Twenty-four hours was as long as Debbie Reynolds could bear to live without her daughter. The day after Carrie Fisher died, the 84 year-old Singin’ in the Rain star suffered a massive stroke.
“I miss her so much,” were her last words to her son, Todd. “I want to be with Carrie.”
I was lucky enough to be granted one of Reynolds’ last interviews, but anyone who had met either mother or daughter got a strong impression of how intense, unorthodox, fractious and humour-filled their relationship was.
Yes, they had more to contend with than most – celebrity, bankruptcy, four divorces between them and of course Fisher’s depression and substance abuse – but the linchpins were those of every mother-daughter relationship: love, frustration, blame, tolerance; and an underlying terror of ever having to endure a single day without the other.
Now, less than a fortnight after their deaths, HBO has brought forward the release of a new documentary, Bright Lights, revealing the full complexity of their relationship. Directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens and filmed last year, when the two were living in the same Beverley Hills compound – Reynolds struggling to keep to her one woman Las Vegas performance schedule and 59 year-old Fisher preparing to film Star Wars XIII – the documentary is a poignant and compelling portrait of one of the most eccentric mother and daughter duos in show business. Had somebody given these two a reality TV show a decade ago, the Kardashians would have sunk without a trace.
Back in 2014, impeccably turned out in a bouclé Chanel suit, Pucci scarf and an outlandish set of false lashes, Reynolds had spent an hour in the dressing room of her LA dance school, prior to the auction of her Hollywood memorabilia collection, showering me with fabulous old-style one-liners: “I should have married Burt Reynolds: I wouldn’t have had to change my name and we could have shared wigs,” “everyone I dated was gay – except Robert Wagner” and my personal favourite: “Liz [Taylor] had a different jewel for every stage of water retention.”
But paired up with her daughter on screen, she’s at the top of her game – the two of them engaging in a battle of the wits that will prompt the same clichéd thought in every viewer: they don’t make them like that anymore.
Much of the banter is bittersweet: two old Hollywood pros trying to showboat away life’s painful patches. But occasionally there’s a moment so raw it makes you flinch. As grainy footage of Fisher as a smiling toddler plays out, for example, the Star Wars and When Harry Met Sally star says in amazement: “But in the films I’m happy!”. “I made them because I knew that you were going to doubt it for so long,” murmurs Reynolds.
And yet even Fisher’s earliest reminiscences seem to be prescient of the depression she would suffer from her whole life. When her mother was at her peak, after a string of hits that included The Tender Trap opposite Frank Sinatra, Bundle of Joy – when she and co-star Eddie Fisher were Hollywood’s favourite newlyweds – Tammy and the Bachelor alongside Leslie Nielsen and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which Reynolds was nominated for an Oscar, Fisher remembers her and her brother being “trampled” by reporters trying to get a shot of their mother.
She was often overwhelmed, she says, by a feeling that Reynolds “belongs to them”. “Ours was a prototype life,” Fisher says later. “We were getting ready for a photo-shoot all the time.”
In the documentary, Reynolds tearily pinpoints the moment her daughter’s personality changed for good: “She was 13 – and since then it’s been a constant battle.” Two years later Fisher and her brother smoked marijuana for the first time. “And I stopped there,” says Todd, “but she moved on to other things.”
Those things were cocaine and painkillers; Fisher even admitted to using LSD during the filming of The Empire Strikes Back. Her yo-yoing weight was also a constant issue, although towards the end of her life she had got it under control. Her mother told me: “I’m so proud of Carrie. She’s down to 130lbs now and she just looks unreal.”
Pounding away on a treadmill in Bright Lights, Fisher asks her trainer: “I have a question: if you die when you’re fat will you be a fat ghost? Or do they go back to a more flattering time?”
They may have had the same dark and madcap humour, but for two women described by Todd as “an extension of one another” the pair certainly viewed the world differently. While Fisher – in her own words – “couldn’t handle it, and I didn’t even know what ‘it’ was”, Reynolds, the ditch digger’s daughter, was an inveterate optimist who sang in the rain even though her feet were bleeding and survived three unhappy marriages, bankruptcy and having her husband – Carrie’s father – stolen by her best friend, Elizabeth Taylor.
“The only way to make it through life is to fight,” she tells the camera in Bright Lights. “If you feel sorry for yourself you go down.” Her understanding of human foibles was such that, forgetting the earth-shattering moment she rang her husband’s hotel room to hear Taylor’s voice in the background asking: “Who is it, darling?”, she and the violet-eyed temptress became best friends again seven years on.
“Elizabeth wasn’t the kind of girl you should hate,” Reynolds told me – still fiercely defensive of her best friend, three years after Taylor’s death. “She truly was a loving and giving person. You just had to make sure you kept your husband in the garage if ever she came to visit.”
The way Reynolds described her husbands during our interview, they should probably have been kept in the garage regardless. After Eddie Fisher came Harry Karl who took her “to the depths of despair with his gambling and cheating”, and lastly, at 52, she married property developer Richard Hamlett, whom she described as “the devil.”
And while plucky Reynolds seems to have brushed herself off and moved on, the documentary makes it clear that her daughter didn’t find this so easy. Although her own father “let her down again and again” Fisher muses at one point: “But you know he turned out to be one of the better ones.”
It’s easy to see how, without a prominent father figure in her life, Fisher came to rely more and more on her mother. But old age leveled the playing field somewhat and by the time Bright Lights was filmed the two had become equally interdependent, with Fisher as saddened and incensed as every daughter by her mother’s increasing frailty.
“Everything in me demands that my mother be as she always was,” she deadpans in the documentary. “Even if that way is irritating. That’s the rule.” When Reynolds is subsequently forced to cancel a show, something she very rarely did, Fisher’s distress is obvious: “Age is horrible for all of us,” she explains, “but she falls from a greater height.”
This unsentimental view of old age was perhaps one of the few things mother and daughter didn’t bicker about. By the time I met Reynolds she was already largely confined to a mobility scooter (on which, to be fair, she could have given Lewis Hamilton a run for his money) and resentful of her increasing limitations.
“Old age is a wonderful time of life,” she sighed towards the end of our time together. “At least, that’s what everyone tells you. But it’s not true. What’s true is that your hips, knees and ankles gradually give up on you – everything is quite dreadful, really. And it was a terrible thing to have told us, because we believed it.”
And yet I have never met a woman delight in her own memories quite like Reynolds: professionally at least, she was utterly fulfilled. When I asked which decade of the nearly seven spent in show business she loved the most, it took a frown and a minute for her to reply.
“The 1940s were wonderful. Then again so were the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s…” Giving up, she broke out into a wide, unexpectedly girlish grin: “I like to remember the whole of my professional life as one wonderful party.”
Bright Lights will air on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 10 January at 9pm