Astrid Swan and Nick Triani discuss mother-daughter relationships, the lure of Hollywood and the sudden passing of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. They review the new documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.
Watching Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds was like being at home and discovering a new room at the same time. It appears necessary to see beyond the surface glitter and dance moves; to peek behind the velvet curtain. It’s often our need when watching a documentary, especially about movie stars. Bright Lights is effortlessly there – in the deep – swimming in the everyday, in the struggles and the in-between. This documentary is proof that Hollywood life doesn’t equal dull surface with nothing inside; it equals everything from rot to sweetness and back – with a glitter topping. It is also equally necessary and important for survival to glitter and shine. And then there is the knowledge that these two human beings passed away one day after each other very recently.
Bright Lights is effortlessly there – in the deep – swimming in the everyday, in the struggles and the in-between.
I don’t know how I’ve missed the intriguing Carrie Fisher and her writing and personality before. Yes, I have seen her in movies, but somehow I have not realized that what I would really be interested in, is elsewhere. Bright Lights explores many of the themes I am interested in as a woman, a researcher, a musician, and a creative. I am endlessly curious about women in Hollywood, creatives and their families, and especially the mother-daughter line. This particular one: from Debbie to Carrie is almost impossibly full of meaning in layers.
Early in the documentary Carrie’s voice says “my parents were always getting ready for a photoshoot”. While she speaks about the disappointment of feeling like the thing that comes after work, parties and photoshoots, the screen is filled with glamorous old footage from the 1950s: There are pools, palms, modern architecture and flowing dresses on film stars. There are babies and kids running around, smiles and silly jokes. Still, Carrie maintains that her childhood was filled with things that went wrong. Debbie disagrees, but mildly.
While she speaks about the disappointment of feeling like the thing that comes after work, parties and photoshoots
Most of the movie follows the mother and daughter in 2016 (and shows footage from some years past). Debbie Reynolds is now a very old and frail woman, who insists on doing musical shows and picking up lifetime achievements with her last drops of strength. She is a woman who talks as if she was still the 19-year-old who was cast in Singin in the Rain, but who can barely move and sometimes truly loses track. Debbie moves around with a mystified and mystical air – as if she has transformed partly into the characters she has played – it’s her version of what is expected of her as a movie star.
The documentary focuses on the interaction between Debbie and her daughter. Carrie Fisher isn’t that young either. In some ways she appears to be just making peace with how her professional and personal life has panned out. She signs autographs and meets fans of Star Wars, she makes another movie, fighting with her personal trainer about cigarettes and Coca- Cola. She brings the cameras along to transitions, uncomfortable moments of struggling with bipolar and emotions that many others might have tried to edit out in fear of revealing too much. Carrie lacks the need to control the outcome of this documentary. While her mother arranges for an old-fashioned interview (that goes wrong when an alarm begins to sound in her house), Carrie just talks and walks us through her house and onto the path that leads to her mother’s house. She doesn’t seem to have taboos, she appears to hold on to her childhood resentments though.
It is a curious arrangement, the two living together in the same compound, when obviously both of them could have separated and bought their own estates many times over. This unglamorous need for proximity and bodily presence is the heart-breaking stuff of this documentary. It’s all about love.
“You wanna fuck?” a teenage Carrie Fisher asks Warren Beatty in Hal Ashby‘s still sharp Hollywood satire Shampoo. It was her big screen debut. What always fascinated me about this movie and Fisher’s role was that this could have been reality played out across the silver screen. Beatty’s character was based on various real-life hairdressers to the stars (especially the Charles Manson victim Jay Sebring). Shampoo starts with the Beatty character having sex with Fisher’s on-screen mother, a scenario which does lend itself to hypothesis once you watch Bright Lights – although to be fair, Fisher’s real-life mother would probably have seen it as beneath herself to shack up with a mere hairdresser, however hot he may be. Fisher’s mother was America’s all time sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. Their relationship has been documented via a series of books by Fisher and her own honest assessment of how they did or didn’t get on. That both mother and daughter appeared in two iconic movies when they were very young (Singin’ in the Rain and Star Wars) is in itself an anomaly. That they passed away at the tail end of 2016 within a day of each other is extraordinary. This adds a real currency to Bright Lights. The timing of this brought-forward documentary is revelatory in itself. In this age of all-access and no mystery, Bright Lights could be the celebrity documentary of our times.
What’s surprising about Bright Lights is not so much the love between mother and daughter (contrary to what we may already know), which is captured earnestly on film, but how open both stars are to the documentary process. They both appear worse for wear at times. Reynolds has a day in front of the camera where she seems to not really know where she is or what she’s doing. Old footage of Fisher by the Great Wall Of China heartbreakingly reveals the level of her mental illness, which plagued her through life. Reynolds is shown as someone who whilst obsessed with keeping up stoic appearances (and never say die showbiz attitude), put her motherhood dead centre, even if this could be overbearing for her children. Reynolds was a teenager when she struck gold in Singin In the Rain. She was shortly after subject to scandal when her husband Eddie Fisher left her (and the kids) for best friend Elizabeth Taylor. But for Debbie and sadly for Carrie, that old adage “The Show must go on” was to inform much of Fisher’s childhood, when really all she wanted was love. Bright Lights offers a lot of background to the relationship, but also brings us a day-to-day portrait of the here and now, and this is where the documentary strikes gold. Despite Fisher virtually living next door to Reynolds, one gets the feeling that this is a case of co-dependency (though Fisher claims she’s close by to look after mum).
The timing of this brought-forward documentary is revelatory in itself.
Ultimately, Bright Lights does move me as it reveals various stages of dysfunctionality. In a short space of time I empathise and feel for both mother and daughter. So, I recommend this documentary as a must-see. But more personally, the sad loss of Reynolds and Fisher is a two-fold double blow. To hear Reynolds sing ‘Good Morning’ in Singin In the Rain is something to marvel at, a high watershed not only for Reynolds but for the combination of voice, song, tone and color. It really is something else, and if only for this, Reynolds star will forever shine. Carrie Fisher meanwhile transcended even her mother’s fame, but for a different reason. Her Princes Leia represents for people of a certain age (especially mine), part of a saga that defined our youthful years. Star Wars really was a Galaxy far away that one could get lost in with dreams of inter-galactic space travel, Jedi Knights and very cute Princesses fighting the bad guys. That Fisher was part of that dream and that world, merely restates the immense downer of her passing. It wasn’t always perfect and they weren’t always great, but when Reynolds and Fisher reached the stars, we fully understood the wonder of cinema and why it moved us so.
For Debbie and sadly for Carrie, that old adage “The Show must go on” was to inform much of Fisher’s childhood, when really all she wanted was love.