him pour her beloved Coca Cola down the sink. Her rebellious replenishing of the supply is a great statement to her spirit. Debbie’s fans at her shows are age sixty and up, whereas Carrie has young children coming up to her dressed as Princess Leia at fan shows. This is most likely due to the fact that the show business era that Debbie Reynolds comes from is far removed from the traditions of today, while Star Wars continues to re-invent itself with new iterations of the saga.

We also meet the second child of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Todd Fisher, who lives in Las Vegas and runs a movie studio. He explains that people in show business are best understood by those in the same business and he is shown with his wife Catherine Hickland, an actress who worked on daytime soap operas and who buys model cars from movies.

Debbie and Carrie’s relationship through the years becomes unsettling as Carrie faces the reality of her mother’s mortality. We see them acknowledge and embrace each other countless times in Bright Lights. With irony we learn that Debbie died on December 28,  the day after her daughter Carrie’s death, “to take care of her,” a statement made by Todd Fisher after his mother’s death,  astronaut and mother space ship now off to another galaxy.

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