It’s been just over a week since Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died within a day of each other and in some ways it still doesn’t seem quite real. Even leaving aside Fisher’s age — she died at 60 — and the oddness of their close passings, it’s hard to imagine show business without them.
At 84, Reynolds was one of the last keepers of the old Hollywood flame. That was thanks both to a long career that began on screen with Singin’ In The Rain and continued with the live shows she continued to perform until late in life and to Reynolds’ massive collection of Hollywood costumes, props, and memorabilia, which were at one point destined for a museum that failed to materialize, nearly bankrupting her in the process. She was the embodiment of a more glamorous age of show business, and as long as she was alive, it remained present in a way it won’t seem after her death.
Fisher was no less an icon, thanks to her most famous role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, and no less an outsized presence off the screen. In real life, she often played a role similar to what she played in George Lucas’ saga, undercutting pomposity with a quick wit and a deflating sense of humor. And, like her mother, her private life played out in public. Reynolds became part of a famous love triangle when Carrie and her brother Todd Fisher’s father, singer Eddie Fisher, left the family for Elizabeth Taylor. Carrie had a tempestuous relationship with singer Paul Simon and struggled publicly, and valiantly, with addiction and mental illness. Her frankness helped change the way we talk about both of these issues.
Beyond that, Reynolds and Fisher were a great doubles act, trading quips grounded in both exasperation in love, as evidenced throughout co-directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’ documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. It sometimes plays like a non-fiction postscript to Postcards From the Edge, Fisher’s autobiographical novel, memorably adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine by Mike Nichols in 1990. The dust has now largely settled between their mother-daughter struggles, and the fractious passion has settled into a sustaining warmth.
Loosely structured but full of memorable scenes, Bright Lights spends a lot of time simply hanging out at the “compound” of Reynolds’ and Fisher’s adjacent homes, houses separated by, in Fisher’s words, “one daunting hill.” They’re also set apart by starkly contrasting senses of interior design. Where Reynolds lives amidst what’s left of her collection of Hollywood’s past, Fisher has stocked her place with items that reflect her dark sense of humor. They are, in other words, exactly the sort of place you’d probably expect each star to call home.
The film’s revealing in other ways, too. Reynolds is frank about her past and doesn’t dispute her daughter’s assertion that she needed to perform and pushed her daughter to do the same. Among the many wonderful, telling bits of archival footage is a clip of a 15-year-old Fisher belting out, shades of things to come, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as part of mom’s nightclub act. But Fisher didn’t want to sing. Unlike her mother, she didn’t even really want to be in show business. Per her account, she just sort of fell into it by accident thanks to being near the set of Shampoo and the rest just sort of happened.
Her story is also, however, that of a woman who fought back against the forces that tried to take life out of her control. Fisher was brave enough to share that fight up to the end, including letting Bloom and Stevens run scary footage of a manic episode she filmed while visiting China in the late 1980s and letting them keep the cameras running while in the grips of a similar episode that arrived as Reynolds struggled with her health in advance of receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. In one scene, Fisher and lifelong friend Griffin Dunne share a funny story about their sexual past as teenagers, but that kind of frankness looks easy by comparison.
Her openness makes a funny contrast for her mother’s unflappable sense of poise. Even Reynolds’ self-deprecation has a polish to it. On stage she jokes, with expert timing, “I should have married Burt Reynolds. I wouldn’t have to change my last name. And we could share wigs.” But she carries herself with an unfailing sense of dignity and an undimmed smile even while suffering from ill health, the effects of which are increasingly evident in the film’s later stretches.
Even without the recent deaths of its subjects, Bright Lights would still play like a film about the end of things. Reynolds grows frail before our eyes. Fisher’s sense of humor fails her when considering her mother’s health. When not working out with a trainer, smoking, or sneaking forbidden cans of Coke, Fisher jokes about death. On seeing a sign reading “Prepare To Meet Thy God” she says, “Uh oh! When?,” a line that of course plays much differently now. Bright Lights was set to premiere on HBO in the spring. Its release has been moved up for obvious reasons and it now plays like an unintentional tearjerker.
Both women shine so brightly here — apart but especially together — that it drives home the enormity of their absence. In Vegas, Reynolds’ aging audience begs her not to retire. At a comic book convention, fans break down in tears at being in Fisher’s presence. Both take the adulation in stride then go back to living the extraordinary, messy lives that the film allows us to glimpse but only Fisher and Reynolds could really understand. We’ll always have their movies, but it’s a duller world without them in it.
Bright Lights premieres tomorrow night, December 7, on HBO.