Cannes Classics is an easy-to-overlook Cannes Film Festival program that consists largely of old movies, this year including “Howard’s End,” “One-Eyed Jacks” and Godard’s “Masculin Feminin.” But new documentaries about film are also included in Cannes Classics, and one of the most intriguing this year is the upcoming HBO Documentary Films production “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.”
Frank, funny and so revealing that it becomes uncomfortable at times, the film began when Fisher enlisted her friend, actor and documentary director Fisher Stevens, to chronicle the final performances in Reynolds’ nightclub act. Stevens and his wife Alexis Bloom followed the two women, and what emerged was a portrait enlivened by Fisher’s sharp wit and brutal honesty, and by Reynolds’ determination to keep going in the face of declining health.
“My mother was always camera ready,” Fisher told TheWrap of her 84-year-old mother at a Cannes reception for the film on Saturday. “I read one review that said, ‘Both women look tired,’ and I thought, maybe I should have paid more attention to putting my makeup on before the cameras came around.”
But it’s not Fisher’s lack of vanity that makes “Bright Lights” such a treat – it’s the film’s looks inside the life of one woman who still walks into a room like she’s coming onstage, and another who feels no qualms about lying on a bed with her old pal Griffin Dunne talking about how she lost her virginity to him as a teenager. (Believe it or not, she’d turned down her mother’s offer to bring in an older friend and personally walk Carrie through the process.)
In between the priceless and hugely entertaining glimpses of these lives, though, there’s a sadness to the movie, both in watching the woman who starred in and seemed to embody “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” getting feebler, and in seeing Fisher’s ongoing struggles with manic depression.
The last half hour of the movie, which will air on HBO in early 2017, takes a turn and gets even more troubling: Fisher has a manic episode on camera, while Reynolds becomes increasingly frail with the approach of the Screen Actors Guild Awards, for which she seems ill-equipped to even show up to accept a Life Achievement Award.
“We didn’t know it was going to get that dark,” admitted Fisher at the reception. “That’s the beauty of documentary filmmaking, that you don’t know where your movie is going. But there were times when we had to turn off the cameras.”
He and Bloom kept those cameras on often enough, though, to make “Bright Lights” a warm, touching salute to a remarkable pair of women and the people around them (including Fisher’s brother Todd). It all comes to a lovely conclusion when the family sits on the couch reciting the lyrics to “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
No business, indeed.
“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” can be seen on HBO Saturday, Jan. 7 2017 at 8 p.m. ET/PT