Friday, December 30, 2016
Carrie Fisher passed away Tuesday at the age of 60, meaning her mother, Debbie Reynolds, whose own frail health Fisher talked about this year, as she did most everything, with great candor, out-lived her daughter, and only, in perhaps the most gut-wrenching twist yet of this gut-wrenching year, by a day, which makes this all that much more worse. And when Fisher passed, rather than leading with her drowning in the moonlight, strangled by her own bra, as was her long standing wish, she was, for the most part, deemed in the obits as Princess Leia. Fisher, of course, foresaw this as far back as 1980 in advance of the release of “The Empire Strikes Back”, telling Rolling Stone’s Timothy White that when she and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford “kick off, we will be the princess and Luke and Han.” White inevitably asked how that made Fisher feel, causing, as White noted, all the color to drain from Fisher’s face. She replied: “Helpless.”
As a kid, I sought to memorize the names of Fisher and Hamill and Ford with greater gusto, I confess, than the Pledge of Allegiance. Knowing Carrie Fisher is Leia, Mark Hamill is Luke and Harrison Ford is Han were the real facts of life, man. Of course, the inherent notion of my memorizing of the principal “Star Wars” cast, when you really examine it, says something. It says how I knew Princess Leia before I knew Carrie Fisher. Fisher, who was born into showbiz, daughter of Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, a tempestuous union that foreshadowed the tempestuousness of Fisher’s own life, has said she never really sought to be an actor, a fairly ironic fate who was immortalized for a role she played. That role became her cross to bear, and while Hamill just sort of seemed to ride the waves of that cross, and while Ford always seemed to publically maintain a patented grumpy distance from that cross, Fisher, in the manner of the caustic, honest writer she very famously was, seemed to bear it with more introspection, which was what her famous line “George Lucas ruined my life and I mean that in the nicest way possible” evinced.
You can sometimes see that introspection in “Star Wars.” Ford famously chided George Lucas for his dialogue after the fact, but Fisher essentially commented on the dialogue in the movie, as she explained in a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, deploying an English accent that came and went in accordance with the inherent ridiculousness of the line she was tasked to say. (“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”) By “Empire Strikes Back”, Leia sounded more in lockstep with Fisher herself. “We don’t have time to discuss this in a committee!” Han shouted in the midst of a comic-suspenseful moment. “I am not a committee!” Leia parried. I watched that scene again for the zillionth time on Tuesday night, laughing so hard I had to rewind and watch again. I adored the bickering of Han and Leia, so much more than the solo quest of Luke, even as a kid, foreshadowing my eventual future where Jean Harlow rom coms would interest me so much more than samurai epics. It also suggested another career Fisher might have led as a romantic lead or just as a lead in general.
Sadly, that never happened for her, perhaps because her unvarnished demeanor and diarist sensibilities made her perfect for supporting parts where she could stand to the side, offering dry commentary on the central characters. Or perhaps her inability to get more leading roles simply tied back to Hollywood’s infinitely retrograde viewpoints of women. Fisher’s greatest parts were either written by other women, like Nora Ephron giving the actress a stellar part in “When Harry Met Sally” that was theoretically supporting even if it felt so much larger, or by Fisher herself, in “Postcards on the Edge”, which essentially was Fisher even if it was Fisher as played by Meryl Streep.
As Fisher aged, she was often tasked for cameos or guest appearances, which were routinely scorching even if they simultaneously left you wanting more. There was her brief turn in “Scream 3” where she not only got to share the screen with Parker Posey, a tantalizing glimpse of an alternate future where those two feisty ladies became a recurring duo, but got to call out Hollywood on some of its b.s. And in an episode of the masterful NBC sitcom “30 Rock” Fisher appeared as a legendary comic television writer. That appearance was funny, sure, but it also felt like Fisher opening a direct line to others in the business, imploring them, as Willa Paskin noted in Slate, “Whatever you do, you don’t opt out on behalf of the man.”
If to people such as myself Carrie Fisher was primarily an entertainer, to others she was something so much more, a hero, if I may be so bold, unmasking mental illness and depression as something that no one needed to be embarrassed or reticent about while continuing to advocate for feminism, going after Hollywood’s – hell, the world’s – proclivity for body-shaming and bringing that infamous gold metal bikini back into the conversation. In telling people that Leia strangled the disgusting space slug with the metal bikini it made her wear because she didn’t like the damn thing, she re-purposed a costume of male objectification in the name of her own cause.
Fisher seemed, frankly, to be everywhere this past year, appearing in “The Force Awakens” as General Leia, still fighting the good fight even as those requisite males around her stumbled and bumbled or vanished for the entire movie. She utilized the platform of “The Force Awakens” press tour as something not to be dreaded but enjoyed, turning dumb questions back around on interviewers and establishing herself as something like a no guff mentor to new “Star Wars” heroine Daisy Ridley. And meanwhile she continued championing mental health awareness, never more eloquently than a bout of advice giving for The Guardian less than a month ago, where a reader with bi-polar asked how Fisher had made peace with her struggles.
Fisher offered enlightenment by taking stock of her life’s trajectory. “Move through those feelings,” she wrote, “and meet me on the other side.” I’m sure there were still plenty of days when Carrie Fisher felt vulnerable to what ailed her, but still, it was comforting to know that ultimately she had made it to the other side, and rather than feeling helpless she was now the one offering so much help. It is help we will terribly miss.