It was the final blow in the egregiously shitty year that was 2016: Actresses Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher died within a day of each other just after Christmas. Last Saturday, HBO presciently capitalized on the attention surrounding their passing by releasing Bright Lights, a very candid documentary about Reynolds’ and Fisher’s relationship, which illuminated just how incredibly badass both these women were.
Reynolds came to fame during the golden era of Hollywood. Groomed to be a star by Metro Goldwyn Meyers Studios, she landed her first major role alongside Gene Kelly in the 1952 classic Singin’ In the Rain, and the rest was history. The doc underscores just how important showbiz remained throughout her life, up until her final performances in 2015. Despite being in her eighties and barely able to walk, Reynolds remained a class act through and through, and still knew how to dazzle onstage; she looked very glam in a heavily beaded gold ensemble (with a come-hither slit up the leg) while accepting her 2015 SAG Lifetime Achievement Award.
Back in her 1950s prime, Reynolds was among the most high-profile actresses of her generation. When she married popular crooner Eddie Fisher, they became known as “America’s Favorite Couple,” and soon had two children including Carrie. Things went the way they often do in Hollywood, with Reynolds and Fisher divorcing a few years later (he infamously remarried Reynolds’ friend Elizabeth Taylor right after the split). Fisher offered a comedic breakdown of her Hollywood family tree—and totally unusual childhood—in her 2010 HBO documentary Wishful Drinking, a recording of a musical act she created about her life and growing up in industry.
But Debbie Reynolds was much more than Hollywood royalty. She also became Hollywood’s de facto costume conservationist, collecting scores of iconic props and fashion items from movies over the years. Reynolds started scooping up these cinematic treasures at an auction in 1970 after MGM was bought out and consolidated; she had brilliant foresight when nobody else at the time seemed to care about preserving those pieces of history. Some of her most prized possessions included: Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers and gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz; Charlie Chaplin’s signature bowler hat; Marilyn Monroe’s infamous white subway grate dress from The Seven Year Itch; and Audrey Hepburn’s white Royal Ascot dress from My Fair Lady. She continuously tried to start a museum with her collection, and after being denied official Academy help several times, decided to sell the bulk of her acquisitions at auction in 2011.
Growing up in Reynolds’ shadow clearly impacted Fisher in both negative and positive ways, but she remained her mother’s rock and best friend through the end (she bought a house next door to Reynolds’ compound decades ago). And while she never was quite as glamorous or famous as Reynolds, Fisher became a fashion icon in her own right. Sure, she was known for her girlish good looks and Princess Leia braids in Star Wars. But what made Fisher a badass bitch in our eyes was her DGAF attitude, and her courage in being unapologetically herself—whether it was owning her mental health problems (Bright Lights delves into her well-documented struggle with bipolar disorder), puffing on an e-cig during award shows, or taking her therapy dog Gary with her everywhere (including last year’s Cannes red carpet). She didn’t appear to have a stylist like most actresses, but possessed a distinct point of view that underscored her eccentric personality. In Bright Lights, we see her shuffling around in bejeweled sandals (she got the same pair for her mother) that could’ve been designer or something she found on Canal Street. She wore a Mary Katrantzou landscape dress to some of her fancier events, and regularly accessorized her outfits with tinted eyeglasses and an Issey Miyake Bao Bao bag that complemented her writerly aesthetic. She maintained her sense of humor in whatever she did, spouting out priceless soundbites like, “I am hoping to get the centerfold in Psychology Today,” or “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” And let's just pause to reflect on how Fisher had her ashes placed in a giant urn shaped like a Prozac pill. Now that's badass.