It’s a Mother and Child Reunion (as Carrie’s ex would say)
In the recent HBO documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a film that depicts the most famous (and most notorious) mother-daughter duo of all time, which debuted at Cannes and was also presented as part of the 2016 New York Film Festival, and is slated to air on TV in March 2017, Carrie Fisher, weary from the ongoing self-examination (and public scrutiny) of a complicated life that included fame from birth, bipolar disorder, addiction, sensational stardom in her own right, impressive amounts of both accomplishment and ridicule, and a spectacular array of variously disastrous and glorious events, all survived with her renowned wit and tenacity… Carrie Fisher says “You know what would be really good? To get to the end of my personality and just lie in the sun.”
Carrie Fisher died unexpectedly yesterday – 12/27/16, at the age of 60, and I take comfort in believing that she has finally gotten to the end of her personality and is now somewhere lying in the sun and resting in peace. There is no one who deserves that more. (Heart-wrenching update: Debbie Reynolds has now died from a stroke, just one day after her daughter died from a heart attack. Reynolds was a singer, dancer and actress who started her career as a teenager.)
In the film, Bright Lights, directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds are shown to live next door to each other – in memorabilia-packed homes worthy of preservation by the Smithsonian Institute – and seem to have genuinely and lovingly overcome their many adversities and, most importantly, their adversarial relationship with each other. Both iconic women, with fame spanning from Singin’ in the Rain to Star Wars – six decades on stage and screen, have lived in the spotlight all their lives, including the film, Postcards from the Edge, which was based on Carrie Fisher’s best-selling semi-autobiographical book about her rocky relationship with her mother (in which the two are appropriately portrayed by another two showbiz legends, Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, respectively). And yet in this documentary film, Bright Lights, Carrie and Debbie open up in surprisingly candid and casual ways. It is a rare and wonderful look into the hearts and day-to-day lives of two genuine Greats and also two genuine Train Wrecks who have an unbreakable bond. And now, after their deaths, this film is the best possible tribute to both of them. It is sort of a love letter they wrote to each other.
The film is laden with quotable quips, which just keep on coming. The film opens with old 16-mm family-movie footage, and Debbie Reynolds insisting that Carrie had a happy childhood. “I have the films to prove it,” she says. Carrie suggests that maybe the footage is fake: “I don’t buy it.” Debbie replies, “You never bought anything I said.”Plus, it’s hilarious! Don’t even think for a minute about sappy or overly-laudatory. In truth, I was expecting more painfully clever and self-deprecating self-analysis, of the kind that made up Fisher’s 2008 memoir and then live show, Wishful Drinking. But this film is something else altogether. It is touching without being maudlin and it is uplifting without being pretentious. It is outright JOYFUL. It is a sort of montage – out of order, without narration (but with lots of fresh interviews), that bounces through a bounty of colorful, lively, glamorous, quirky, and musical moments, which add up to something oddly inspiring. When is the last time you saw a movie that made you glad to have lived every difficult, distressing moment of your life? This is it.
Later, Debbie – age 83 at the time of filming, tells how she still cannot give up show business; it is her life, even though she can barely make it through each performance. She describes how one show left her lying on the floor. Carrie adds, “but in a good, dignified movie-star way.” Debbie justifies with, “The only way to get through life is to fight.” Carrie explains,
“Age is horrible for all of us, but she falls from a greater height.”
At one point, Debbie muses, “I should have married Burt Reynolds. I wouldn’t have had to change my name, and we could have shared wigs.” Ha!
The fact that Carrie Fisher has died before the wide release of the film by HBO (and just one day before her mother) is… a bit of a stunner. Because much of the film is about the increasing fragility of Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, and how they are both dealing with the impending end of that still-singing life. The final moments of the movie document the two as Reynolds is about to receive the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and how her weakening health puts her live attendance at the show in jeopardy. Fisher, with breaking heart, goes to great length to make the live appearance happen.
And not only that, she joins her mother on stage and sings. She shows her beautiful voice, which earlier in the film Reynolds had bragged about and revealed how much she loved, after which Fisher confessed that it was her big act of rebellion – to not make a career of singing, as a way of frustrating her mother. But there they are on screen, in their truly golden years, singing together, and it is marvelous.
Helen Highly recommended this documentary when she first saw it at NYFF2016, but now more than ever it’s a must-see. Perhaps HBO will decide to air it sooner, due to these recent deaths. (Update: HBO has announced that the film will air next week!) But it is a triumphant testimony to the power of love to overcome adversity and pain. These women did it. If they could, perhaps we can too.
I link now to the essay I wrote about Carrie Fisher last year, titled “Carrie Fisher and The Star Wars Review I Couldn’t Write.” I had been assigned to write a movie review of the new Star Wars movie, but I realized I had nothing to say about it. I did, however, have some thoughts about Carrie Fisher’s body and how she had aged. I kept those thoughts between me and my friend who accompanied me to the movie… until I read about the huge twitter war that had erupted over all the tweets about Carrie Fisher’s body, and her reaction to those tweets, followed by a New York Post article that brought the petty but ongoing battle to the main stage and gave it national attention. The episode turned into a feminist cause.
In my essay, I spoke at times directly to Carrie, (If you will only click your heels three times, you will see that you had already won this twitter war before it began), and I would have loved to know that she read my comments, although I doubt she did. But that essay seems more relevant now than at the time I wrote it. It is a kind of career review and tribute to Carrie Fisher – a nod to her wit and nobility, as well as her brilliantly imperfect humanity.
And I will finish with another quote from Bright Lights, in which Carrie references her ongoing battle with her weight. “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?” Carrie, I think you will be a bright and dazzling ghost, no matter the size. You will always be remembered and always be loved. That much I know. And I hope your ghost will be at peace, lying in the sun. Debbie Reynolds: I can see you already, singing in heaven.
Did you know Carrie Fisher was on the cover of Rolling Stone — twice?