It’s no secret that Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher haven’t always had the most functional relationship. If you’ve seen the semi-autobiographical Carrie Fisher-penned film Postcards from the Edge, you’ll know that these two courageous and indefatigable Hollywood legends didn’t often see eye-to-eye.
So it comes as a surprise to see just how close the two were in their later years in the charming, if slightly haphazard, HBO documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. The film was originally slated to premiere in March this year, but was brought forward following the deaths of the entertainment industry heavyweights. It premiered in Australia on Foxtel this week, and has repeat airings on Foxtel Arts this weekend.
Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens have crafted a fascinating look at Hollywood — what’s changed and what remains stubbornly in place — from Reynolds’ early days as a huge MGM musical star, through Fisher’s days as Princess Leia, to Fisher’s return to the role, and Reynolds’ latest stage performances. If you thought the studio system which Reynolds was part of was tough on its leading ladies in the 1950s, Fisher reveals that she trained for a year to lose weight for the latest Star Wars film and was required to report her body measurements regularly to the producers.
But the film is also an intimate look at an unusual but loving mother-daughter relationship.
If there was once animosity between the two — and it’s hard to believe there could be none given the extraordinary stories relayed by Fisher in the documentary — they seem to have both softened, and put the love they have for one another before whatever else might be lurking beneath the surface.
The two lived for years in adjoining houses on a “compound”; Reynolds’ place the picture of classic Hollywood elegance, and Fisher’s an eclectic, comfortably cluttered and off-kilter home. It’s packed full of knick-knacks and kitsch signs, tied together with no rhyme or reason. She also collects ugly childrens portraiture. Why? Well, why not.
Reynolds and Fisher are wildly different women; it’s even apparent in their speaking voices, Reynolds’ smooth, gentle, but confident lilt is nothing like Fisher’s lower, clipped and more forceful timbre. Fisher has the voice of a woman who has had to fight to be heard.
The pair’s eccentricities — including a lovely tendency to burst into song — gives the documentary a slight Grey Gardens–esque flavour, but it’s much more warm, loving, celebratory and less tragic. Nothing in their life is normal, but they’ve found a sense of normalcy together.
These are two women whose lives have been lived entirely in the public eye, as if sharing everything about oneself with the world were the most natural thing to do.
Early on, Reynolds says “I’m gonna stay on stage until I drop dead”. Of course, that didn’t quite happen, but she made it a hell of a long way before she had to give up the bright lights. The documentary reveals her triumphing on stage in her 80s, and struggling with the massive limitations her body places upon her.
According to Fisher, ageing is difficult for everybody, but her mother “falls from a greater height”.
We also see the much darker side to this determination and addiction to the spotlight.
Later in the film, Fisher says her mother would often find it difficult to sort her family life and would bury herself in her work. She states simply: “people don’t cooperate — audiences do.”
In fact, Fisher’s extraordinary insights — both into her well-documented addictions, mental illness, and her place in the world, as well as her mother’s attitude to work and life — are what make this very loosely structured documentary so compelling.
We follow Fisher to a Star Wars fan event, where she signs autographs for cash (she refers to these signings as “lap dances”), acknowledging that she’s the “custodian” of Princess Leia for the film series’ many fans.
But in her fan’s eyes, Fisher is Leia. Just as Reynolds is Kathy Selden from Singin’ in the Rain. What makes Bright Lights so special is that it reveals the fragile and fraught lives behind these women who have always seemed larger than life.
It’s a beautiful and appropriate send off for these two legends.