MATT ZOLLER SEITZ
I'm in exactly the right demographic to be devastated by Carrie Fisher. "Star Wars" (I refuse to call it "A New Hope") came out right before my third grade year and was the pop culture thread that connected the next six years of my life (through the release of "Return of the Jedi"). Princess Leia was, as a Mad Magazine "Jedi" parody once noted, the only girl in the first three films—well, not the only one, period, but the only one with a significant role to play. The "Star Wars" universe was a guy thing, for the most part. A boy thing. My wife used to talk about how frustrating it was playing "Star Wars" on the playground and being restricted to a single available part. The idea that she might want to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker or even a Stormtrooper was unthinkable to the boys she used to play with. Which is not to say that the series wasn't entertaining to a wide cross-section of viewers, or that girls and women didn't like "Star Wars" too, only that there were more points of fantasy identification available to boys and men. Leia was, as more than one review noted, "spunky," and she fired a laser gun and barked orders at people, and this was all fairly revolutionary at the level of big-budget entertainment, and Lucas deserves credit for that.
But Leia was always an afterthought to Luke, a proverbial Eve made from Adam's rib. You can see this by the thoughtless way it treats the aftermath of her homeworld's destruction by the Death Star (her entire planet has been destroyed, along with her parents, yet she has to go comfort Luke because he's sad about losing Ben). But even more so, you can see it in the way that the series forces Leia to adjust to whatever Lucas' evolving idea was of the Skywalker Family narrative. The first movie hints at an evolving love triangle between Luke, Leia and Han, and the sequel delivers on it (and sets up Leia and Han's romance by having Leia kiss Luke full on the mouth early in the movie). Then in "Jedi," she's revealed to be his sister. Nothing in their behavior or the film's point-of-view towards them suggests foreshadowing of any kind; this is pretty clearly something Lucas pulled out of his posterior during the writing and shooting phase, just as he did with "I am your father" in "The Empire Strikes Back," realizing that it would have more storytelling impact if he made Vader and Luke's father the same person. The scenes in "Return of the Jedi" where Fisher has to grapple with these inconsistencies, and try to make sense of them, and sell us on the ultimate outcome, rank among screen acting's greatest examples of how to make lemons from lemonade. It was only in "The Force Awakens" that she and Ford were allowed to play their characters as fully thought-out adult human beings, and even there, Fisher (and Ford, for once) took a back seat to the travails of younger characters. Her post-trauma embrace of Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a great image of screen sisterhood, with heroes of different generations comforting each other (essentially it's Leia hugging a character who would not exist without the example of Leia), but it still should've been a hug between Leia and Chewbacca, who had a decades-long shared history.
Fisher saved underwritten roles again and again throughout her post-"Star Wars" career. Even as a kid I remember being bugged by the way they turned her character in "The Blues Brothers" into a violent, avenging shrew, defined solely by her animosity toward John Belushi's Jake Blues (though this was a film deliberately stocked with cartoonish characters; it wouldn't have grated so much if there had been more women in the film). She rarely got to seize the spotlight in movies. Part of this was ambivalence toward stardom, and of course there were complicating personal factors, including mental illness and substance abuse. But it was also sexism. Straight-up. As Molly Haskell documented so plainly in From Reverence to Rape the artistic revolutions of 1970s movies (and beyond) freed up filmmakers to explore taboo subject matter and tell stories in adventurous ways. But paradoxically they also freed them to tell the stories of men and put women in the background or the margins—and a great many of them did, and actresses like Fisher, who were conventionally attractive but way too eccentric to fit the ingenue or bland leading lady template, had limited options.
Fisher was marvelous in supporting roles, notably "When Harry Met Sally" and "Hannah and her Sisters," but the closest we ever got to seeing a Carrie Fisher-type character starring in a feature film was in Mike Nichols' adaptation of Fisher's memoir "Postcards from the Edge," in which Fisher's alter ego Suzanne was played by Meryl Streep. Streep's incarnation of a Fisher heroine is one of Streep's most relaxed and lifelike performances. My favorite moment is when Suzanne is hanging off a fake ledge while filming an action scene in a cop movie and shrugs nonchalantly, a gesture that sums up Suzanne's attitude toward life and Fisher's attitude toward Hollywood, as well as the obvious artifice of the entire enterprise.
I enjoyed Carrie Fisher on screen ever since I witnessed her debut as a jailbait Hollywood brat coming on to Warren Beatty’s hairdresser in 1975’s “Shampoo.” But I most admired her as a wicked wordsmith who played script doctor to countless movies ranging from “Sister Act” to “Lethal Weapon 3,” and whose uncensored, off-the-cuff appearances promoting 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” were even more entertaining than her reprisal of Leia, now a general, in the saga’s seventh chapter.
I first interviewed Carrie Fisher in 1990 for USA TODAY. We talked at a PR office inside a Manhattan high-rise. She was 33 and coming into her own as a writer of both wit-filled screenplays and dryly funny semi-autobiographical novels. The Mike Nichols-directed “Postcards From the Edge,” which she adapted from her own literary debut, was opening in theaters that week. (Meryl Streep’s role as a recovering drug-addicted actress would lead to her ninth Oscar nomination.) And Fisher’s second volume, “Surrender the Pink,” had just come out and was rising on best-seller lists.
She seemed resigned to talking about herself and perhaps relieved not to have to dredge up her “Star Wars” past. A byproduct of the stormy ‘50s union between “Singin’ in the Rain” star Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher who would experience her own rocky marriage with singer/songwriter Paul Simon in the ‘80s, this space princess’ most effective weapon wasn’t a light saber but her cutting way with the English language that was being compared to the likes of Joan Didion, Dorothy Parker and Erica Jong.
In between chain-smoking Marlboro lights, Fisher corrected an anecdote that another journalist had gotten slightly wrong. “They wrote I took acid with my father. The truth is I took cocaine with him. There is a very big difference. It’s all strange, but it would be much stranger to take acid with your father. He woke me up one day when he was staying in my house in L.A. and he had hidden cocaine somewhere and couldn’t find it.”
They eventually found the stash in a rolled-up rug. “We are now chopping the cocaine together and not seeing that we are now on the outer limits. My housekeeper came in and we both covered it up like the principal of the school had come by.”
This turned into a discussion about why such a sharp, talented and out-going person such as herself would feel the need to ingest so much Percodan that she had to get her stomach pumped. Fisher suggested that she took after her Daddy. “My father is a child. He’s a creature like I am—I’m very much like him in my appetite.” What she refused to do was to blame her childhood, her parents or even Elizabeth Taylor—who infamously played a part in breaking up her happy home life. Instead, she said it was something inside of her that prevented her from enjoying the fruits of her labor. “I wait for the other shoe to drop—that’s my personality.”
As we spoke, I remember beginning to sense that maybe “Postcards” weren’t the only things on edge. When I began a sentence with, “I know you…,” she stopped me cold and sternly said, “You don’t know me.” She then somewhat relaxed when I asked if she would ever write a script for herself. Fisher wryly laughed and said, “A vehicle for myself … a Cabriolet?”
It would take about a decade more before Fisher would fully realize the source for her inner turmoil—bipolar disorder. It turned out that her father was an undiagnosed manic-depressive as well. Unlike him, she would be able to mostly control her illness with medication and, for a period, electroconvulsive therapy. Much like Patty Duke, who died earlier this year, she used drugs as a kind of self-medication before she fully understood the source of her mental instability.
The second time I spoke to Fisher was on the phone in 2008. She enjoyed an ice cream cone while discussing being nominated for a guest spot on “30 Rock” as a drunken, pill-addicted TV writer who was an idol of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. She especially enjoyed bantering with Alec Baldwin. “I loved when he yelled, ‘Don’t ever make me talk to a woman that old again.’”
She couldn’t attend the ceremony since she was touring in her one-woman stage show, “Wishful Drinking,” which was chockful of juicy anecdotes based on her life. She claimed to never have attended an awards ceremony, but she had written for them. “That’s the best way to go. As a writer.” While she didn’t act as much as she once did, she enjoyed doing her live show and looked forward to its Broadway run. She knew her fans: “My crowd is gay, the mentally ill and seniors.”
I also got to speak to Fisher’s mother after her second memoir, “Unsinkable,” came out in 2013. A proud Reynolds declared her daughter “the poster girl for mental health” when discussing a recent bipolar episode during a performance on a cruise ship that was caught on video where Fisher seemed incoherent.
Reynolds was anything but concerned. “I would have loved to have seen the whole show. There were a couple things on Twitter, and it was funny as hell.” That included Fisher taking her beloved dog, Gary, onstage. When he pooped, she simply picked him up and made up a song about it.
Forget Stormtroopers. THAT is a trouper.
Aside from her sharp, knowing, and yes, sometimes very sexy presence in films, Fisher was an indefatigable crusader for The Right Thing. She was a reliable presence at the luncheon that my 1990s-2000s employer Premiere magazine threw every year in Los Angeles to commemorate its Women In Hollywood issue. Everyone who accepted an award at that event knew that if you wanted a kick-ass speech to deliver when it was time to hit the dais, run it past Carrie Fisher first. She was a brilliant, sharp, feisty presence at those and other events, good-humored but no-nonsense, and always armed with a first-rate bullshit detector. And she carried the message that Hollywood needed more women, and more women in power, wherever she went.
Carrie Fisher didn’t put up with your shit. You could be Han Solo, a journalist, or just someone she ran into that day, she wasn’t going to put up with your shit. From a very young age, Fisher displayed such overwhelming confidence that it made her battles with mental illness and addiction all the more powerful because if these things could come for Carrie Fisher, of course they could come for you. And if she could refuse to put up with their shit too, so could you. And that’s the amazing legacy of Carrie Fisher that will outlive all of us. Without question, people will be watching “Star Wars” long after we’re dead and gone. They’ll be fascinated by Princess Leia, and some of them will dig deeper into the story of the woman who played her. For those future viewers dealing with addiction or bipolar disorder or just going through a rough patch in their life, the story of Carrie Fisher will inspire them. In other words, she won’t be putting up with your shit forever.
I can’t do it. I have spent the last couple of hours trying to write a few words about the passing of Carrie Fisher and what she meant to so many people, especially those of my generation who were around to see “Star Wars” during its initial theatrical run, and I am at a loss as to what to do. Oh, there is no lack of things to write about, even if one chose to put everything related to her iconic performance as Princess Leia to the side. There is her career as a scene-stealing actress of the highest order in projects ranging from her big screen debut opposite Warren Beatty in “Shampoo” to her brief turn as a mysterious woman stalking John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in “The Blues Brothers” to her hilarious Emmy-nominated guest appearance in one of the funniest episodes of “30 Rock” ever made. There is her equally impressive credentials as a writer that began with her best-selling semi-autobiographical 1987 novel “Postcards from the Edge” and would encompass several more books (including the current best-selling memoir “The Princess Diarist”), the screenplay for the 1990 screen adaptation of “Postcards from the Edge” and a run as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand script doctors. Going from the professional to the personal, I could write about how she struggled for years with problems involving substance abuse and what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder in a straightforward and honest manner laced with a biting wit that helped to put a human face on such ailments that helped to show others with similar issues that they were not alone. The problem, though, is that in order to properly pay tribute to her life and work, both on and off the screen, and what it meant to so many people, one really needs to be just as smart, funny, bracingly honest and fiercely outspoken as she was and I cannot readily think of anyone who is even close to being her equal in any of those particular areas. Even considering the annus horribilis that 2016 has proven to be in every imaginable aspect, this is a loss that is just too stupefying to be believed.
When you’re a boy you don’t know the difference between a strong man and a strong woman. You just know strength, bravery and people you feel safe around. "Star Wars" introduced generations to many such people and over the course of three films we saw a woman go from Princess to General. She was defiant when we first met her and just became stronger with each film, even if she was in danger of being pigeonholed as the girlfriend or sex object. Carrie Fisher will always strike a deep chord with not just my generation but the ones that followed from my sisters down to their daughters who met their first true heroine in the character that Fisher immortalized. She may always be introduced as Princess Leia but as we all grow up to discover what an impact she had for those with addiction and mental health issues, let alone what a brilliant, no-B.S. writer she was, Carrie Fisher will be remembered for more than just hair buns or a gold bikini. She was an inspiration that will be with us. Always.
She didn't just play a Rebel Princess. She embodied what it is to be a Rebel Princess. She came from Hollywood royalty and acted against everything a woman in the industry should be. She was like our generation's Dorothy Parker who could hold her own and take anyone down in any vicious circle. A tough, hilarious, quick-witted and inspirational writer who could probably size you up better than you could yourself. She was the first grown woman I remember having a crush on when I was a kid. I don't think that crush ever ceased. Not just "Star Wars," but "The Blues Brothers," "The 'Burbs," "When Harry Met Sally," 'Soapdish" as well as an extraordinary screenplay for her autobiographical "Postcards From the Edge." And so much more. She checked out of this particular Heartbreak Hotel all too soon and we will all miss her dearly. The Force is with her and she is one with the Force.
“Carrie Fisher has died,” I said to Rosemary, my wife, after seeing the news flash across my smartphone’s tiny screen. There was no way to lessen the blow. Rosie started crying like her best friend had just died. Tears welled up in my eyes as well. We knew this was a possibility when we first heard the news that Fisher had suffered a heart attack during a flight from London to Los Angeles on December 23, but we still held out hope. Hope not just that she’d survive, but emerge as the same frank and feisty performer that we saw during her one-woman show, “Wishful Drinking” at the Berkeley Rep in 2008. “Do it!,” she urged during that performance, while talking about undergoing electroshock therapy. “Do it,” she said, lifting the stigma from the procedure for those who needed it, and those that knew somebody who did.
In a year filled with both hope and dread, dread has won out again, just like it did in November, just like it has done since January when David Bowie, the Thin White Duke, left our mortal realm. Prince joined him a short time later on April 21. (I was surprised checking these dates because it now seems like Prince and Bowie left us within a week of each other.) And now 2016 has taken our Princess Leia away. All three of these pop culture royals challenged gender norms, and taught us that there’s no one way to be either a man or a woman.
As Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Carrie Fisher made it okay for Rosie to like science fiction at a time when society screamed that such things were “for boys.” Just as Princess Leia rescued her would-be rescuers in the first three “Star Wars” movies, she had saved us as well. She freed us, and probably so many others, from a life of denying who we really are. Rosie and I can spend our lives arguing the merits of “Star Trek” vs. “Star Wars” with each other, instead of me having to talk sports with the boys in one room, and her hashing out crafts and cooking with the wives in the other. Fisher showed us the way just like Leia blasting that hole to the trash compactor and saving Han and Luke’s skins in “Star Wars.” I really can’t thank her enough for that.
Sometimes we discover these things when it is too late to say "thank you." I realized that, through her evolutions and personality, in the 1980s she was the tough big sister. In the 1990s, she was the veteran, who gave us (me) permission to be our complicated, joyous, cynical, hopeful selves. That seems to be the gift from so many who left us this year, from Bowie to Ali to Prince to Fisher: they had the capability to define themselves on their terms.
Carrie Fisher was royalty. Not simply because of her most iconic role in “Star Wars” as Princess Leia, but due to the fact that she was born the daughter of Hollywood royalty in Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Despite the privilege her lineage afforded her, Carrie Fisher boldly blazed her own path in life as an actress, writer, and all around inspiration with a delicate balance of beauty and wit.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the superficial elements of Carrie Fisher, especially as Princess Leia—the alluring beauty, the flowing virginal white gown, and the unique hairstyle that became iconic on its own. Whether talking about Fisher or Leia, there was defiance that lie beneath the surface beauty. Leia wasn’t a damsel in distress and Fisher never allowed herself to be viewed as such in her frank honesty about her struggles with addiction and mental illness. When facing down her Imperial captors, Leia wasn’t one to hold her tongue for fear of retribution, a characteristic Fisher brought with her everywhere when away from the silver screen. More importantly, Carrie Fisher never allowed herself to become typecast, reinventing herself over the years and becoming one of the most respected script doctors in Hollywood, anonymously saving countless films from the story issues before they ever reached the screen.
Carrie Fisher was many different things to many different people. For me, she was one of my first babysitters. No, she didn’t come by my house and watch me personally. When my father would take me to my grandparent’s house, they would plop me on the couch and load up the VCR with tapes of the “Star Wars” trilogy. For six hours, the family would be free to engage in gossip and indulge in Irish whiskey free from the burden of interruption as I’d be rapt within that galaxy far, far away.
As I got older, Carrie Fisher would be my first movie crush. No, it had nothing to do with the Slave Leia outfit from “Return of the Jedi.” It was instead her brief role as the jilted ex-lover of Jake Blues in “The Blues Brothers.” Within that role you can find the balance that defined Carrie Fisher, one of stunning beauty and rough edges that made her one of the great cultural icons of our time. Yeah, she was beautiful, but she could also kick your ass.
Being born beautiful and a part of royalty doesn’t automatically make one great. Carrie Fisher understood that to a level that is incredibly rare for those born into affluence. She worked hard and defied expectations throughout her life, constantly displaying a personality that wasn’t going to be defined by a single role or her lineage. Fisher was one of a kind, brutally honest and funny in both her beauty and vulnerability. That’s just one of many reasons that she was one of the greats.
Like many lifelong “Star Wars” fans, I had always looked up to Carrie Fisher as an icon who exuded strength and resilience. Yet it wasn’t until I stumbled upon footage of her speech at George Lucas’s’ AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony in 2005 that I realized just how funny she was. “Amongst your many possessions, you own my likeness, lo all these years so that every time I look in the mirror, I have to send you a check for a couple of bucks,” Fisher quipped, bringing down the house with her verbal brilliance and killer timing. This affectionate roast later served as material for her excellent 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking, and her subsequent one-woman show of the same name, which I was incredibly fortunate to catch in Chicago. Not only was Fisher one of the funniest people in show business, she was also one of the most invigoratingly honest, with her candid accounts of overcoming the sort of obstacles that would send most Hollywood careers clear off the rails. When she reappeared as Princess Leia in last year’s “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens” (“Episode Seven—ty-two,” Fisher quipped) to boisterous applause from the audience on opening day, it was impossible not to get a little misty-eyed.
Yet that turned out to be a mere primer for the rich emotional journey that is “Bright Lights,” Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom’s marvelous vérité documentary about Fisher and her equally indomitable mother, Debbie Reynolds, who achieved stardom around the same age her daughter did, in another landmark picture, “Singin’ in the Rain.” “Carrie asked us to do it because she felt her mom was going to retire soon, and Debbie got more and more ill as we were shooting,” Stevens told me during our interview in Toronto. Now in light of Fisher’s passing, the film will gain a tremendous level of poignancy when it premieres on HBO next year. What the film is a testament to, above all, is Fisher’s tireless devotion to her mother, as well as her bracing wit which she utilized to describe everything from the “celebrity lap dances” of fan conventions to her struggles with manic depression (“one mood is the meal, the other is the check”). Thank you, Carrie, for teaching us how to overcome life’s struggles while laughing in the process.
Carrie Fisher was a talented actress, a writer, a script doctor, a gifted comedian, a woman who spoke against Hollywood's constant objectification of women's bodies and one of the first major public figures to frankly discuss their own mental illness, helping to diminish the oppressing taboo that surrounds anyone who’s afflicted with a psychiatric condition. Yes, it's unavoidable that most obituaries mention Princess Leia prominently, but Fisher was much, much more than those hair buns and a golden bikini. What made Leia unforgettable was not her beauty, but the contrast between her juvenile looks and her strength as a woman. Leia was strong, clever and independent—the kind of person who would not suffer fools. And that was Fisher's main contribution to the role: the same determination she showed in every aspect of her amazing life. She died too young and, still, she accomplished so much. The Force was not "with" her. SHE was the Force herself.
Preparing for the D23 Disney fan expo in 2017, I'm designing my own version of the Star Wars Princess Leia—not the slave Leia of many geek fantasies, but the gutsy gal who smirked, "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"
Princess Leia is now part of the progressive line of Disney Princesses, but in 1977, when the first "Star Wars" movie came out, Disney had three princesses: Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora. All were lithe, graceful women with modest ways and sweet voices.
Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia strode down the long corridors, growled with a gravelly voice and shot smart remarks at both the good guys ("You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought") and the bad guys ("Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognize your foul stench when I was brought on board"). She was a different kind of princess, one that didn't leap out of Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" or the Disney classic era melodious damsels in distress. Never mind that questionable fashion choice of cinnamon bun hair, she wasn't fettered by 1950s era fairytale fantasies. She wasn't part of the Cinderella Complex—a woman waiting for a man to save her.
"Star Wars" would join Disney until 2012. By then Disney had added Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Rapunzel and Merida, but Princess Leia's journey was different—bolder and bigger, without moments of self-doubt.
Finding her own path past the legacy of both her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds; her father, singer Eddie Fisher (not to mention her equally famous step-moms), Carrie Fisher schooled princesses everywhere how to reign with style and deal with setbacks and mistakes ("I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo"). She dealt her mental illness and self-medication and her "Star Wars" legacy that ranged from Pez dispenser to sex doll with self-deprecating humor that should be a lesson to us all. You don't have to be forever skinny or forever young with the aid of surgery ("When you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't"). In real life, Fisher was even wittier than the princess that she played because as she commented once, "I don't want my life to imitate art, I want my life to be art." Let's celebrate the art that she left and go forth to make artful lives in her honor.
For a certain generation of women, the princesses you were introduced to were in fairy tale books and Disney movies. They were docile and dewy-eyed, made from pure spun sugar without a care in the world or a thought in their head. And they were there to be rescued and claimed for a prize. The story was about them only so much as the hero would prove his mettle rescuing them, or they would fulfill their destiny by finding a suitable husband.
So, it’s not saying too much to call Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia a revelation. Here was a princess whose first remark to a would-be rescuer is a disparaging crack about his height. She rolls her eyes at the two men who clearly have no plan for getting her safely off the floating prison she’s being held on, so she grabs a gun and starts blasting at the guards who are attacking them herself. She’s brassy, she’s quick to make clear she’s in charge and she doesn’t much care what anyone, hero or villain, thinks of her.
That same combativeness defined Fisher’s life. Her ambivalence over her iconic role, her struggles with addiction and mental illness. And that same refusal to be defeated by them. To go on to speak candidly, and often hilariously, about both. It was a rare spirit that could make you laugh while talking about some of the most mortifying moments of their life. But she had that gift, seen in spades in “Wishful Drinking” the recording of her successful stage show.
And in a year defined by toxic masculinity and watching an older woman repeatedly humiliated by her opponent, by the press, and by people nominally on her side, there was something radical in seeing Carrie Fisher being an unapologetic older woman in public. Who gleefully gave the bird for photos, who would play with her dog on the red carpet at premieres and again did not care if you thought she didn’t act or look like you thought she should. Who had open contempt for the idea she should somehow apologize for no longer looking like she did when she was twenty. Who was absolutely loved by her costars and fans alike.
And whose legacy is felt clearly in the “Star Wars” revival currently going on. Rey from “The Force Awakens” and Jyn from “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” would not exist without Princess Leia. Their feistiness, their refusal to accept the roles society would have them play, their determination to be heroes in their own stories is directly traceable to Fisher’s impeccably tart “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” in the 1977 original. It’s heartening to see a generation of girls who will grow up to think it normal girls can be the hero of a grand space adventure. But for those who often had to imagine themselves into the stories we loved the loss of Carrie Fisher cuts deeply. She was the first time we saw ourselves in the stories we longed to be a part of. It was an incredible gift, and one I hope to repay someday in the stories I tell. But for now, I just miss her. I miss her wit and her energy, and I wish I could have told her “thank you” in person.
She was the queen that every broken, beaten, hurt, depressive needed to look to. Proof that you could get tossed around in life's stormy seas, beset by serpents and disease, and still make it to shore with the will to live gracefully on your own terms.
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