Carrie Fisher’s life was always destined to be complicated. Her parents were Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, successful singer and Hollywood starlet respectively, and the revelation of her father’s affair with her mother’s friend, Elizabeth Taylor, four years after her birth moved the family even further into the heat of the media spotlight.
She’s been called a feminist – the kind of pistol-wielding heroine you’d want on your side if the proverbial hit the fan – a role model, a cultural icon. And while it’s true that the leading lady of the Star Wars franchise, Princess Leia Organa, brought Carrie Fisher to the world’s attention as a talented young actress (and the character tended to be the first thing that sprung to mind when her name was mentioned), there was a hell of a lot more to her than many people realise.
The role of the straight talking, bodacious Rebel Alliance leader was just another facet of the straight talking, bodacious mother, daughter, writer, script editor and natural born funny woman. ‘My father (Eddie Fisher) was a short Jewish man. My husband (Paul Simon) was a short Jewish man. Go figure.’ Her mischievous sense of humour was strong enough to persuade her co-star, Mark Hamill, to dress up in her white jumpsuit during filming for The Empire Strikes Back, ‘It was so tight, I looked like a Vegas lounge singer.’
Fisher’s premature death (a mere 60 years old) – from a heart attack aboard a flight to Los Angeles in December 2016 – came as a shock despite Fisher’s known long term liaisons with drugs and alcohol. The coroner’s report showed evidence of narcotics in her blood, though how much this contributed to her death still isn’t clear.
Drugs or no drugs, it’s no less tragic.
Fisher had fought a lifelong battle with addiction and mental illness but her inspiringly frank approach to the dark matters of the soul earned her the respect of fans and mental health advocates alike. ‘I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on.’ How often are we treated to such candour about a topic so laden with stigma? Try never.
Over the course of her life, Fisher was able to mine her periods of illness and addiction for precious material that would find its way into her work – from her relationship with her mother in Postcards From the Edge to her one woman show, Wishful Drinking. All of this demonstrative of a woman who found a way to laugh at herself and achieve a greater understanding of who she was not in spite of her flaws but because of them.
Casting Fisher as Leia was surely an inspired decision given the gravitas she brought to the role (not only that, she also rewrote some of Leia’s lines). But it could have been so different; yet another simpering, rabbit-in-the-headlights princess dropped in to provide our dashing heroes with someone to rescue.
Instead we get a 24 carat rebel with a BS-free take on how to save the universe. When Han Solo asks her what the hell she’s doing she replies, ‘Somebody has to save our skins!’ And what about that moment in Return of the Jedi? Under fire and with few options on the table, she goes boss and reveals a blaster. ‘I love you,’ Solo says. ‘I know,’ she replies, with that killer smile – a wry ‘gotcha’ comeback to Solo’s original ‘I know’ in The Empire Strikes Back.
Off screen, Fisher developed a writing career that spanned 20 years, winning her plaudits for her straightforward, witty exposition of fame, substance abuse and the movie industry. The author of four novels and three autobiographical works, for many, her contributions to the literary world are a more significant legacy than her screen accomplishments.
Her work as an acclaimed script doctor (tasked with tightening up characters, dialogue and jokes in a script) on such films as Hook, Sister Act, Last Action Hero, Coyote Ugly and Intolerable Cruelty provided a steady stream of work until she became jaded with the workings of the industry.
Add to this the kudos of her work on Family Guy – she was the voice of Peter’s boss, Angela, for 20 episodes – and you realise that Carrie Fisher was one talented lady.
In 2016 she was awarded the Outstanding Achievement in Cultural Humanism in recognition of her work in bringing attention to addiction and mental illness ‘with creativity and empathy’. In the same year she was invited to write a column in the Guardian entitled, ‘Advice From the Dark Side’ offering advice to readers’ problems by drawing on her own eventful life. The response was huge and praise for her humour, sensitivity and generosity of spirit continued in letters and emails after her death.
Carrie Fisher has been described as a genuine one off, and when you look at her incredibly varied life, it’s easy to see why.
Mark Hamill summed her up with particular poignancy, ‘She was able to make you feel like you were the most important thing in her life. I think that’s a really rare quality.’
Tribute by Kieran Fahy