UPDATED 12/30/16: HBO has surprisingly decided to air Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher next weekend, January 7th to be exact. Original article follows:
2016 has now officially been the year written by George R.R. Martin. This year from hell has capped off its seemingly endless wave of devastating deaths of beloved figures with the tragic one-two punch of taking Carrie Fisher one day and her mother Debbie Reynolds the next. Inevitably, the parting of one of Hollywood’s more famous mother-and-daughter combos raises several questions, such as whether or not Carrie had completed work on Star Wars: Episode VIII yet (she had), who’s going to take care of Carrie’s adorable French bulldog Gary (her daughter Billie will) and what will HBO do with Bright Lights now.
Actually, that last question might not exactly be on the tip of your tongue yet, but it soon will be. Bright Lights, full title Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, is a documentary co-directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens. Think of it as the documentary answer to Mike Nichols 1990 film Postcards from the Edge in which Merly Streep and Shirley MacLaine played thinly fictionalized versions of Fisher and Reynolds, the story based on Fisher’s own book and screenplay. Bloom and Stevens followed Reynolds and Fisher around and talked to them for a good chunk of the year in 2015, leaning on their Lorelei-and-Emily-Gilmore-esque rapport as well as a vast supply of the family’s personal home videos to carry the day. As The Hollywood Reporter noted from the film’s world premiere at Cannes earlier this year:
While the directors can very occasionally be heard throwing in a prompt question, the film foregoes any binding narration, instead simply coaxing Reynolds, Fisher, and to a lesser extent, the latter’s brother Todd to reflect on their lives and careers. That makes it far from linear, as key chapters are touched upon, often resurfacing later at random, with little concern for chronological structure. But the relaxed feel of the access keeps it warmly engaging, and the tremendous affection evident from the filmmakers for their subjects is quite contagious.
At the time of Bright Lights’ premiere, it was scheduled to premiere on HBO sometime in early 2017, but after Fisher and Reynolds’ deaths HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins told Variety the network is now mulling over the appropriate time to air the documentary. This is partially out of due respect to the family but also out of consideration for the parts of the documentary which might now make for upsetting viewing. As THR’s review noted:
In the final 15 minutes or so, a moving element of tension is introduced to provide a climax as Reynolds is due to receive the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and her physical frailty puts her attendance at the ceremony in doubt. The resulting anxiety of Fisher, who suffers from bipolar disorder, spirals into a manic episode, which is quite emotional to witness. “You know what would be really good?” she muses wearily. “To get to the end of my personality and just lie in the sun.”
Reynolds was so fragile she refused to be filmed for the documentary on one day of particularly poor health. Elsewhere in the Bright Lights, Fisher openly flaunts her stubborn refusal to give up smoking and drinking endless cans of Coca-Cola despite her studio-mandated trainer’s protestations. At one point, the trainer even pours her supply of Coca-Cola down the drain, leading Fisher to later quip, “My question is, if you die when you’re fat, are you a fat ghost, or do they go back to a more flattering time?”
You can see where a joke like that now has an extra layer of meaning to it.
However, the majority of the documentary is a fascinating tribute to a mother-daughter relationship which once deteriorated to the point that Carrie barely talked to Debbie during her final teenage years and built back up so strongly throughout Carrie’s adulthood that they eventually lived next door to one another. There’s even a scene in Bright Lights of Carrie taking the short stroll to her mother’s house next door where they proceed to ”share a soufflé that they simultaneously feed their dogs.”
As Nevins told Variety, “Carrie wanted to make Bright Lights for Debbie and Debbie wanted to make it for Carrie. If this was a Hollywood script, no one would believe it. They just loved each other so much. The bond was just unbreakable.”
So, while it will be understandably emotional to see Fisher in what will now be her final outing as Princess Leia (now General Organa) in Episode VIII it might be even more emotionally devastating to see Carrie being herself with her beloved mother in what turned out to be one of their final years together on this Earth. When Bright Lights will air remains to be seen but it is now one of the biggest curiosities of 2017, for obviously tragic reasons.
For more about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’ relationship, check out my recent article listing the things I learned about them from watching Postcards from the Edge and Fisher’s 2010 HBO Special Wishful Drinking.