“My question is, if you die when you’re fat, are you a fat ghost, or do you go back to a flattering time?” – Carrie Fisher, working out for her return as Princess Leia, in the documentary “Bright Lights.”
You might fairly ask if I’d have given four stars to “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” if this iconic mother-daughter team hadn’t died within a day of one another last week.
You might fairly ask if HBO moved up the release of Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’ documentary to Jan. 7 to maximize viewer interest.
I can’t speak for HBO execs’ motives. Given their channel’s enormous financial success and given their track record for respecting artistry, and knowing it’s not as if an earlier release date for a documentary would make THAT much of a difference to their profit margin, I prefer to believe they’re sharing this amazing, wonderful, funny, fascinating, insightful film now because now is the time.
As for MY reaction to the film…
I watched it mere days after we lost Carrie and Debbie. It would be disingenuous and insulting for me to say I wasn’t thinking about that as I experienced the film.
But that’s not why I’m giving it four stars. That’s not why I’m telling you it’s one of the best buddy comedies I’ve seen in years. That’s not why I’m saying it’s a beautifully filmed, whip-smart, perfectly edited love letter to a legendary mother-daughter duo that respects and honors their relationship without sugarcoating their troubled and checkered history.
I’m saying all that because all that is all that.
The first five minutes of “Bright Lights” set the tone and let us know this is something special. As we see home movies of an impossibly young and unbearably adorable Debbie Reynolds with her two young children, Carrie and Debbie argue with one another, and Carrie challenges her mother: “Who gets what in the will?”
Cut to footage from the recent past. Carrie is in her late 50s; Debbie is in her 80s. They live in neighboring houses on a compound built by the actor Robert Armstrong, who in the 1933 version of “King Kong” famously said, “Twas beauty killed the beast.”
As they say: You cannot make this s— up.
Carrie tells us she wishes her mother would retire, but standing in front of her mom’s wishes is like “standing in front of a — what are those called? — not tiramisu. Tsunami. She’s Tsu-Mommy.”
We bounce back and forth between Carrie’s home, which includes such features as a “Star Wars” sculpture intended as a sexual device, to Debbie’s home, which looks exactly like a legendary movie star’s home: a little bit amazing, a little bit sad.
“This is the bathroom,” says Carrie as she gives a tour of her mother’s home. “It has, as a lot of bathrooms should, a player piano.”
Debbie fumbles with a story. Carrie says, “That’s one of the great things about losing your memory — so many surprises.”
But there’s no trace of meanness or bitterness in their dynamic. They’re at peace with where they are, and they are true best friends. Even with all their fame and all their wealth, Debbie and Carrie will remind you of so many mothers and daughters of that age that have become best pals but still have that mom-daughter thing going on.
Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens have a masterful touch. The duo clearly are huge fans of Carrie and Debbie, and obviously the directors have gained their trust — but when the time comes for Stevens to ask a poignant question off-screen to move things along, or to even enter the frame, he’ll do so.
“Bright Lights” reminds us Debbie Reynolds was a gigantic star, and her husband Eddie Fisher (Carrie’s father) was an even bigger star for a few years, and when Eddie left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor, it was the scandal of the 1950s — but eventually Debbie and Liz became friends.
As for Eddie Fisher, onetime teen idol and mega-selling artist, who abandoned his wife and children, got hooked on crystal meth and lost everything: Carrie’s visit to her dying father is unforgettable.
“Star Wars” fanatics are sure to love Carrie’s comments after she finally started attending fan conventions and embracing her legacy as Princess Leia: “I’m her custodian and I’m as close as you’re gonna get [to her]. She’s me and I’m her. They talk to me like I’m Princess Leia. … It’s nice. They’re nice.”
But for all the scenes of Debbie performing onstage at the South Point in Vegas, and Carrie telling stories about her life at the apex of her fame, and all the footage reminding us they were two major stars, my favorite moments in “Bright Lights” are the small, quiet scenes when mother and daughter are chasing their respective dogs around, sharing breakfast, launching into a duet just for fun, or bickering in that way a mom and daughter bicker after 60 years together, and no, you couldn’t possibly understand us.
HBO presents a documentary directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens. Running time: 95 minutes. Premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday on HBO.