by Melissa Strong
The award for Best Visible, Vocal, and Real Grown-Up Female in Hollywood goes to Carrie Fisher. Fisher’s death in January is a fitting occasion for an appreciation of her life and works. She may be best known as Princess Leia, but Fisher gave many other notable performances, from Marie in When Harry Met Sally to Dr. Evil’s therapist in Austin Powers. Equally important, Fisher was a talented writer with a terrific sense of humor about her performance in Star Wars as well as her fame and its dramas.
Princess Leia, the Star Wars damsel who capably deals with her own distress, was ubiquitous in the 1970s and 80s, nostalgic in the 90s, and a touchstone for the prequels and spinoffs since the 2000s. For me, there was never a time before Star Wars: my parents saw the first film in the summer of 1977, weeks before I was born, because the movie theater was the only place with air conditioning.
In spite of this, it took me decades to fully appreciate the person who played Princess Leia. I’m not alone. In fact, up to her death Fisher got the most attention through the appearance-based inspection all women face, the heightened scrutiny targeted at women over 30 in film, and the special strain of that scrutiny reserved for grown-up women with the audacity to look their age. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about how Fisher looked and how much she weighed in The Force Awakens (2015), though there was little discussion of the looks of Old Solo or Grizzly Skywalker. Fisher took to social media to urge an end to the comments: “Unfortunately it hurts all 3 of my feelings,” she Tweeted. “My BODY hasn’t aged as well as I have.”
Fisher’s small role in Shampoo (1975) is emblematic of her life both on and off camera: surrounded by celebrity and irresponsible behavior, yet never the pretty girl and always second fiddle to bigger stars, whether they were Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, or her parents, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Consider the scene in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker first sees the hologram of Princess Leia. “Who is she? She’s beautiful,” Luke says. “No, she isn’t,” my family corrected. And she wasn’t, really. If female characters in action and sci-fi movies are Disney princesses, Fisher was Belle from Beauty and the Beast: the rare heroine with brown hair, brown eyes, and a blaster who also happened to be a confident, smart leader.
She may not have been beautiful, but Fisher had the wisdom to go for wit instead. Beauty fades and youth is fleeting, but funny is forever. Like her late mother Debbie Reynolds, who maintained an acting career through her 70s and 80s, Fisher was a woman of substance.
She certainly needed grit to withstand the many challenges she overcame. Fisher’s laugh-out-loud funny memoir Wishful Drinking (2008), based on her one-woman show, details hardships that prove truth is stranger than fiction, from her father’s ditching Debbie for his dead best friend’s wife – OK, it was Elizabeth Taylor – to waking up with a dead, gay Republican in her bed. And the gay man wasn’t even Bryan Lourd, father of Fisher’s daughter, who left Carrie for a dude. The Bryan Lourd situation makes Fisher’s tumultuous relationship with Paul Simon – which their friend director Mike Nichols described as “two flowers with no gardener” – look like the good old days. And what about hooking up with Han Solo on the set of Star Wars, a relationship Fisher revealed in her book The Princess Diarist (2016)? Harrison Ford was more than 15 years older, married with kids, and he had drugs. Not so helpful for Fisher’s future struggles for sobriety and mental health.
Fisher was frank about her bipolar diagnosis, and some folks celebrated her for being vocal and visible. She accepted their praise modestly, even incredulously; she suggested that the true heroes are people with mental health illness who manage to get through each day.
During a climactic battle with Darth Vader in Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi warns his adversary, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Considering everything Carrie Fisher got through, all she accomplished in addition to getting though, and her ability to laugh at what would make others cry, shouldn’t death transform her into a super-powered hologram?