clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

HBO's Bright Lights illuminates the complex dynamic between Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

The documentary shows the challenges of remaining a star, even when the limelight moves away.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds perform in archival footage from Bright Lights
Show business lost two of its brightest lights, but the HBO documentary Bright Lights, which premiered at festivals in 2016, helps bid them farewell.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

2016 ended with the sad loss of Carrie Fisher and, a day later, her mother, Debbie Reynolds. The two women had a famously turbulent relationship but became close later in their lives, becoming best friends as well as mother and daughter.

In the sadly serendipitous way these things often seem to happen, a documentary film about the two women, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, had just made the rounds of the film festival circuit earlier in 2016, premiering at Cannes before playing at a series of other prestigious festivals in the US. It was acquired by HBO to air later in 2017 — but after the pair’s passing, the date was moved up to Saturday, January 7.

Bright Lights is equal parts a family portrait, a love letter to show business, and a look at how two women of different generations struggled — and made peace — with their particular brands of fame. And thanks to its stars, and the work of directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, it’s peppy, wistful, and a little transgressive all at once.

Here are five things we learned from Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

Debbie Reynolds was a true force of nature

This is obvious to anyone who knows the story of Singin’ in the Rain: Reynolds was cast opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor with no previous screen time and barely any dancing experience, but she learned fast in the three months leading up to production. In the film she keeps up, no problem, smiling all the time.

Debbie Reynolds
Reynolds and Fisher in 1972.
Photo by Dove/Evening Standard/Getty Images

She was only 19 then, but that same aplomb is obvious in Bright Lights, even though Reynolds was in her 80s during filming. The film starts with Reynolds performing her act in Vegas (to the consternation of Fisher, who’s worried about her mother’s health), but she grows visibly frail after giving a few exhausting shows.

Yet she’s always clearly “on” — a product, her son Todd says, of her time in the MGM system, which taught her how to always act like the best version of herself. In one of the film’s most revealing scenes, Reynolds is shooting some interview footage in her home when an alarm starts going off. Everyone around her is scrambling to turn it off, but Reynolds sits serenely, smiling. She isn’t oblivious; she’s just ready for anything, even when she’s fading.

Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’s relationship cast a long shadow over their children’s lives

A substantial amount of screen time in Bright Lights is devoted to reckoning with Eddie Fisher, Reynolds’s first husband and father to Carrie and her brother Todd. Eddie was a famous singer who left Reynolds for her friend Elizabeth Taylor in 1959, sparking a Hollywood scandal that would loom over the family for years to come.

With Eddie Fisher
Taylor, Fisher, and Reynolds in 1958, the year before Fisher left Reynolds for Taylor.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Todd (who comes across a little eccentric but very good-natured, just like his mother and sister) has a series of posters prominently displayed in his home from movies that tell the story of his parents’ relationship and split, and he walks the camera through it. There’s Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds’s ingénue debut, and her 1957 hit Tammy and the Bachelor. There’s The Tender Trap, which Reynolds shot with Frank Sinatra, who warned her not to marry a singer. “So she goes right out and marries the singer, my dad, Eddie Fisher,” Todd says, gesturing at a poster of Bundle of Joy, which starred the pair. There’s a poster for Cleopatra, on which Eddie Fisher served as a producer after he ran off with its star, Elizabeth Taylor. The final poster in the sequence is for Butterfield 8, in which the new pair starred. “So that’s the story of my life, in a certain amount of posters,” Todd says cheerfully.

The relationship also seems to have hung over his sister, who is seen, in archival footage, talking with their father before his death in 2010. Both of them, as children, were thrust into the public eye as a result of their parents’ split and their mother’s subsequent relationships, and that experience obviously affected them — particularly Carrie, who took years to come to terms with being bipolar and living in her own spotlight.

The two women lived next to each other

Literally next to each other, separated by a walkway (and “one daunting hill,” as Fisher says as she carries a soufflé to her mother). As the documentary opens, their previously fractious relationship has clearly smoothed out into affection, even when it takes the form of affectionate bickering. There’s plenty of concern, too — mostly Fisher worrying about her mother’s health. As she says of Reynolds, “Age is horrible for all of us, but she falls from a greater height.”

21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Press Room
Reynolds and Fisher at the SAG Awards in January 2015.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

The pair’s proximity means their relationship is natural, not forced; they see each other every day and are entangled in each other’s lives, completing each other’s sentences, raising their shared history as a punchline or an argument. Fisher is reticent to leave Reynolds when she has to go to London to shoot Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens. She accepts the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of her mother (and in an extended sequence in the film, we see the physical strain Reynolds was under during that ceremony). That they died a day apart underlines the deep bond Bright Lights portrays.

Fisher grew to like “celebrity lap dances”

That was her typically wry, self-deprecating way of talking about signing autographs and taking pictures with fans at Star Wars conventions. She says she resisted the fan convention circuit at first, but in footage at a con it’s clear she’s become an old pro. Smoking a cigarette afterward, she says she likes it, and that the people are nice.

Fisher had a long career outside of playing Leia — though in Bright Lights she heads off to shoot The Force Awakens — and it’s easy to imagine being annoyed at not being able to shake the character. But after talking with Leia’s fans at a convention, Fisher remarks, “They love her, and I’m her custodian.” For her, being Leia was a way to connect with, and even bring joy to, a lot of people to whom Leia means a great deal.

Becoming a star is the easy part; staying a star is a lifelong hustle

At one point, Fisher says the most embarrassing thing is seeing people who used to be famous, but aren’t anymore. Both she and Reynolds escaped that fate — but it wasn’t easy, and the toll was high.

TNT's 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Gallery
Reynolds and Fisher with Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, at the SAG awards in January 2015.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Part of that toll was the physical upkeep that goes with being in the limelight: Reynolds, in her early 80s, wears a beaded dress on stage that she admits is extremely heavy, and Fisher was required to lose weight for The Force Awakens; at one point, huffing on a treadmill, she says to her trainer, “My question is, if you die while you’re fat, are you a fat ghost?”

But mostly it’s the ongoing hustle — the fan conventions, the flying around, the shows in Vegas — that seems exhausting. And the financial implications are here too: One major arc in the film hinges on Reynolds auctioning off her extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia, saddened by her thwarted hopes of being able to start a museum commemorating the history of Hollywood.

Reynolds and Fisher were both bright lights to the end of their lives, even through the worst and most difficult times. And Bright Lights doesn’t shy away from those difficult times. But there was joy, too, and plenty of it. It’s a fitting way to bid farewell to two bright lights that blinked out, together.

Bright Lights premieres on HBO on January 7.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.