'Bright Lights': The Intertwined Yet Starkly Different Lives of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher

'Bright Lights,' an HBO documentary about Reynolds and Fisher's complex mother-daughter relationship, exposes the pain underneath the glamour of show business.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in 'Bright Lights.' glamour.
HOT / HBO

Friday is January 20, the day on which “a peaceful transfer of power” is supposed to take place in the U.S., and we will be watching it on TV in real time. In the inaugural ceremony, Donald J. Trump will swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States to the best of his ability. You may take his word for it, or not: He has quite a record – and a tremendous ability – for denying that he said things that were recorded, and thus are on the record.

Which means that the TV screen is no longer – if it ever was – the place to escape to from humdrum reality. On the contrary, it seems to be the source – in the “reality TV” genre that spawned the DJT phenomenon – of ill winds that blow us no good.

But if you want something else to watch while DJT takes the oath of office, I strongly recommend “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” an HBO documentary about the very special relationship of the mother-daughter duo of stars of the silver screen, who died on consecutive days at the end of December.

The documentary, shot in 2014, follows the octogenarian Debbie Reynolds, famed for “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), “Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957) and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964), as she insists on performing her cabaret act in Las Vegas, against doctors’ orders. Her daughter, Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame) accompanies Reynolds on the road. Fisher’s own life was one of ups and downs, drugs, and a battle with bipolar disorder, and as their joint story unfolds we get a look at the pain that lies beneath the show business glamour. It is particularly poignant to follow those intertwining life stories in today’s era of “fake news.” Both Reynolds and Fisher played very important parts in the creation of a screen fantasy that acquired a life of its own and made them its servants – willing (in the case of Reynolds) and much less so (in the case of Fisher).

One of Reynolds’ first parts on screen was that of Kathy Selden, a starlet who provides the singing voice for a silent movie star who lacks the vocal equipment required by the new “talkies.” Her charm and ingenuity help Gene Kelly make the transition from “The Duelling Cavalier” to “The Dancing Cavalier,” and his love for her makes him so happy that he jumps into puddles while “Singin’ in the Rain.” Soon after that movie, she became the happy and radiant wife of the crooner Eddie Fisher, and then a mother of two. Fisher left her to marry their friend, the recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor.

La-la land

Reynolds remarried twice, and went on to make movies and perform in cabaret. Not mentioned in the documentary is the fact that she gave up a TV show of her own because she didn’t agree to sponsorship by a tobacco company. She was an avid collector of movie memorabilia, and invested – among many other choice items – in dresses that had belonged to Elizabeth Taylor and the red shoes worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Fisher was drawn to the entertainment world as an adolescent – performing with her mother, very much like Liza Minnelli and her mother, Judy Garland. As a precocious young girl, she asked Warren Beatty on screen, “Do you want to f—k?” and in “Bright Lights” she recounts that her mother tried to make her and the producers change the four letter verb to “screw.” According to Fisher, her mother offered to talk her through, and supervise, the act of losing her virginity, with a male of her choice. (Fisher managed to arrange it herself with a close male friend of her own, who attests to it on camera.)

In contrast to Reynolds, who looks like she’s been living in a kind of la-la land, Fisher comes across as being too real. True, she created the role of Princess Leia, and played the part in all the “Star Wars” sequels and prequels and in events organized by and for fans inspired by her fictional character. But she also had her share of drug and drink addictions, as well as bipolar disorder, all of which she owned up to and spoke about and wrote about openly and honestly.

Her partly autobiographical novel, “Postcards from the Edge,” the story of an intense mother-daughter relationship, was made into a movie (she wrote the script), with Meryl Streep playing Fisher and Shirley MacLaine playing Reynolds. Only recently, Fisher played the part of a “mother from hell” in the “Catastrophe” TV series, created by Sharon Horgan, with whom she spent the last evening of her life in London, before boarding a flight to the U.S., on which she suffered a fatal heart attack.

“Bright Lights” portrays the mother-daughter relationship as an exceedingly warm one. Both live in houses in the same compound, and Fisher works very hard to take care of her frail mother, allowing her to grow old with dignity. She gently helps Reynolds to “maintain the act” of life, to perform her cabaret act one more time, to accept a life achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2015. One sees Reynolds barely able to stand in the wings, but when the time comes she goes on stage and intones, like a young trooper, “I’m still here.”

Fisher provides many brilliant lines, speaking about being “on the same grid” with her mother, or when she wishes she could have reached “the end of my own personality, and rest there.” The final moments of “Bright Lights” are a particular gem: Fisher and Reynolds recite – not sing – the lines of Irving Berlin that say that “there’s no people like show people who smile when they are low.”

The documentary was making the rounds of film festivals (it premiered in Cannes) and was due to be aired on HBO in March. Fisher’s untimely and dramatic death, and her mother’s death the following day from a massive stroke, caused HBO to prepone the screening to January 7. It is showing on Yes VOD and HOT VOD, and well worth watching, even if not as an escape from the frightening reality of Trump et al.