***1/2 out of ****
(includes some strong language and brief sexual humor)
Released: January 7, 2017, on HBO
Runtime: 95 minutes
Director: Fisher Stevens, Alexis Bloom
Starring: Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Todd Fisher
It’s as if Providence knew, and spent years preparing this gift for us when we’d need it most.
Not meant as a memoriam for either actress, let alone both, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds is a celebration of the mother/daughter Hollywood icons that passed away unexpectedly in shocking succession – first Carrie Fisher and then Debbie Reynolds, just one day apart – at the end of 2016.
The two shared a bond that was as lovingly sardonic as it was precious. It was the kind that every parent and child dream of having, so potently inseparable that the two literally couldn’t live without each other, in life or death.
In what could have been little more than Reality TV fodder in lesser hands, directors Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom capture this unique relationship (of two uniquely paired personalities) with the joy, humor, and poignancy it deserves. Filmed over 2014 and 2015 before premiering at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (six months before their passing), this all-access look is intimate, not sensationalist.
Fisher and Reynolds, both single as a result of failed marriages, lived together in a large mansion complex over the last years of their lives. Much of this film shows that home life, a hilariously quirky atmosphere that, for documentary buffs, could be seen as a sane Hollywood version of Grey Gardens.
It becomes instantly clear why the two chose to live this way; I mean, why wouldn’t they? They clearly love being with each other, experiencing Tinseltown bizarro world together from the glamorous to the mundane, and so do we with them.
Each woman – Carrie, fierce; Debbie, classy – would be the center of any party conversation, not because of some extroverted domineering charisma but rather with a keen perspective and aura that people want to be around. They’re fun and endlessly fascinating because of their own relaxed, witty, self-deprecating ways. The two seemed to find peace through a blithe assault on pretense.
A rich archive of film clips and home movies help flesh out their storied careers and infamous family history, centered around the divorce between Debbie and Eddie Fisher that dominated public gossip, when Eddie left Debbie and the two kids (Carrie and brother Todd) for Elizabeth Taylor. It was a defining moment for the rest of their lives. Todd Fisher, the least famous of the clan, is the third co-star of this documentary, and he adds a warm and helpful perspective.
Of course the film has its tender moments, too, and they resonate in a much more profound way than was originally expected. This is particularly true as we see Carrie, seemingly the more healthy of the pair, begin to express concerns for her aging mother; a daughter’s fears that her mom is pushing herself too hard.
In high pressure situations, when Fisher is at her most protective, the feelings and concerns become the most raw. Conversely, as Reynolds reflects on her daughter’s many talents, we see a mother become choked up with pride, only able to express her truest affection by trying to compose herself.
And then there’s the playful ribbing of each other. There’s a lot of that. It’s adorable. Popping each other’s bubble was clearly a shared love language.
This is a beautiful tribute to two women who truly deserve it, even if they weren’t famous. While fans still grieve their loss, Bright Lights allows us to see what they had. It’s special. Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher weren’t just mother and daughter. They were the love of each other’s lives.