Heal This New Year With HBO’s Bright Lights and the Love Between Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Postcards from the heart
Like many people after Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing on Tuesday, December 27, I was moved to revisit Postcards From the Edge, the Mike Nichols–directed film that Fisher adapted from her own novel. This was the sole feature screenwriting credit for the actress-novelist, despite the fact that she was for decades one of Hollywood’s most respected script doctors. Fisher often warned people not to think of Postcards as a memoir; it was very much a work of fiction. But she also never denied that some of the story was taken from incidents in her own life, and from her turbulent relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who tragically died the day after Fisher.
Reynolds herself confirms that there’s a lot of truth to Postcards From the Edge in Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom’s hourlong documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which premiered on the festival circuit this year, and is set to debut on HBO on January 7. The movies make a fascinating, deeply moving double feature, commenting on and reflecting one another in intriguing ways.
Postcards follows Suzanne (Meryl Streep), a self-destructive actress who, after a drug overdose, has to move in with her overpowering showbiz-legend mom, Doris (Shirley MacLaine). On the night Suzanne arrives home from rehab, Mom throws her a fancy party and then winds up seizing the spotlight, regaling the guests with her old Hollywood stories and her rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” (In Bright Lights, we see Reynolds sing the song in concert.)
Postcards is a very funny, warm movie, its gentle surfaces and lighthearted mood making for a pointed contrast to the grimness of its subject matter. Here’s a film about desperation, chemical dependency and neurosis that isn’t punishing, gritty or unhinged. Despite the hot mess that is her life, Suzanne remains a largely functional figure, and this portrait of addiction feels a lot more truthful than the unrelentingly dank, terrifying visions with which cinema usually presents us. Many people facing such trials still manage, by and large, to go about their business.
There’s a similar warmth in Bright Lights, which follows Fisher and Reynolds together over the last few years. Much of it was shot in 2014 and 2015, but it contains footage from their whole lives, including home movies from the 1960s as well as shots of Fisher visiting her dying father, Eddie Fisher, several months before his passing in 2010. Carrie and Debbie lived in houses next to each other for years, and Carrie often served as her mom’s constant companion and secret sharer. (Reynolds’s son, Todd, who lives in Nevada, is also a regular presence, offering bemused and touching insights about both his mother and his sister.)
Despite its 57-minute running time, Bright Lights manages to pack in a lot – serving as an overview of Reynolds’ remarkable career while also portraying Fisher’s own stardom and struggles with depression and drug abuse. We see Reynolds auctioning off her vast collection of Hollywood memorabilia (she had hoped it would all land in a museum but found little support for the endeavor and wound up in debt), giving her final concerts and accepting a SAG Lifetime Achievement award. Meanwhile, Fisher prepares to re-enter the limelight with the production and release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We see hints throughout of the turbulent and troubled relationship mother and daughter once had, but we also sense the deep bond they came to share. By the time of filming, both women seem to have found a happier place. Fisher approaches fame on her own terms, appearing at fan gatherings and signing Princess Leia posters and pictures without ever losing her wry, cutting sense of humor. We even see her wisecrack her way through an exercise session, as she prepares to shed some weight for her return to Star Wars.
Seen back to back, the films sometimes feel like mirror images. In Postcards, an aging mother obsesses and frets over her self-destructive daughter’s health. In Bright Lights, an aging daughter frets over her increasingly frail mother’s well-being. Reynolds isn’t self-destructive, of course, but she is clearly compulsive in her own way about performing. It’s also fascinating to see how polished she is: Having come up through the studio system, which trained her to talk, look and behave like a star, she never loses her perfect diction, rarely breaks her placid, controlled, pleasant demeanor. She keeps up appearances, even when everyone around her knows that she’s not feeling well. It’s moving to see how weakened Reynolds could seem before a public appearance, and how, through some invisible force, she manages to get up and power through. Bright Lights suggests how the spotlight can consume a person – giving them tremendous vitality and then suddenly draining them of it.
It seems odd, maybe even inappropriate, to say this now, in the light of Fisher's and Reynolds’ deaths, but watching Bright Lights, I feel as if I’m seeing two survivors: two women who went through the celebrity wringer, emerged on the other side, and found happiness, self-reflection and each other. The demons may not be entirely gone, but they’re out in the open, held at bay by the fact that both women could speak openly of them. Seeing the film now makes you weep for the passing of both actresses, of course. It also drives home the magnitude of losing Carrie Fisher’s hilarious, acerbic, insightful voice at a time when it seems more vital than ever. You leave the movie wanting so much more of her, it hurts.
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