Review: Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds' deaths add poignancy to HBO's portrait

Like people, art is changed by time and events.

Certainly, your reaction to HBO’s Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (Saturday, 8 ET/PT, *** out of four), simply can’t be the same now as it might have been had you seen the film at one of its earlier festival showings. Suddenly and tragically, Reynolds and Fisher are gone — mother and daughter dying within a day of each other — a macabre twist that alters how we see the art and, in turn, the art itself.

One effect is that this loss turns a film that would have otherwise been pleasant but not exactly required viewing into a mandatory appointment for any fan of either woman. Another is that our own sense of loss adds a layer of melancholy to even the most humorous moments, and a new depth to the film's exploration of the appeal and the dangers of celebrity.

Directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, Bright Lights is almost unbearably poignant from the very first words spoken by Fisher: “Hello. We’re here with a woman who alleges to be my mother. I don’t buy it for a minute.”

Well, obviously. she does and we do — and not just because Bright Lights is filled with home movies proving the connection. These women are clearly bound together in ways that go beyond simply living next door in a shared Beverly Hills compound, and in ways that may surprise those who only know their relationship from the fictional spin Fisher put on it in Postcards from the Edge. (A brilliant, underrated movie — go rent it.)

Indeed, if you’re looking for a revelation from Bright Lights, that’s it: However tumultuous their relationship may have been, the maternal link won out. There are no scandals unearthed in Bright Lights, no breaking celebrity news. Instead, what you’ll learn from this warm portrait is how dependent Reynolds was on Fisher, and how frightened Fisher was by her mother’s declining health. If you hadn't thought of Fisher as a dedicated daughter, prepare to rethink.

“If my mother’s unhappy,” Fisher says, “it lives on my grid. So I both have to and want to help my mother.”

And so she does, sometimes despite her better judgment. One of the film’s driving themes is Fisher’s certainty that Reynolds' determination to keep working is damaging her health. And yet when her mother needs her help to keep working, Fisher is there at her side.

Through interviews, home movies, cinéma vérité passages and clips from Reynolds’ old movies, Bright Lights seeks to explain that dynamic. Reynolds is a performer, it’s all she knows. And as Fisher concisely and insightfully explains, “Everything in me demands that my mother be the way she always was, even if that way is irritating.”

There are moments in Bright Lights when our knowledge of what’s to come may add more weight to lines than they deserve, as we risk substituting foreshadowing for what was merely coincidence. And there are moments where you may justifiably wonder what the film would have looked like had one woman survived the other and been able to ask for changes. But that didn’t happen, and this is the film we have — one that is likely to leave those who loved Reynolds or Fisher loving them even more.

And that, time is unlikely to change.


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