Review: Bright Lights

Never intended as such, Bright Lights is a fitting tribute to two spectacularly talented women. A lovingly eccentric family portrait.

Debbie Reynolds was propelled into Hollywood stardom at a young age when she stepped out with Gene Kelly in MGM’s classical musical Singin’ in the Rain in 1952. Like the razzle-dazzle trooper she was, she never really retired, with a much-loved stint as Grace’s mother on Will & Grace and Liberace’s in Behind the Candelabra and Vegas singing gigs right up until her death, shortly after her daughter Carrie Fisher’s, late last year.

Growing up, a Fisher saw how fame chewed up and spat out its idols, with MGM dropping her mother and drug addiction ending the career of her crooner father Eddie, who infamously ditched the family, including brother Todd, for Elizabeth Taylor. But, despite her misgivings and an initially undiagnosed bipolar disorder, the pull was too strong. A small but memorable role in Warren Beatty’s Shampoo soon led to a certain princess, changing everything.

Despite all the ups and down they faced together and the sometimes maddening clashes that, let’s face it, aren’t exactly uncommon in ordinary, non-famous families, their bond remained rock solid. Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’ wonderful documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds reveals the pair living in separate pads on the same compound, Reynolds’ ornate yet understated compared to the whacky kitsch of Fischer, a highlight of which is a Psycho tribute bloody palm print shower curtain.

These two couldn’t be more Hollywood if they tried, and yet the ever-witty tongue of Fisher is adept at cutting through the bullshit of this OTT fairy tale, complete with her wry acceptance of doing “lap dances,” for money, AKK singing pictures of her in Leia’s golden metal bikini at Comicon-style events.

Reynolds is her straight man, with a perpetually sunny disposition that belies her own hardships – she remarried a man who gambled away their money.

There’s a sense that Fisher, as much as she’s grown to love being custodian of a fantasy character over whom grown men have no compunction about revealing their masturbation fantasies, would possibly have chosen a different path if she could again. Certainly her mental health issues have taken their toll. She wishes out loud at one point that she could, “get to the end of my personality and just lie in the sun.”

Reynolds is all the way in, so much so that the show must go on, even in a heartbreaking scene where she seems to lose her grip on what’s happening en route to receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Screen Actors’ Guild. It’s also tragic to see just how ephemeral the trappings of cinema are to a Tinseltown that refused to support Reynolds in establishing a costume museum, with her lifetime’s work collecting treasures like Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers and Marilyn’s Seven Year Itch subway dress now scattered to the wind and held largely in private hands. Touchingly, she could not bear parting with the Rat Pack suits.

When Fisher visits her then gravely ill father’s bedside, she admits her gift for humour was a desperate attempt to get him to stick around and love her. Eddie, for his part, asks with pain in his eyes, “I love you, but do you love me?” It’s not a reproach, it’s a recognising of neglect.

The return of Star Wars with The Force Awakens is played with curmudgeonly affection by Fisher, a sort of burden she has to bear but actually doesn’t mind really, though the requirement to get fit picks at a niggling corner of self-doubt. You find yourself willing Fisher to take it easy as she chugs can after can of Coke – her father once fronted an advertising campaign for that sugar-loaded beverage – a replacement, perhaps, for previous addictions.

As much as Bloom and Stevens’ Bright Lights is a cautionary tale, a careful what you wish for revelation of the stresses of celebrity, it is also, and far more so, a story of love between a mother and daughter. It’s bloody hilarious, beautiful and sad all rolled into one and, like the best of movies, and it takes on a haunting quality given that, while the film was not intended as such, having premiered at Cannes last year, its HBO run of course becomes a memoriam.

And what a spectacular tribute it is too, to two very smart, sassy women who bestowed so much joy to the world and, it would seem, each other, with their inimitable double act something special to behold.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords