Remarkable tenderness: film examines bond between Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher


Fishers mother dragged her on stage, fell out with her, lived next door to her and even offered to oversee her lose her virginity. Theirs was no ordinary mother/daughter relationship

There are few relationships so complex, tumultuous and unbreakable as that between a mother and daughter. But what about a mother who sweeps her child up in the world of showbiz, drags her on stage as a reluctant teenager and offers to oversee her losing her virginity, and give tips?

Such was the strange, often tortured but ultimately loving dynamic between Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, the Hollywood mother-daughter duo who passed away within a day of each other in December. A new HBO documentary, Bright Lights, which airs this week, followed the pair in 2014 and 2015 and reveals how they moved from a decade-long period of estrangement to become best friends and next-door neighbours, entirely interdependent on one another.

The documentary, made by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, was Fishers idea, as a way to preserve her mothers legacy and the remarkable relationship the pair had. It was originally due to air in March, but was brought forward following their deaths, which shook Bloom and Stevens who had grown incredibly close to both Fisher and Reynolds over the two years.

Yes, Carrie smoked up a storm and drank a hell of a lot of Coca Cola though its worth noting that she had stopped smoking in recent months but she was really on good form, said Bloom. She lived a hard life, she was unconventional but she was not expecting this at all she was coming with Christmas presents and looking forward to seeing friends of ours.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Photograph: Publicity image

The closeness of Fisher and Reynolds in the final years of their lives form the focal point of the documentary. They lived next door to each other in an expansive Beverly Hills compound, formerly owned by Bette Davis, and Fisher was a daily visitor to her mothers house, where they would chat, sing and eat together, accompanied by their dogs.

I am my mothers best friend, more than a daughter, says Fisher in the film. She wants me to be an extension of her wishes, an extension of her and to a great degree, sometimes more than I would ever want to, I know what my mother feels and wants.

It was an affection that Bloom had not anticipated. Their tenderness was most remarkable, she said. Even when they were making fun of each other or were incredibly frustrated with each other, there was always this underlying tenderness that no matter the circumstances of the day and how frustrating they were, that they would suffer anything for each other.

I expected them both to be incredible individually but I didnt expect them to be this lyrical duet.

The hurdles of dysfunction the pair overcame are also central to their story. Fishers struggles with drugs and her mental health, and the volatile relationship with her mother, were partly portrayed in her semi-autobiographical book and screenplay, Postcards From the Edge, but the documentary goes further in revealing how alienated Fisher felt as a child and teenager.

Family-wise we didnt grow up with each other, we grew up around each other, like trees … it was a prototype life, she said. We were always getting ready for a photoshoot.

She desperately craved the attention of her father, singer Eddie Fisher, who left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor when his children were very young, and as he admitted himself in later years was more focused on drugs than parenting.

Carrie Fisher (right) and Debbie Reynolds. Photograph: Publicity image

There was also enormous pressure on Fisher from Reynolds to follow in her Hollywood footsteps, despite a reluctance on Fishers part. Footage shows an uncomfortable Fisher, aged just 15, being dragged onstage during one of her mothers cabaret shows to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water, rolling her eyes as she finally walks off.

The biggest thing I did that broke my mothers heart was not do a nightclub act, Fisher said in the documentary. My mother would say: Do drugs, do whatever you need to do, but why dont you sing? That was my big rebellion.

Yet her mothers interference went even further, and Fisher reveals Reynolds even offered to help her daughter lose her virginity as a teenager. I swear to God my mother offered for me and this guy Albert to have sex, and she would supervise Albert and I having sex. Actual having sex, Fisher recalls to her childhood friend Griffin Dunne, the man who she chose to lose her virginity to after refusing her mothers offer.

Nonetheless, Bloom said Fisher bore no lasting resentment towards her mother. Carrie watched her mother her whole life, she said. And they always spoke. Its been overstated in the press that there was a decade where they didnt speak. But Carrie told me they did speak, they just spoke badly.

Fishers struggles with mental health began at 13, when Reynolds said her personality changed. In the later years of her life, she was very open about her experiences with bipolar disorder and the documentary reveals Fisher had names for both sides of her personality: Rollicking Roy, when she felt ecstatic mania, and Sediment Pam who stands on the shore and sobs, when she felt low.

The film is also revealing about the extent that Reynolds struggled to come to terms with her own ageing, refusing to give up the stage and only performing her final stage show in 2012, aged 82. While Fisher was an open book, Reynolds was reticent to let down her guard in front of the camera, and so was a difficult subject to document. She refused to be filmed looking anything other than pristine and did not let the cameras in when she was ill.

Debbie was difficult to document because you really want to get the private side of somebody and she wasnt willing to share that with us, said Bloom. She was trained that when the camera is on, you are on.

At all public appearances in her final years, Reynolds had appeared to be strong and lively, but the documentary reveals how much her health was suffering as she hit her 80s and how weak she had become.

Age is horrible for all of us but she [Reynolds] falls from a greater height, said Fisher. Its very frustrating for her because inside my mum is the same person and she does not want to retire.

The pair saw the documentary before they died. Fisher had a very emotional reaction to it, said Bloom, but after a week came round to it, while Reynolds simply chose not to engage with the parts that bothered her. In the end, they were both very supportive, added Bloom. The film mattered to them.

Bright Lights airs in the US on HBO at 8pm on 7 January, and in the UK on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on 10 January.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/jan/06/remarkable-tenderness-film-examines-bond-between-debbie-reynolds-and-carrie-fisher

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