Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review: "Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds"

“Age. It’s horrible for all of us, but she falls from a greater height.”
-Carrie Fisher

I first watched Star Wars as a tween and almost instantly became a massive fan. I also have very distinct memories of watching “Singin’ in the Rain” while young, too (I was raised on a pretty steady diet of classic sitcoms, musicals, and sci-fi). So you can imagine the events of December hit me harder than most celebrity deaths do. I was pleased, however, that HBO made the decision to air “Bright Lights,” Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens’ documentary about Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, and some of their extended family, earlier than planned in their honor. I came away from the documentary wishing I had read some of Carrie Fisher’s work before she died (although I do plan to remedy that lack of reading at some point). She had some of the most insightful commentary on her family in the documentary, and I would imagine that same wit and perceptiveness is present in her written work as well.

Let’s start with some of the less heavy aspects of the documentary. One scene that really stood out to me was when Fisher goes to a convention to sign autographs for fans. As you know if you’re a long-time reader of MTVP (do any of you exist?), you know that Sarah and I are big time convention attendees. We’ve even been to Comic-con International in San Diego (which was an amazing experience). I do, however, at conventions, sometimes feel a tiny bit sorry for the celebrities. I especially felt this way at Wizard World Philadephia last year. I mean, the celebrities do get paid for their time, which is definitely deserved, but there’s something that feels a bit unseemly about it all. They’re human beings too, and they’re being inundated with people who want their photo and autograph because they like a character they played once. Princess Leia is such an iconic character that I imagine the fan attention was extremely intense for Fisher. She very aptly describes conventions as a “celebrity lap dance” except the money isn’t placed in underwear. After the convention, however, she does reflect on the fact that people love Leia and she (Carrie) is as close as they can get to her (Leia), and that people are nice. I imagine many of the celebrities who frequent the convention circuit have similarly conflicted feelings.

I was especially struck by the extremely close, pretty much co-dependent relationship between Reynolds and Fisher. They lived in separate houses in the same Beverly Hills compound, and they spent a great deal of time together. During the time of the documentary, Reynolds was not generally in great health, and it was clear how much this was weighing on Fisher. She was clearly very (understandably) upset at seeing her mother decline, and she was determined to do whatever she had to in order to give Reynolds a few last chances to perform. She also spoke very eloquently about how she needed her mother to be the same person she had always been and how she’s having a harder time preparing herself to let go of her mother than she had letting go of her own daughter. My own mother and I are very close, even though we live three hours apart. Fisher mentioning that she was her mother’s best friend more than her daughter also somewhat rings true to me. I can only hope, if we are blessed to live that long, that my mother and I can have the close, loving relationship of Reynolds and Fisher when we are in our 80’s/late 50s.

I also have come to really appreciate what a tireless advocate Fisher was for destigmatizing mental health. Fisher had bipolar disorder, and the documentary included footage of her having a manic episode on the Great Wall of China followed by an episode of depression severe enough that she couldn’t get out of bed. Fisher called the two sides to her moods “Rollicking Roy” and “Sentiment Pam,” one the meal and the other the check. I have a close relative with pretty severe (to the point of disability, even when on the right levels of medication) bipolar disorder, and I greatly appreciate Fisher providing more insight to the public about what the disorder is really like. Reynolds’ take on her daughter’s struggle rang especially true to me. She said in one scene, “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.” I could picture my grandmother saying the exact same thing. She’s often marveled, tearfully, at how my relative with bipolar disorder keeps going with the thoughts he has going through his head.

Going into watching “Bright Lights,” I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally ready to handle the film so soon after Fisher and Reynolds’ deaths. I ended up, however, being glad that I took the leap. I knew abstractly that Carrie Fisher had been a talented writer and advocate for mental health, but there was definitely value in seeing her wit and her struggles depicted on the screen. Like I mentioned, I really want to read some of her writing now. If the insight she displayed in this documentary is also present in her writing, a read will be very worthwhile. I’m not sure which I want to start with first – “The Princess Diarist” for all the behind the scenes Star Wars gossip, or one of her earlier works. Either way, I have no doubt after watching “Bright Lights” that I will be in for an interesting read.

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