It's clear within the first half hour of Bright Lights that Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher were a mother and daughter with two highly disparate personalities. Directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, the documentary (which was released on HBO on January 7, shortly after the back-to-back deaths of both of its stars) casts Carrie Fisher as an old soul with an acerbic sense of humor and a dark outlook shaped by familial dysfunction. We learn about her battles with bipolar disorder and the history of drug abuse she overcame in her last decade. The original Star Wars blockbusters were her biggest film successes, and while being the former Princess Leia kept her in the collective consciousness and was a source of income decades after the films were released, it overshadowed all other roles she took and certainly contributed to her cynicism about show business.
In contrast, Debbie Reynolds upheld the classical prim and proper cinema airs she adopted as a singer and big-screen star for MGM in films like Singin' in the Rain and The Tender Trap. She never lost her love of performing or the charm that made her America's sweetheart, and she always seemed to maintain an upbeat attitude and a smile, or at the very least an agreeable expression, as if the cameras were always rolling. She was quick-witted, too, though she preferred a nicer, PG-rated tone to her daughter's scathing bite.
They were diametrical opposites, but Reynolds was the sunshine casting rays into Fisher's murk and shadows, while Fisher was Reynolds's rock, an overprotective hen who lived right next door and constantly fretted over her mother's flagging health and vitality, calling Reynolds a "'tsunami" when it came to her relentless will to be onstage despite possessing the declining physical capacities of an octogenarian. At one point in Bright Lights, Fisher admits, "I should be trying to let go of my daughter instead of letting go of my mom. Everything's backward."
The love, respect, and admiration they shared didn't come easy; the women endured plenty of strife and turmoil over the years, most clearly represented in Fisher's semi-autobiographical 1987 novel Postcards from the Edge (and the 1990 film that followed). But the struggle only made their bond stronger, and by the time Bright Lights was filmed, the pair seemed to appreciate each other for their differences and had become the best of friends, a couple of wacky peas in a pod, contrary yet complementary.
The film chronicles the ups and downs in the evolution of their relationship as well as offering an intimate peek at their individual and generally opposing tastes and attitudes about their homes, careers, and relationships. It opens with archival family film footage spanning decades and featuring Fisher and younger brother Todd from toddler to teenage years, along with old film clips from both women's catalogs and even some footage from Reynolds's live stage act that revealed her attempts to groom her daughter for showbiz, which ultimately backfired and spurred Fisher's rebellion.
It touches on Reynolds's history with Eddie Fisher—dad to Carrie and Todd but absent through most of their upbringing after he infamously left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor—and the husband who followed and gambled away Reynolds's fortune before their divorce. It sheds light on Reynolds's collection of costumes and Hollywood movie memorabilia, originally amassed for a museum that never happened and reluctantly auctioned off piecemeal to pay outstanding debts (Marilyn Monroe's famous white Seven Year Itch subway-grate dress netted $6 million).
Fisher offers further illumination during a guided tour of "The Compound," the adjoining Beverly Hills properties where she and her mother lived, pointing out an eccentric assortment of photos, tchotchkes, keepsakes, memorabilia, and even her mother's hilarious collection of ugly child portraits.
Bright Lights also features both poignant and amusing looks at their everyday interactions. In one particularly memorable scene, Reynolds is sitting for an interview and Fisher slinks by in the background, singsong-ing "I'm not heeere," and tells her mother she's heading to bed. Seconds later, the house alarm goes off, and throughout the abrasive repetitive blaring, Reynolds remains pleasant and unruffled, even breaking out into song as people scurry around trying to figure out how to turn it off (including an ill-tempered Fisher), then insisting she can't remember the alarm code (though she throws out a string of numbers that ultimately works).
The documentary draws to a close with Reynolds resting at home with her two children, tired but triumphant after accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. "Could you handle another lifetime achievement award?" Todd asks, and her answer is earnest foreshadowing: "I can't answer that because it's too special and I won't be here then, I will have gone on... you don't get a chance to have a moment like this very often. It's not like any moment, it's its own special moment."
Fisher passed away on December 27, 2016, four days after having a massive heart attack. Her mother followed less than 24 hours later. Though Reynolds's death was officially ruled a stroke ("intracerebral hemorrhage") with hypertension as an underlying cause, in the wake of Bright Lights, the true cause was clear: Her daughter's death was a devastating blow much too hard to endure, and it seemed to be the cue she needed to take her final bow.