Carrie Fisher had the flukiest life, but ye gods, she made it her own. Relatively early, she realized that her fame and money had little to do with her. She had, she wrote in her final memoir, The Princess Diarist, “associative fame. By-product fame.” First, she had “celebrity daughter” fame, having been born to “America’s Sweethearts,” Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a year-and-a-half before Fisher became “America’s cad” by running away with Reynolds’s recently widowed pal, Elizabeth Taylor. Later, she’d have “celebrity wife” fame as the spouse of Paul Simon. In between, she had “happened-to-have-played-an-iconic-character fame.” The character was, of course, Prince Leia Organa of Alderaan, the leader of the rebellion against the Empire and an improbable figure even for a galaxy far, far away. There would be no way for Fisher to reconcile herself to a life of so many disparate parts, even with booze and pills and powders. It took courage and imagination and a big dose of exhibitionism to reinvent herself as a comic autobiographer and brassy Hollywood eccentric.
She began, of course, by telling us all about the ways in which she wasn’t Princess Leia. Before she arrived in London in 1976 to shoot Star Wars (now called, tiresomely, Episode IV: A New Hope), she’d spent a month at a fat farm in Texas to lose some of the baby-fat in her cheeks. Then came the application of the “hairy earphones” that she also dubbed, “the buns of Navarone.” As the only girl in a boys’ fantasy universe, she had to declaim terrible lines while trying to maintain her poise. As her recently published diaries (with bonus poems) make clear, her days were largely spent trying to figure out why the inhumanly gorgeous but married Harrison Ford — with whom she was having an affair — wasn’t falling in love with her the way she was with him. She walked away with a lot of confusion, a semi-broken heart, and (in lieu of a salary) a quarter of a percentage of what would turn out to be one of the most profitable movies ever made.
It should be said that Fisher was odd casting for Star Wars. Actresses in ’50s sci-fi movies are va-va-voom types. They’re women, not girls. Even Dale Arden in ’30s Flash Gordon movies fits the glamorous Fay Wray mold. But coming off his previous hit, American Graffiti, and its essentially boys’ universe, Lucas rejected the blonde Candy Clark archetype in favor of the small, dark girl-next-door Cindy Williams figure. He wanted an actress whose femininity would inspire boys but not distract them from the task at hand. Even more important, he didn’t want an actress whose sexuality would frighten boys. This left some older males angry, and Fisher was treated harshly in certain quarters. John Simon in this magazine complained that she was unattractive. I heard a respected reporter at the newspaper where I was an intern in 1977 ask the paper’s film critic why Lucas had cast such an “ugly” girl. To be clear, I don’t agree with that judgment — I think Fisher is adorable in the role, and her mouthiness is a definite plus. But there was a disjunction in pairing her with a traditionally good-looking hunk in Ford. He would go on to play romantic leads and action heroes for 30 more years while Fisher’s options were cruelly limited.
Much of Fisher’s recent shtick involved her publicly musing — well into her 50s and heavier than she wanted to be and with a husky, old-broad voice — on how often she met men who’d tell her she was the first girl they masturbated to, especially after George Lucas stuck her in that metal bikini as the captive of Jabba the Hutt. And why not? She was reclaiming her image. She was finding her own voice through what is now the most acceptable (and profitable) form of the second act in American life: the celebrity confessional memoirist/novelist. This, she was saying, is what the girl in that ridiculous bikini was thinking and feeling while you were busy slobbering.
At last she could tell us all about growing up with a narcissistic mother with finer features and more show-biz talent — a mother whose star was fading but who still managed by force of will to overshadow her daughter. At last she could reveal the final years of the first man who left her, the father whose corrosive addictions to booze, drugs, and sex required her — at the end of his life — to function for him as the parent he never could have been. At last she could play parts that captured aspects of her own personality, among them the pioneering, iconoclastic comedy writer idolized by Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Fisher’s character’s final line as Fey stumbles out of the raging alcoholic’s hellhole apartment is “Help me, Liz Lemon! You’re my only hope!” — a joke on Star Wars that’s also a joke on how Fisher might have turned out if she hadn’t been able to look so successfully inward.
Even correcting for the 32 years since Return of the Jedi, Fisher in The Force Awakens didn’t seem much like the old Princess Leia — unless Leia had previously hit bottom, which fairy-tale princesses don’t do, especially in galaxies like George Lucas’s. She looked and sounded like she’d been through the wars, and not the Clone Wars. But being a bit of a wreck was part of her triumphant new persona. She even brought her dog on talk shows because … she could. Fisher performed her one-person show Wishful Drinking (it was filmed by HBO) a little broadly for my taste, waiting too egregiously for laughs, leaving nothing undersold. But her joy in commanding attention on her own was there in every line, in every syllable. She went out way too early but as nobody’s daughter, nobody’s ex-wife, nobody’s hairy-earphoned princess. At last, she was queen on her own merits.