Deaths of Fisher, Reynolds add poignancy to HBO’s ‘Bright Lights’

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds performing together in an archival family photo seen in “Bright Lights.”
Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds performing together in an archival family photo seen in “Bright Lights.” HBO

“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” wasn’t supposed to air until spring, but HBO moved up the documentary’s broadcast after its subjects died just a day apart.

How do you not consider that context while watching “Bright Lights,” which now premieres Saturday? Of course you can’t, but the 94-minute documentary, directed by Alex Bloom and Fisher Stevens, never needed the heartbreaking loss of Reynolds and Fisher to be compelling.

Fisher, 60, suffered a massive coronary on a flight from London to Los Angeles on Dec. 23 and died four days later. Reynolds, 84, was rushed to the hospital on Dec. 28 and died that day. The mother-daughter bond, so monumentally tested at various times during their 60 years together, was so strong, it made a kind of sense that their lives would end in the same week.

Although “Bright Lights” was filmed in 2015, it sometimes has an eerie valedictory quality — not just about Reynolds, but also about Fisher. Reynolds appears frail, even disoriented at times. At one point, she gamely shows up for an auction of part of her formidable collection of Hollywood memorabilia with half her face purple with bruises because she fell in the bathroom earlier that day.

The film is surprisingly revealing, given that its two subjects are playing for the audience. One is an octogenarian with a fixed smile, twinkling eyes and the voice and name of a woman who held her own at age 19, dancing and singing with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in the film “Singin’ in the Rain.”

The other woman underwent a noticeable personality change at age 13 and a few years later wrestled with worldwide fame after she played Princess Leia in the first “Star Wars” film. Fisher battled drugs, alcoholism and mental illness all her life, but found her way out of the thicket through treatment and therapy and by pulling few punches.

“You know what would be so cool?” she asks rhetorically. “To get to the end of my personality and, like, lay in the sun.”

Some of the things Fisher says seem rehearsed, as if she’s trying to convince us of something. But we soon realize that her way of accepting who she is is to avoid filtering herself. She says what she wants, what she feels. She readily admits she has two basic moods, and she’s named them: “Roy” is her happy state, while “Pam” is the name she applies to her other pole, depression.

It is a performance, in a way, although not the kind of performance to which Reynolds defaulted: the perfect star, courtesy of MGM. Smile for the camera, even when your husband has dumped you for your best friend, Elizabeth Taylor, and you’re besieged by the press everywhere you go, even when your next husband gambles away his money and yours.

“Performing is her life,” Fisher says. “It feeds her in a way family cannot. That’s why we’ve always been frustrating” for Reynolds.

“Everything in me demands that my mother be as she always was,” Fisher says as she weighs the reality of her mother’s increasing frailty. “Even if that’s irritating.”

Seeing how close they are in the film, even while bantering, it’s hard to imagine how they survived for the decade when Fisher refused to have any contact with her mother. We can only guess at what drove Fisher to shut her mother off, but we see why reconciliation was inevitable.

“Just do what your mother says. It’s easier,” Reynolds deadpans.

Neither woman ever opted for “easier.” It may have made their relationship challenging, but it also made it unbreakable, right up to its Hollywood ending.

TV review

“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” premieres at 8 p.m. Jan. 7 on HBO.