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Mike Nichols’ delicious 1987 film Postcards From the Edge, like the semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher on which it was based, explored the complicated bond of a mother and daughter whose survival within the showbiz subspecies put them just as often at odds as in harmony. Switching from fictionalized depictions to the real thing, Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher examines that tetchy but loving relationship in all its glorious complexity more than 25 years on. And if the film is as disorderly in its structure as the messy family history it surveys, time spent with these wonderful subjects makes that seem sweetly appropriate.
Co-directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, the documentary has its world premiere in the Cannes Classics lineup and will air early next year on HBO.
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.
Where it counts most, 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 2014 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.”
The difficulty for Fisher and her brother of seeing their mother as an increasingly fragile woman in her 80s, and not an eternally radiant creature whose natural habitat is the spotlight, is a strong motif. In fact, one of the film’s most poignant moments is when Reynolds refuses to be filmed on a day of particularly poor health, though hearing her voice off-camera offering her guests a hit of oxygen illustrates with humor how her spark endures. As she herself points out, her song from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, “I Ain’t Down Yet,” has become a fitting anthem.
When she is on-camera, the outfit is always immaculate and the wig, lashes and lipstick always in perfect order, clearly connecting this octogenarian to the teenage girl put through the MGM contract-player finishing school in the late 1940s.
Part of the film’s bittersweet pleasure is its observation of how the generational shift from mother to daughter shaped their conflicting attitudes toward showbiz. Reynolds still gets wistful over Fisher’s rebellion when she refused to continue singing in her mother’s stage act — also distancing herself from the legacy of her mostly absent father, famed crooner Eddie Fisher. (A terrific clip shows the 15-year-old Carrie belting out “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” more than a decade before her brief marriage to Paul Simon; later she does a spot-on Barbra Streisand, singing “Funny Girl.”)
Reynolds was a carefully molded product of the studio system, forever remembered as the enchantingly sunny Kathy Selden in Singin‘ in the Rain, while her daughter emerged during the free-spirited New Hollywood era of the 1970s, timing that no doubt fed right into her druggy excesses of those years. In one amusing anecdote, she recalls how Warren Beatty personally had to convince Reynolds to let Fisher say the word “f—” in her screen debut, Shampoo, rather than “screw.”
Fisher’s default setting is irreverent self-deprecation, so she leaves it to others to do most of the reflecting on her more troubled periods. But her openness on the subject is well known from her memoir and stage show Wishful Drinking, and she doesn’t gloss over the rough spots. Over footage of her in euphoric spirits on the Great Wall of China in 1988, she defines her two moods as “Rollicking Roy,” who provides a wild ride, and “Sediment Pam,” who stands on the shore and sobs.
The touching suggestion emerges that Fisher’s natural urge to be funny was born out of a frustrated desire to make her father want to stick around more. There’s a sad irony in his shortcomings as a parent being discussed while his hit, “Oh, My Papa,” is heard.
Fisher is good-humored about her weight being monitored by Lucasfilm for a year before the shoot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which ought to silence all those age- and body-shaming trolls who criticized her in online forums for looking heavy and old in the movie. She defiantly sticks to her diet of cigarettes and Coca Cola despite her trainer pouring her soda supply down the drain. And while slogging away on a treadmill, she wonders, “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?”
Fisher doesn’t take her place in the Star Wars pantheon lightly, however. After a long day signing autographs and posing for photographs with fans at a convention (she calls them “lap dances”), she says of her screen character: “They love her, and I’m her custodian.” She also keeps the infamous Princess Leia sex doll among the eclectic knick-knacks and art pieces in her home.
Often through the eyes of Reynolds’ children, the documentary covers her lousy choice of husbands; the scandal and resulting swarm of paparazzi when Eddie Fisher left her for her friend and neighbor, Elizabeth Taylor; her stubborn refusal to retire, schlepping off to play a Vegas lounge even when she can hardly stand; and the frustration of trying and failing to get a museum established to house her famous collection of Hollywood memorabilia, the financial burden of which eventually necessitated a series of auctions. Reynolds’ last-minute refusal to part with a full set of Rat Pack suits shows how profoundly she remains tied to a past era of entertainment.
In addition to countless choice clips, photographs and songs, the filmmakers also have incorporated a wealth of private home-movie material. (“We were getting ready for a photo shoot all the time,” says Fisher of the siblings’ childhood.)
In opening commentary over what appears to be a Hawaiian vacation, with Reynolds the very picture of the wholesome, pretty young mother, Fisher wryly suggests that the reason they were filmed so frequently was so she could be convinced later on that she was a happy kid. Whatever the bumps of her upbringing, it does appear, based on the evidence here, to have been more character-forming than scarring. As Fisher saunters across to her mother’s neighboring home on the same Beverly Hills compound, and the two share a soufflé that they simultaneously feed to their dogs, their loving interdependence seems unbreakable. There’s no slur on their sanity intended in saying that the lives together of these fabulous originals could almost be the Hollywood version of Grey Gardens.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
Production companies: Bloomfish Pictures, RatPac Documentary Films, HBO Documentary Films
Directors: Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens
Producers: Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens, Julie Nives, Todd Fisher
Executive producers: Brett Ratner, Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Billy Pena, Vasco Lucas Nunes
Music: Will Bates
Editors: Penelope Falk, Sheila Shirazi
Not rated, 95 minutes.
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