Near the end of Bright Lights, the rare Hollywood documentary that allows you to get a sense of the actual forest for all the tinsel and trees, a frail Debbie Reynolds is being escorted by daughter Carrie Fisher to the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she’ll receive a Life Achievement Award. (It’s January 2015.) In the limousine ride to the event, Reynolds is close to incoherent. Now, having arrived, she begins gathering together the sequins, strands and threads that make up her bravest, late-life approximation of legendary movie star Debbie Reynolds. “Don’t look like you’re holding me up,” she tells her daughter, who’s guiding her by the arm. “We should look like we’re walking and talking happily.”
“We are,” Fisher quietly assures her.
Bright Lights, premiering on HBO Jan. 7 at 8 p.m., seems to have been intended by Fisher as a sunset tribute to her mother. The sad events of the past two weeks, with Fisher’s death from a heart attack and her mother’s death from a stroke the next day, don’t really change that, although you may find yourself wishing that Fisher didn’t look and sound so worn, and that someone could have gotten her to put out that cigarette. But Lights can also stand as Fisher’s tender, touching, typically rueful goodbye-to-all-that, a summing up of her life both at the heart of and somewhat off to the margins of a classic celebrity narrative that includes her famously difficult relationship with Reynolds, her own dramatic highs and lows and the headline-rocking divorce that stamped her childhood and deprived her of her father, the late Eddie Fisher.
COURTESY FISHER FAMILY ARCHIVES/HBO
Early in Lights, we see her mother in a clip from one of her signature movies, the 1960 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She’s pinned to the ground by a pack of hooligans and hollers at them: “Nobody wants me down like I wants me up!” It seems you could divide stars into two categories: the defiantly up and the ineluctably down. Debbie Reynolds, Bright Lights makes clear, was in the first. Her ex-husband collapsed slowly into the second.
In one surprising and disconcerting scene, Carrie visits him in a segment filmed shortly before his death in 2010. Unlike Reynolds, who throughout the film declines to be photographed when she doesn’t feel well enough to be assisted by hair and makeup (and at the very least makes sure to be shot in semi-profile if she thinks the camera won’t be flattering), the once famous crooner has been left unrecognizable by age and illness. It’s a quiet moment of peace and reconciliation for father and daughter, but also a universal reminder that losing an old, sick parent can feel like finding the wolf where you’d been expecting your sweet old grandmother.
Through painful trial and error, Carrie somehow learned to combine these two conflicting parental personalities: She went public with her many problems, resentments and trips to the edge, but reshaped and redefined them — using her rasping, sardonic humor and well-honed, self-conscious irony — so that she ultimately was able to embrace this embarrassment of incidents, with battered if justifiable pride, as her own experience, her own place in the sun.
Otherwise, the mother-daughter dynamic might have slid into something more like a celebrity Grey Gardens. What we see instead is mutual, protective respect and love, even if it’s just Reynolds cautioning Fisher not to turn her rear end toward the camera.
COURTESY FISHER FAMILY ARCHIVES/HBO
As always, Fisher is a superb narrator of the absurdities and awfulnesses of her upbringing. She refers to Reynolds’s second husband, the businessman and gambling-addict Harry Karl, as “a mass of noises and monograms.” (She also describes his private parts with the memorable phrase “angry slather.”) She lets us witness a brief, troubling manic episode: She quotes T.S. Eliot (much too loudly), impersonates Barbara Streisand (badly), refers to herself as a bird, breaks down in tears and finally jokes that bipolar disorder “will go out of style soon, and then I’ll just be quirky.”
She also takes us along for an autograph-signing at a Star Wars convention. She refers to the whole thing as a celebrity lap dance, but even so tries to acknowledge, as she did repeatedly with varying degrees of conviction, that being conflated with Princess Leia was not such a bad thing. “It’s nice,” she says. Which, given her hyperarticulate ability to contextualize every moment, is saying as little as possible. At the end of the day, she lies down backstage, exhausted. Oddly enough, she has earlier predicted that her mother will wind up in exactly the same position at the conclusion of one of her nightclub performances — “but in a good, dignified, movie-star way.”
We never do see Reynolds do that, though.
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