Sunday, January 15, 2017

'Bright Lights' Brings Back Personal Memories

At home with Debbie and daughter Carrie, with their dogs.
Bright Lights, the HBO documentary that provided a fitting farewell to showbiz mother/daughter icons Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, has received much comment and acclaim. As a fan of both stars, I was touched by this Hollywood “home movie.” And as a baby boomer who has watched aging family members and friends dim and fade away, watching Bright Lights brought back a lot of personal memories.

This photo of Debbie, with those arched, penciled eyebrows and twinkle
in her eye, reminds me of my Grandma Leone so much.
Watching Debbie try to put on her best face, figuratively and literally, reminded me of my maternal grandmother Leone, who wanted to be independent and dignified to the end. Debbie’s “up” attitude, in spite of some lousy breaks in life—especially with men—recalled my upbeat pal, Alice Crosby. Watching Reynolds’ determination to do what she always did, even if required reinforcement from her children, made me think of my longtime neighbor, Claire Nixon. And the steel beneath Debbie’s El Paso magnolia made me think of my late partner’s mom, Sue Johnson. Like Debbie, fellow Texan Emma Sue could be the life of the party, but if she felt her wishes being ignored, look out! Aging was frustrating for all of these great women, though Claire did it best, in my opinion. Yet, as Bette Davis once warned, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” That fine line between keeping on and letting go is a tough call and hard on everybody involved.

Grandma Leone enjoying her middle years, makeup intact!
The scene where Debbie holds up a dry erase board and cheerily says she put notes if she doesn’t want visitors, made me laugh. My Grandma Leone was one of the most pleasant—yet private—people I have ever met. She preferred that you call first, no dropping in, please! And like Debbie refusing to be photographed without her platinum wig, Grandma Leone always “put her face on” before going to town, even if it was for a doctor’s appointment.

Debbie’s insisting on taking a few last gigs despite assuring her kids she was retired made me think of my buddy Claire. The climactic scene is Debbie’s fraught journey to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors’ Guild. Debbie did it her way, but Reynolds wrangled her kids in to pull it off. 
My pal Claire Nixon's 90th birthday finale!
My old neighbor Claire Nixon, the Katharine Hepburn of Traverse City, had cancer the last two years of her life. Claire was certain that her 89th birthday would be her last, so she threw not one, but two parties! True diva style, Claire had a big one for all her many pals and acquaintances, and a smaller one for close friends and family. Here’s the kicker: Claire hung in so well, that she lived to have a 90th birthday bash! Claire, a control freak in the best sense of the word, did much of the cooking for these parties, as always—but enlisted her family to ensure everything was in order and on schedule.

Sue Johnson, who had as much personality and energy as fellow Texan Debbie!
And the scenes depicting Debbie’s frustration with her aging body reminded me of my late partner Jigger’s mother so much. Like Debbie, Sue Johnson was a bundle of energy most of her life and would charge into projects like her huge flower gardens and elaborate family gatherings like a Texas tornado. But after her stroke, Sue was often exasperated that her now-diminished body would not cooperate with her still-energetic mind. For Sue to delegate holiday meal tasks or down-size yard projects required tact and patience on both sides—with results that could be hilarious or sometimes heartbreaking.

My pal Alice Crosby, back when she was as cute as Debbie!
The segment where Debbie is finally forced to auction off the massive memorabilia that she collected for decades gets a dramatic boost—her kids find out she took a tumble in the bathroom the night before. The next scene is Debbie, matter-of-factly talking about the purple bruises on her face. This brought back memories of when my buddy Alice started taking falls in her home. I remember walking through her front door with dread many times, not knowing what to expect.

One last hurrah for Debbie, honored at the Screen Actors' Guild Awards.
When Grandma Leone, Alice, Claire, and Sue passed, I was beyond sad, knowing each time that an era had passed. In fact, Alice and Sue died a week a part in February of 2004—that was the most depressing Michigan winter ever, for me. While I’m relieved for their sakes the way Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds passed, it still makes me melancholy to know these two life forces are gone. Yet I know, after time passes, I’ll think of them the same way that I think of these four great women in my life. Not as ill or aged, but as eternal bright lights.


  1. Thank you for sharing your private world with us, whilst drawing on Debbie and Carrie as inspiration.
    I enjoyed this very much.

    1. Thank you, I try to get some personal aspect in my movie writing when I can! Rick

  2. Loved this post, Rick, it was beautiful how you were reminded of your own personal experience with loss and those important women in your life. I also was very moved and delighted by Bright Lights. Shades of Grey Gardens in there...but it was all about love and the whole family having their priorities is everything. Beautifully done!

  3. Thanks! Now, if you want to read about two women who didn't agree much about ANYTHING, read my latest post on Joan and Bette! Rick