On October 10, 2016, Carrie Fisher tap-danced across the stage at the New York Film Festival. In town for a glitzy screening of a candid new documentary about her relationship with her similarly iconic mother — the actress, singer, indomitable show-woman, and amateur Hollywood historian Debbie Reynolds — Fisher was in fine form, expressing the acidic sense of humor that has always separated her from Princess Leia, displaying that unique flair for running head-first into all of life’s hurdles and using them as kindling for her brilliant fire.
During the Q&A after the movie — visible to all in the clip below — Carrie’s brother called Reynolds and held his cell phone up to the mic so that she could sing to the crowd from her sick bed in California. The 84-year-old voice was coarse, but still quivered with a natural beauty. Co-director Fisher Stevens (who shares credit with Alexis Bloom) sat back in his seat and shook his head, seemingly amazed at how these women could surprise him even after he’d spent so much time in their world. Even Gary seemed to be enjoying himself: Carrie’s beloved French bulldog was plopped up on a chair of his own and staring fondly at his person, his tongue drooping off to one side as usual. It was an exuberant day at Lincoln Center; it didn’t matter that the film was a decidedly bittersweet portrait of time and mortality. People were there for a celebration.
On December 23, Fisher suffered a medical emergency aboard a transatlantic flight; she died two days later. Never one to be upstaged, Reynolds followed suit the next day.
Needless to say, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” will be received very differently when it premieres on HBO this weekend. On the festival circuit, it was presented as a celebration — when it finally bows to a broader audience, it will be broadcast as a eulogy, and it’s through the pallid color of this context that the vast majority of Stevens’ viewership will see his documentary for the first time, the carefully shaped narrative filtered through the black veil of its morbid real life postscript. Not a single frame of footage has been altered since both of its subjects left the stage, but it would be equally accurate to say that all of them have.
Then again, films don’t change; it’s the lens through which we watch them that is constantly being adjusted. Watching “Bright Lights” again in the wake of what’s happened, that lens has been adjusted so violently and in such short order that one can almost feel the change in perspective on a physical level — it’s like seeing the movie once from the front row, and then again from the standing room in the back. It’s a jarring experience, and yet, surprisingly, not an unpleasant one. On the contrary, the sudden difference makes this story seem less tragic.
A mordantly funny movie that’s filled with amusing details (like the fact that Fisher kept a life-sized Princess Leia sex doll in the attic of her house, or that longtime friend Griffin Dunne refers to her as “fuck face”), “Bright Lights” was always a human tragedy at heart, and one made all the more harrowing for how it contrasts the fame of its subjects with the banality of their suffering. Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds were a lot like the rest of us, only more so. We all grapple with getting older, but they were stalked by the inescapable iconography of their youths — we try to live forever, but they were forced to contend with immortality. As Fisher says of her mother: “Age is horrible for everyone, but she falls from a greater height.” It makes you wonder if she hoped that her own daughter, absent from the documentary, might one day say the same about her.
In my review of the film, which was published in tandem with the movie’s Cannes debut last May, I wrote that “Reynolds is haunted by her own image, a victim of the same uniquely filmic phenomenon that will eventually allow her to survive her own death.”A few months later, the ghoulish, unconvincing last shot of “Rogue One” would prove just how literally that sentiment applied to Fisher as well (this just a year after “The Force Awakens” allowed Princess Leia to grow up, unfreezing her from the Carbonite of her legacy).
Back then, before the latest installment of Star Wars suggested that these women were right to live in the demoralized darkness of the shadows they cast when they were kids, it was heartbreaking to see Fisher — always making the best of things — still wrestle with 60 when her sex doll stayed forever young like some reverse motion picture of Dorian Gray. It was heartbreaking to watch Reynolds, so dedicated to the preservation of old Hollywood, drop Dorothy’s ruby red slipper at the end of a long day, and hide from the cameras when she was feeling too ill to live up to her legend. They didn’t seem lonely, as the drenched male lead of “Singin’ in the Rain” once insisted that movie stars get along with all their glory, but they seemed terribly dislocated from themselves, preserved in the perfection of celluloid and growing further from that static self-image with every passing day.
Watching “Bright Lights” now, in the immediate aftermath of Fisher and Reynolds’ recent deaths, the film seemed markedly different; lighter, somehow. While revisiting the film deepens the sadness of their loss, it also encourages a sense of happiness for their lives. For one thing, Reynolds’ futile quest to singlehandedly preserve the props and costumes of classic cinema feels less quixotic now that she has begun to fade into the same past that she fought to protect. Likewise, Fisher’s sense of humor only seems more earned, her victories more triumphant, and her rebirth as General Organa more righteous. Maybe that’s because the news of her passing is so fresh, or maybe it’s because we now know that she remained so defiant until the end.
And this, I have to make clear, was not the end she appeared to have in mind. While Fisher was prone to saying things like “It would be cool to get to the end of my personality and just lay in the sun; I’m sick of myself,” she was never one to throw in the towel. She always punched back. Princess Leia may have followed her “like a vague smell,” but the stink wasn’t so bad that she would rather die than keep dealing with it. Immortality is a miserable consolation prize for dying too young.
The film’s best scene is also the one that plays most differently now. Sixty years old and still spinning the figurative hamster wheel that George Lucas built for her so many years ago, Fisher is strapped to an elliptical machine in the London apartment where she’s preparing to shoot “The Force Awakens.” A joke pops into her head, which means that it has to come out of her mouth. So, not quite talking to her trainer but also not quite speaking to the camera, she drops a rhetorical question into the void: “If you die when you’re fat, are you a fat ghost, or do they go back to a more flattering time?”
Fisher, like her mother, measured herself by the distance she felt from the petrified height of her stardom, watching helplessly as that rift grew with each passing day and public appearance. She lived her life with an eye on two different clocks, one of which stopped ticking the time when she was young. For these Hollywood icons, the movies were how they located themselves. But now, watching “Bright Lights” in the wake of their deaths, it’s easier to appreciate how the movies were also how they found each other.
Once, this seemed like a movie about the distance that Fisher and Reynolds felt from themselves; now it seems like a movie about the hard-won closeness they felt to each other. These were women who were preserved in amber on screen, and led vivid, full, wildly unpredictable lives off of it. They could never live up to the unchanging perfection of what people saw on screen, but that shared experience allowed them to love the wild imperfections they saw in each other. While death obviously looms over “Bright Lights” more closely than it did before, it no longer plays like a film that’s defined by it.
On screen, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds were larger than life. Off screen, they were infinite. Now that they’re gone, “Bright Lights” makes that difference clear: These women were iconic for the roles they played, but they gave each other the roles of a lifetime.
“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” airs on Saturday, January 7th, at 8pm.