Bright Lights January 10, 2017
The tumultuous, albeit moving, mother-daughter relationship between Hollywood Golden Age survivor Debbie Reynolds and Star Wars personality Carrie Fisher has perhaps always been due for documentation beyond the sources of a brutally honest memoir or fictionalized film fodder. And so HBO’s Bright Lights, an Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens-directed documentary that both explores their day-to-day lives and their raucous personal and professional pasts in ways written accounts cannot, is plump with intimacy, humor, triumph, and pain. In the wakes of their recent deaths — occurring just a day apart in the final hours of 2016 — the film has a distinctive aura of poignancy that makes its narrative all the more touching.
Much of it takes place in the present, a present wherein we find Reynolds and Fisher living together in a gloriously gaudy Beverly Hills property. They’ve lived in the same “compound,” as Fisher refers to it, for decades, and the mere watching of them move about their everyday existences is a simplistic joy to behold. (The film’s first scene, which sees Fisher delivering a home-baked soufflé to her mother’s side of the property, is a testament to the way the twosome’s relationship has risen from its longtime turbulence to an unconditional kind of love).
The film is most compelling when set in this eccentrically functional setting, though its divings into context enhancers — expected biographical elements flavor the scenery regularly — are investing too. In the hands of Bloom and Stevens, revelations are tacked onto given knowledge through eye-opening archival footage, and general documentations of the mundane are honest without undermining its subjects. There’s a tangible determination to lens its central figures as ordinary women who just so happen to have lived extraordinary lives.
Bright Lights’s biggest accomplishment is, then, being respectful of the legacies of these women while still painting them as individuals as emotionally naked as the next person. Unlike in Postcards from the Edge (1990), the movie Fisher angrily wrote in an attempt to show her experiences with her mother to the rest of the world, we see these women strictly as fighters, fighters protecting themselves, the people they love, and their creative outlets, overcoming personal setbacks and other forms of heartbreak in the process. No cattiness is involved. The resentment of Postcards has been replaced by mutual understanding and endearing dedication.
In Bright Lights, we see Fisher and Reynolds struggling, with Fisher working to maintain her psychological stability and with Reynolds doing everything she can to nurture what she has left of her career. As the movie was originally conceived as a platform to showcase Reynolds’s amazing vitality by Fisher herself, it’s inevitable that she be the most fascinating feature of Bright Lights. Whereas Fisher’s been frank about the various struggles she’s faced in her life, Reynolds, despite always being giving in interviews and in other revealing sorts of press, has always salted her public appearances with a hint of performance that makes it clear that we’re seeing Reynolds only as she wants us to see her.
The movie respectfully shines a light on the vulnerabilities she’s kept so well hidden throughout her career. We find out that she hates aging, not because she’s vain but because it means that performing is more a challenge than it's ever been. She's only incessantly cheery and a craver of high standards because she wants everyone to see their full potential come to fruition. She collects Old Hollywood memorabilia not only because she wants to preserve memories of the past but also because she loves having a reason to stay in the public eye. By the end of Bright Lights do we finally stop seeing Debbie Reynolds the star and start seeing Debbie Reynolds the person. And that stripping of a well-oiled machine of a facade is what makes the film so much more than curiosity-baiting voyeurism.
That Bright Lights never heads into Grey Gardens (1975) territory only enhances our enjoyment of the film — clear is that Bloom and Stevens are going for loving examination rather than for exploitation. How could they not, anyway, when the topics of interest are so much a part of our lives? As evidenced by the elderly audiences that fill out rows for Reynolds’s more recent Las Vegas shows and by the enamored fans that line up for hours just to get Fisher’s autograph at a myriad of Star Wars conventions, these women mean a lot to people — and they’re easy to adore. That they’re gone is one of 2016’s abundance of atrocities. B+