On Saturday night, the documentary Bright Lights, about silver-screen star Debbie Reynolds (Singin' in the Rain, The Unsinkable Molly Brown) and her children, Carrie Fisher (Star Wars) and her brother, Todd, airs—weeks before the original March date set for it. We all know the sad rationale: Carrie suffered a heart attack at 60 years of age while on a plane to L.A. after this past Christmas and died days later; her 84-year-old mother, after expressing her desire to be with her daughter, succumbed just one day after that.
The marvellous thing about Bright Lights is that it is not at all a conventional Hollywood hagiography—far from it. Carrie would never have acceded to that in a million years (Debbie: well, you never know). It brings us instead the intimate familial afterlife of a hallowed and eccentric clan of Hollywood stars, filmed mostly in 2014 and 2015.
We know we're in good company when, even before the opening credits roll, the banter starts up. Carrie: "Hello, we're here with a woman who alleges to be my mother. I don't buy it for a minute." When Debbie offers an anodyne reply, Carrie says, "This is getting so ugly so fast"—and Debbie merely laughs, gently and indulgently. This exchange sets the tone for the whole narrative: Debbie as the sunny, blue-skies 1950s showbiz gal, Fisher as the take-no-bullshit '70s renegade unwilling to sit still for her mother's happy horseshit. It was a dynamic that played out in millions of homes, back when the concept of the "generation gap" was at its peak. Think President Ronald Reagan and his son Ron: Much the same thing.
Bright Lights first gives us a series of fairly tame reminiscences about Carrie and Todd's childhood, punctuated by present-day repartee (Debbie: "Just do what your mother says—it makes life easier." Carrie: "As if.") But soon things go to a markedly darker place that gives us pause about believing that we can really know and understand these people. Carrie starts talking with audible angst about how as children she and her brother were "getting ready for a photo shoot all the time." We see video footage of what appears to be a manic episode of Carrie's on China's Great Wall in 1988 (she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder—and weaned off of a profusion of drugs). We witness what Carrie calls the "celebrity lap dance," which involves showing up at Star Wars conventions and autographing memorabilia (and acquiescing in some truly cringeworthy selfies) for fans.
We begin to see that Debbie thrives on dispensing funny but canned one-liners about the showbiz life, while Carrie lands the truth-telling cutting lines that sting. In this doc's darkest moments, Carrie is seen reminiscing with her lifetime pal Griffin Dunne about how, decades ago, he removed the burden of her virginity ("the pressure on my hymen," as Carrie puts it with characteristic pith) on the eve of a big date with a guy who, Carrie feared, would be turned off if she showed up in pristine condition.
So far, so good, but this anecdote affords Carrie the opportunity to say that her mother had once suggested that she personally and in real time supervise Carrie's deflowering by the handiwork of a designated acquaintance. Soon after comes the revelation that Carrie's father, '50s crooner Eddie Fisher—who ran off with Elizabeth Taylor when his kids were still toddlers—once showed up at Carrie's house after his career was washed up, asking for a loan of five or ten grand (drugs, people) and seemingly could not take no for an answer. Still, in subsequent footage we see Carrie, ever the solicitous, ironical daughter, watching over her utterly wrecked father in the last months of his life.
But in a flashback to 1995, we get a hint of a Rosebud moment when Carrie speaks on camera with her grandmother, Debbie's mom, who speaks with monumental, small-town-Texas contempt for her daughter's entire career. She had merely wanted Debbie to become a gym teacher.
Thus do we come around to the realization of how generous, how loving, how protective Debbie had tried to be for Carrie, with her mental illness and pharmaceutical problems. When, near the end, we see Debbie confined to an electric wheelchair at a final appearance in Vegas, she mutters with unaccustomed bite, "The only way you make it through life is to fight. You don't get there the easy way. If you feel sorry for yourself, and you let yourself go down—you will drown!" The pathos of that sentiment, coming from the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds, America's sweetheart, who only tried to do right by her children in the weirdest Hollywood precincts of American life—well, it breaks your heart all over again.
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