At first blush “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” looks like yet another cautionary tale about Hollywood celebrityhood, “What Price Glory?” in the form of a documentary about these mother and daughter show-biz icons. It turns out the film is anything but.
For neither Hollywood nor show business has any monopoly on bad marriages, drug abuse or bipolar disorder. Such calamities are visited upon millions of people who have never sung a lick or written anything.
What “Bright Lights” is really about is how two afflicted people found release and perhaps even relief in show business. Walking out on stage or writing a one-woman show did each a world of good. Hey, show biz is the good guy this time.
Before we go any further, it must be stated this is not a tribute film slung together in the aftermath of their deaths a day apart last December. The doc was conceived by Carrie Fisher, who brought the idea to her brother Todd Fisher, one of the film’s producers.
Seeing it now — I caught it at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival this month where Todd Fisher, a nearby resident, appeared to speak about the film and his family — “Bright Lights” is astonishingly prescient and hugely poignant especially a final scene where Reynolds’ living room empties of people after a gathering to leave an empty room. An eerie image indeed.
Following the screening, Fisher added that the night of his sister’s death his mother essentially asked his permission to depart as well, saying that she missed her daughter and, while loving him just as much, wanted to join her.
She died the next day. Todd strongly feels she, as he put it, “called it,” that her departure from this world was of her own choosing and her most fervent desire.
Throughout the film, Reynolds talks about her mortality while Carrie Fisher jokes about hers. Fisher wonders, as she works out to keep her weight down: “If you die when you’re fat, are you a fat ghost, or do they go back to a more flattering time?”
Looking at the film today or even looking at it a half century from now as a movie fan who never experienced either personality in his or her lifetime, what strikes you as that this is a family portrait. Yes, an unduly messy family but then doesn’t everyone think he comes from an unduly messy family? And the issues faced are unfortunately universal.
What is not universal is that these two had an outlet; they found solace by siting down to write a best seller or getting out on stage in a Las Vegas lounge to croak a few old tunes for a geriatric audience who adores you.
Performing undoubtedly kept Reynolds going. Retirement was something she was always going to do next year. Borrowing from her song in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “I Ain’t Down Yet,” she uses this as her anthem.
For her part, Fisher cathartically downloaded her own troubled and turbulent life into an autobiographical novel “Postcards From the Edge” (which, of course, became the sharp-witted Mike Nichols 1987 film) and her stage show “Wishful Drinking.” Her “voice,” whether in writing or day-to-day conversation, was always sardonic and self-deprecating, a person stubbornly finding humor in things most people would find terrible.
Then too there is Princess Leia, her “Star Wars” character. She felt ambivalence about a legacy of being identified with a character she played as opposed to the woman she truly is — she calls the necessity of signing autographs on “Star Wars” memorabilia for fans at conventions “lap dances” — yet she shrugs: “They love her, and I’m her custodian.”
The doc, directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, comes with full access to a trove of archival footage, scenes from many old musicals, family photos and home moves going back to Reynolds’ marriage to the then hugely popular crooner, Eddie Fisher.
The effect of all this is that of attending a gathering where family and friends reminisce and kibbutz with one another. The order of stories, scandals and setbacks is random but all the more satisfying for this. Meanwhile you’re expected to know at least some of the details of this famous family: we don’t have to go too deep into that old story, do we?
Oh sure, how can you avoid the main scandal — Eddie Fisher leaving America’s Sweetheart, trained and groomed by the old MGM finishing school for stars, for her friend and neighbor, Elizabeth Taylor?
Nor can you avoid the lesser but in some ways worse scandal of her marriage to Harry Karl, who gambled away not only his shoe-store chain fortune but Debbie’s show-biz fortune as well.
If you want to know in more detail about Carrie’s bipolar disorder see her stage show, a recorded version of which is also available from HBO Documentary Films. Or more about the downside of being the daughter of a famous mother, re-watch “Postcards From the Edge.”
Here, in what turned out to be the last days of their lives, the mother-daughter dynamic has achieved a kind of pleasant equilibrium where they live in the same Beverly Hills compound so Carrie can bring over a soufflé they can simultaneously share and feed to their dogs, all the while trading quips and singing old songs.
The daughter’s rebellion is still visible. Despite a wonderful singing voice of her own, she steadfastly refused to sing so no mother/daughter comparisons would be made. An amazing film clip does catch 15-year-old Carrie joining her mother on stage at some unidentified venue to beautifully sing “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” more than a decade before her brief marriage to Paul Simon. You can’t make stuff like that up!
Oh yes, there are shockers, one involving a conversation with an old friend, Griffin Dunne, the actor-producer who also came from a famous family, about Reynolds’ involvement in Carrie’s sex education that makes you want to rerun the scene: did she really say that?
It emerges also that Warren Beatty personally had to pay a visit to Reynolds to let Fisher say the word “fuck” in her screen debut, “Shampoo,” as opposed to “screw.”
And there’s a touching albeit somewhat horrifying scene between Carrie and her dad, Eddie Fisher, lying on his death bed, where she tells him, at his request, that she still loves him. More shocking than his lifelong behavior toward this kids is his condition in these final days.
This not a perfect doc. Things meander and the pace lags at certain points. Too many dog and bird shots act as filler. At times you wonder: given the thousands of hours of material the filmmakers had at their disposal was this the best footage they could find for this particular moment?
But this is in the nature of the film: a family portrait, lord knows warts and all, where anything goes. Fisher may have overcome her other addictions but from this footage it’s clear she existed on a steady diet of Coca Cola and cigarettes. Then lurking at the edges is Todd Fisher, endlessly patient with his two “girls,” whom he sees as his responsibility in life.
The film nicely builds tension to a solid finale with the drama surrounding Reynolds’ acceptance of the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. Her physical frailty in the week leading up to the annual awards ceremony throws her attendance in doubt, sends Fisher into a manic mood and even causes panic among her driver, handlers and SAG personnel.
Is it a spoiler to say she made it? After all, it did happen three years ago.
So show biz comes out okay in at least this version of the story. You might argue that the failed Reynolds-Fisher marriage was almost a product of studio marketing — it wasn’t really — but then her two offsprings clearly rescued and sustained her until her death at the age of 84.
Meanwhile, Fisher overcame most of the demons of her life to be able to take a clear-eyed yet not unhappy view of her life and family that most of us would willingly accept as a final epiphany.
“Bright Lights” is a film to treasure.
Opens: DVD January 7, 2017; HBO
Production companies: Bloomfish Pictures, RatPac Documentary Films, HBO Documentary Films
Directors: Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens
Producers: Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens, Julie Nives, Todd Fisher
Executive producers: Brett Ratner, Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Billy Pena, Vasco Lucas Nunes
Music: Will Bates
Editors: Penelope Falk, Sheila Shirazi
No rating, 95 minutes.