BRIGHT LIGHTS: STARRING CARRIE FISHER AND DEBBIE REYNOLDS * * * 1 / 2
A documentary directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens. Featuring Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Todd Fisher, Eddie Fisher and Griffin Dunne.
Among the many reasons to be jealous of my friends who attend the Cannes and New York Film Festivals is that last year they got to see what must have been at the time a profoundly different version of the new documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds. Mind you, not a frame of this film has been changed since these premieres, but the context is now radically different after Fisher’s shocking death last month and her mother’s passing the very next day– a heartbreaking ending to a true Hollywood story already fraught with more than its share of sadness.
Directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens (yes, that dorky actor who wore brownface to play an Indian in the Short Circuit movies and was miraculously dating Michelle Pfeiffer at the time because the ‘80s were weird,) Bright Lights is a very good film that I would have much preferred to watch either three months ago or three months from now. It’s a loving portrait of two stubborn broads who faced some of the toughest breaks a life in Hollywood had to offer and somehow stuck it out together through thick and thin. Indeed, this is such a fine tribute to their indomitable spirits that watching it so soon after their passing was a little too raw for me, though your personal mileage may vary.
Bright Lights packs an awful lot into a quick 94 minutes. We meet America’s favorite couple, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher – the latter at one time more famous than anyone these days remembers, if they even remember him at all. Then Eddie ran off with Elizabeth Taylor, who soon made Hollywood history when she ditched him for Richard Burton, and during all this drama young Carrie was growing up in public, struggling with mental illness and drug dependencies under a tabloid spotlight that was already insane even before she signed on to play a certain Princess of Alderaan in what everyone had mistakenly assumed was just some junky B-Movie.
The famously antagonistic mother-daughter relationship was immortalized at perhaps its lowest ebb in director Mike Nichols’ fine 1990 film Postcards From The Edge, which Fisher adapted from her boisterously funny, bestselling roman a clef. There’s gotta be something amazingly therapeutic about watching Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine acting out your worst fights with your mom, because when the documentary happens upon these two Hollywood survivors a couple years ago they’re are happily settled down as next-door neighbors, riffing off one another like a couple of old pros.
Always and forever The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Debbie never once loses her poise to a point that we see her unflappable, camera-ready professionalism almost as a gesture of defiance. Nothing ruffles Reynolds nor disturbs that deceptively placid surface, even when she’s passive-aggressively telling the cameraman how to do his job. Carrie, by contrast, is a magnificent shambles – crashing into every room on clouds of cigarette smoke and off-color commentary. Her house is cluttered with hilarious, junky tchotchkes — everything from a painting of “a sad woman who looks like Kevin Spacey” to a Princess Leia sex doll that she keeps in the attic.
There’s more than a touch of Grey Gardens going on here. But the documentary also contains some remarkably upsetting footage of Fisher having a manic episode in 1980, plus a strange, deathbed sorta-reconciliation with her father, who died broke and all-but-forgotten. Whether following Carrie to a sci-fi convention at which she’s autographing Princess Leia photos for $70 a pop, or tracking Debbie’s attempts to auction off a massive collection of Hollywood memorabilia, Bright Lights finds its two subjects constantly surrounded by images of their younger, more glamorous selves. Or, if feeling less generous you might even say they are haunted by them.
I still can’t shake one of the film’s final scenes — Debbie and Carrie speak-singing a mocking, ironic rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” at a party that’s almost over.