Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, the highly anticipated documentary about the relationship between the late Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, debuted on HBO Saturday.
Billed as “an intimate portrait of Hollywood royalty in all its eccentricity,” the 95-minute film documented nearly a year of the Hollywood icons lives, leading up to Reynolds’ 2015 acceptance of her Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, which Fisher presented.
It was an emotional project to watch, especially after the recent deaths of both women. Fisher, 60, died on Dec. 27 after suffering a heart attack during an 11-hour flight from London to Los Angeles four days prior. Reynolds died a day after her daughter, at the age of 84.
Directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, the documentary was filled with amazing tidbits and treats. Here are some of its biggest reveals about the lives of the mother-daughter duo.
1. The two were an unbreakable pair, even though Fisher recognized that bond came with its downsides.
Reynolds and Fisher’s close bond has long been well known. But Bright Lights gave insight into just how important it was for Fisher to see her mother happy.
“If my mother’s unhappy, it lives on my grid,” she explained. “So I both want to and have to help my mother. She was very good to her mother and her mother didn’t deserve it. Debbie deserves it.”
“I think I’m my mom’s best friend, more than a daughter,” Fisher continued. “My mother really wants me to be an extension of her wishes — an extension of her. And to a great degree, far more sometimes than I ever would want to, I know what my mother feels and wants. And there’s a lot of it.”
The need to make sure her mother was also content weighed heavily on Fisher — especially as Reynolds got older. At one point in the film, Fisher breaks down in tears thinking about the fragile state of her mother’s health and the obstacles she’s going to have to overcome to make it to the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“Age is horrible for all of us, but she falls from a greater height,” she said. “Everything in me demands that my mother be what she always was — even if that was is irritating. She just can’t change, that’s the rule.”
Fisher admitted that she had made attempts to distance herself from the codependent thought. “I’m trying to let go,” she said. “I should be trying to let go of my daughter, and instead, I’m trying to let go of my mom. So everything is backwards.”
2. Performing was Reynolds’ passion — and she did not want to retire.
One of the topics Bright Lights spends the most time exploring is just how much Reynolds loved performing and how heartbreaking it was for her when age prevented her from doing so.
Discovered by a talent scout from Warner Bros. at 16 and signed to a contract with the powerhouse studio, Reynolds had one of the longest and most illustrious careers in Hollywood — showcased throughout the documentary in stunning archival footage from some of her biggest onscreen hits like Singin’ in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
But it wasn’t just film. Reynolds had a popular cabaret act that she performed in Vegas and toured the country with for years — though age made it extremely difficult for Reynolds to continue on in her final years. In her two live performances shown in Bright Lights (one in Connecticut and one in Vegas), she struggles to walk to and from the stage and needs assistance from those around her.
“I have caught up with a few people in age,” Reynolds said. “But like George Burns said, ‘I’m going to stay on stage until I drop dead.’ ”
“She’ll forget that she’s not 35,” Fisher said. “It doesn’t make sense to her that her body isn’t cooperating. And she just thinks if she ignores it, it’ll go away. It’s very frustrating for her because inside, my mom is the same person. And she doesn’t want to retire. She does not want to retire.”
“She loves doing it when she’s doing it, but afterwards, she [is] laying on the floor,” Fisher added. “But in a good, dignified, movie star way.”
Talking Reynolds out of performing seemed impossible, though.”That is like throwing yourself in front of a tsunami,” Fisher joked. “She’s a tsu-mommy… Performing gives her life. It feeds her in a way that family can not. That’s why I think that we’re frustrating. People aren’t cooperative — audiences are.”
3. Reynolds desperately wanted Fisher to be a singer.
Reynolds’ love of song is something she hoped to transfer over to her daughter. She groomed Fisher for the business, putting her in her nightclub act when she was 12 or 13. But though the two spent much of Bright Lights breaking into song together — Fisher even joining her mother’s Vegas show to sing The Unsinkable Molly Brown‘s “I’ll Never Say No,” Fisher never pursued the business professionally.
“The biggest thing that broke my mother’s heart was to not do a nightclub act,” Fisher said. “My mother would say, ‘Do drugs — do whatever you do — but why don’t you sing?’ That was my big rebellion.”
Her mother wasn’t the only one who had a musical background. Fisher’s father, Eddie Fisher, was a famous singer too. Looking back, Reynolds realized that her daughter’s choice not to sing was really decision to be independent.
“I guess she doesn’t want to be Eddie and she doesn’t want to be Debbie,” Reynolds said. “So she’ll do it her own way.” Still, the thought of what could have been nearly brought Reynolds to tears. “Love that voice,” she said. “Isn’t that a great voice? Wish I had it.”
4. It took years for Fisher to embrace the Star Wars fandom.
Star Wars may have brought Fisher immediate worldwide fame, but it took her little longer to accept the public’s love for Princess Leia. Even towards the end of her life — as she reprised the character for Star Wars: The Force Awakens — it was still a line she struggled to walk.
Bright Lights documents Fisher attending a comic-book convention, where she meets fans, poses for pictures, and signs memorabilia — all for cash (autographs cost $70 a person, for example). It’s something her assistant said she resisted for years but does at least once a month. She called them “celebrity lap dances.”
“Celebrity lap dances — which is where celebrities of all shapes and ages sign autographs for cash prizes,” she explained. “It’s sort of like going to a strip club, except they don’t stuff cash in your underwear. But that’s kind of it.”
Afterwards, Fisher reflected on the experience and the fan reactions she received throughout the day. “They love [Leia], and I’m her custodian,” she said. “She’s me and I’m her and I’m as close as you’re going to get. They talk to me like I’m Princess Leia who happens to have all these difficult experiences she’s gone through. And that’s like me fighting for the Force.
“It’s nice,” she added. “They’re nice.”
5. Fisher’s mental health was “a constant battle” for Reynolds.
Fisher was a passionate mental health advocate after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985. Managing the illness with medication and electroconvulsive therapy, the actress and writer was outspoken about her treatment, and the lessons she learned by embracing the disorder throughout her life.
But for Reynolds, watching her daughter go through the negative side effects associated with the disease was tough.
“Manic depressive is a disease,” Reynolds said. “Now that wasn’t diagnosed then, so nobody knew what was going on with Carrie. When she was 13, her personality changed. So it’s a constant battle — it takes all of us to assure her that she’s loved.”
“It’s hard,” she said, through tears. “It’s hard. That’s the hardest part.”
Bright Lights showed archival video of Fisher experiencing a manic episode while visiting the Great Wall of China. The film’s cameras also caught her in an episode while at home.
“You know what would be cool? To get to the end of my personality,” Fisher joked with the camera, and she broke up her rambling to admit being in the middle of a manic trip. “It’ll go out of style soon, and then I’ll just be quirky.”
In another video, Fisher revealed the two personalities she experiences and the nicknames she uses to distinguish between the two. “I have two moods,” she said. “Roy is ‘Rollicking Roy’ — wild ride of a mood. Pam is ‘Sentiment Pam,’ who stands on the side and sobs. One mood is the meal, the next, the check.”
Perhaps saddest was Fisher’s struggle to understand herself amid her disorder — a fight she seemed to continue to have until the very end. “Where am I in all of this?” she asked.