It wasn’t supposed to air until next spring, but HBO moved up the film’s broadcast after its subjects died just a day apart.
How do you not consider that context watching Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, now set for Saturday? Of course, you can’t, but the 94-minute documentary, directed by Alex Bloom and Fisher Stevens, never needed the heartbreaking loss of Reynolds and Fisher to be compelling.
Fisher, 60, suffered a massive coronary on a flight from London to Los Angeles on Dec. 23 and died at the UCLA Medical Center four days later.
Reynolds, 84, was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Hospital on Dec. 28 and died that day.
The mother-daughter bond, so monumentally tested at various times during their 60 years together, was so strong, it made a kind of sense that their lives would end in the same week.
Although Bright Lights was filmed in 2015, it sometimes has an eerie valedictory quality — not just about Reynolds, but even about Fisher. Reynolds, at times, appears frail even disoriented. At one point, she gamely shows up for an auction of part of her formidable collection of Hollywood memorabilia with half her face purple with bruises because she’s fallen in the bathroom earlier that day.
She really was the title character she played in the film The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
One sequence is especially telling: Reynolds is dressed in pink, smiling, of course, seated in her home as Stevens and Bloom are about to film her. Suddenly, an alarm goes off in another part of the house. We see Stevens and others scrambling to find the source of the blaring sound and disable it. Reynolds remains perfectly poised and smiling, the calm center of a momentary domestic storm.
At first we think she’s unaware of the sound, but then we realize she’s completely aware but intends to keep calm and hold her pose. After all, that’s what she was trained to do as a young ingenue at MGM, where she began working in 1948, and the training has served her well ever since.
The film is surprisingly revealing, given the fact that its two subjects, in both similar and individual ways, are playing for the audience. One is an octogenarian with a fixed smile, twinkling eyes and the voice and name of a much younger woman who held her own, at age 19, dancing and singing with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in the film Singin’ in the Rain.
The other woman underwent a noticeable personality change at 13 and only a few years later, wrestled with worldwide fame after she played Princess Leia in the first “Star Wars” film. Fisher battled drugs, alcoholism and mental illness all her life, but found her way out of the thicket through treatment and therapy and by pulling few punches in her later drug- and alcohol-free life.
“You know what would be so cool?” she asks rhetorically. “To get to the end of my personality and, like, lay in the sun.”
She delivers the statement right after recalling the “I should have been a pair of ragged claws” lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock.
Some of the things she says seem rehearsed at first, as if she’s trying to convince us of something. But we soon realize that her way of accepting who she is is to avoid filtering herself. She says what she wants, what she feels.
She readily admits she has two basic moods, and she’s named them: “Roy” is her happy state, while “Pam” is the name she applies to her other pole, depression.
It is a performance, in a way, although not the kind of performance to which Reynolds defaulted: The perfect star, courtesy of MGM. Smile for the camera, even when your husband has dumped you for your best friend, Elizabeth Taylor, and you’re besieged by the press everywhere you go, even when your next husband gambles away his money and yours.
“Performing is her life,” Fisher says. “It feeds her in a way family cannot. That’s why we’ve always been frustrating” for Reynolds. That must have taken a toll on a young girl feeling her mother’s job came first. If so, the grown woman has made her peace with reality.
“Everything in me demands that my mother be as she always was,” Fisher says as she weighs the reality of her mother’s increasing frailty. “Even if that’s irritating.”
Seeing how close they are in the film, even while bantering from time to time, it’s hard to imagine how they survived for the decade or so that Fisher refused to have any contact with her mother. We can only guess at what drove Fisher to shut her mother off, but we readily see why reconciliation was inevitable.
“Just do what your mother says. It’s easier,” Reynolds deadpans.
Neither woman ever opted for “easier.” It may have made their relationship challenging, but it also made it unbreakable, right up to its Hollywood ending.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
☆☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
- 7 p.m. Saturday