After the deaths of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher in the last days of 2016, the release of a new documentary about their lives, Bright Lights (HBO, January 2017) feels serendipitous.
Although both Fisher and Reynolds made their names as film stars, it’s fitting that the story of their real relationship was made for the smaller screen. Being a star is for the movies (as with Fisher’s exaggerated but wonderful semi-autobiography Postcards From the Edge) – but the business of being a real human is for a more intimate exchange with a television audience.
The documentary explores the relationship between Fisher and Reynolds as mother and daughter, but also two very high profile women. It shows the effects that fame has had on both, as well as presenting a contrast between their public personaes and private lives. Press compilations of “hilarious quotes” and “emotionally devastating moments” from the documentary are already circulating.
Sharp one-liners sparkling with winking self awareness are scattered throughout the film and serve as the most wonderful garnish. “Family-wise, we didn’t grow up with each other, we grew up around each other. You know, like trees,” Fisher explains of her childhood, growing up in a huge Hollywood house. Meanwhile Reynolds declares “I share everything with my daughter — especially the cheque”.
Most interesting is how both Reynolds and Fisher use their moments to camera. Reynolds is in her 80s but still preparing a series of one-woman Las Vegas shows, filmed most likely during her 2014 tour. She seems visibly invigorated when the camera faces her, only to shrink a little when she’s no longer the centre of the frame. Her sense of duty is almost sovereign – as if she’s aware that she represents a part of people’s lives that is forever carefree, youthful and playful.
Without being too dramatic, you can almost imagine Queen Elizabeth going through the same routine as she prepares for public engagements. Unlike Reynolds, Her Majesty probably has someone other than her children to ensure her wig is on straight. Although, maybe Charles has hidden talents.
This type of performance, particularly at Reynolds’ age and following the many traumatic aspects of her life, could be seen as sad but instead it’s inspiring. The starkest contrast appears while she’s in Vegas to perform: she rides through the casino rooms on a mobility scooter, a white cap and plain clothes on, barely noticed among the rows of poker machines. She’s almost just another elderly punter trying their luck. “The only way you make it through life is to fight”, she says, and soon after we see her on stage with her hair and clothes perfectly placed as always.
She literally bounces onto the stage and into the spotlight, projecting her smooth voice as she banters with the crowd, always seeming only seconds from her next song. At the risk of a cliché – the stage is who she really was, but the scooter was what got her there.
Later we see the leadup to her 2015 SAG lifetime achievement award, when Reynolds was secretly so ill she was barely able to leave the house. Determined on her behalf, Fisher prepares her for the event and ensures she is able to appear with dignity – and of course, is there to present her the award.
Fisher’s transformation from citizen to star is also shown throughout the documentary. She is careful to articulate that she was born to fame and needed to learn how to become a civilian over time. Hers is not a “poor little rich girl” narrative but rather just the story of someone who was never allowed privacy – made into a prop by the press who reported on her mother and father’s divorce and subsequent relationships.
Here the presence of her brother Todd provides great context. While his sister seemed to have taken a “if you can’t beat em, join em” approach to celebrity, he instead has kept it at arms length. He talks about “marrying inside the entertainment race” when introducing his wife actress and author Catherine Hickland. It’s the closest he comes to admitting how intrusive the attention has been in his life, which has no doubt intensified since the deaths of his mother and sister.
Carrie’s appearances in the documentary are mostly supplementary to her professional performance – we see her at a fan convention and then in preparation for the next Star Wars movie. The first, a production line of autographs and gratitude, could easily be seen as cynical but instead she and the film honour the devotion of these fans. Theirs is a real feeling; that is to be respected. “They love [Princess Leia], and I’m her custodian … but it’s nice, they’re nice”, she says, sitting outside after the madness is over.
Later we see Fisher on exercise equipment in a house in London. Her personal trainer is doing his best to inspire but she refuses to even feign enjoyment. During this exchange comments are made about having to send her progress and measurements back to the studio prior to production.
She’s so wonderfully deadpan, and the history of surveillance on her body for this role has been so intense, that it’s impossible to tell to what extent she might be joking. When the trainer pours her beloved Coca-Cola down the sink in front of her, she swiftly returns to the shop for more when he leaves. She joked later that Star Wars only ever “wanted to hire part of me”.
What comes across most is how fiercely Reynolds and Fisher protected each other’s wishes when it came to how to deal with the Bright Lights thrust at them. While wildly different in their approach, their mutual respect and dignity was striking, as was each woman’s refusal to deny their life experiences, no matter how very personal at times. Reynolds’ approach was to keep calm and carry on, while Fisher wanted to burn down the house. Both were fabulous, and both were and still are, Bright Lights of their own.
Dr Liz Giuffre is a lecturer and researcher in Media, Music and Cultural Studies at University of Technology, Sydne, Australia. Her work focuses on music and television in particular, including audience studies, fandom, cultural history and cultural industries in transition.
This blog first appeared in The Conversation on 11 January 2017.