More Than Princess Leia: Carrie Fisher’s Beautifully Tumultuous, Accomplished, Hilarious Life
In a way it’s fitting that the last time most of us saw Carrie Fisher onscreen, it was in the iconic image that turned the actress into a superstar: as a young woman as Princess Leia in a Star Wars film, hair buns and all.
It’s fitting because, as a bookend to Fisher’s career, it’s a reminder of all that she accomplished in the decades in between.
As her publicist confirmed through a statement from her daughter, Billie Lourd, Carrie Fisher died Tuesday morning at age 60, following a cardiac arrest on Dec. 23 while on a flight from London to Los Angeles.
Fisher herself, meanwhile, would like it to be reported that she was drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra—a desire that just about sums up everything that should be celebrated about Carrie Fisher.
She was born into showbiz legend, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, before becoming one in her own right. Fisher was 19 when the first installment of the Star Wars franchise was filmed.
It’s a bit of a spoiler to reveal that the image of young Fisher, thanks to CGI work, makes a surprise appearance in Rogue One, currently in theaters. But it’s one we like to think Fisher wouldn’t mind us revealing, in the service of making a point about how she managed to transcend her association with Princess Leia throughout the course of her triumphant and troubled life and career.
Few stars of Fisher's stature venture outside their comfort zones in ways so authentic and so challenging, both personally and to a fan base.
She was a superb actress, of course, with memorable roles in The Blues Brothers, Hannah and Her Sisters, and When Harry Met Sally. The brazen, machete-wit that she wielded with dangerous—and delightful—abandon defined one of her final roles, as Rob Delaney’s mother in the comedy series Catastrophe.
It was a cathartic experience to see an actress eschew the propriety and limitations traditionally associated with institution and legacy, the way that the Star Wars franchise might mandate. Mostly, it just seemed like she was having a great time. Her slack-tongued dog, Gary, who was frequently seen walking red carpets with Fisher when he wasn’t gathering likes on a popular Instagram account, co-starred in many of her Catastrophe scenes with her.
Might we all free ourselves from prescribed behavior in the ways that Fisher tried—and, in many ways, succeeded—her entire career to do.
During a 2008 interview with the Today show’s Matt Lauer and Al Roker, she revealed that if she knew the Star Wars films would have given her the level of fame she witnessed and largely resented in her parents’ lives growing up, she would have turned the role of Princess Leia down.
"It doesn't look that good, show business, when you're around it," she said. "It's like, 'Don't look at the man behind that curtain, the great and powerful Oz.' I was always privy to that stuff."
She told Lauer, "I saw the heartbreak of celebrity." She wishes she never became one in her own right, saying, "All I did when I was really famous was wait for it to end."
Drugs became a fixture of the waiting game. She was only 13 when she first started smoking marijuana, but the harder drugs came later, including LSD and cocaine.
“I never could take alcohol. I always said I was allergic to alcohol, and that’s actually a definition to alcoholism—an allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind,” she told the Herald-Tribune in 2013. “So I didn’t do other kinds of drugs until I was 20. Then, by the time I was 21 it was LSD. I didn’t love cocaine, but I wanted to feel any other way than the way I did, so I’d do anything.”
In 1985, when Fisher was 29, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She tried all kinds of drugs and therapies to help with her manic depression, turning to hard drugs and prescription medication to dial down her symptoms and, as she told Psychology Today, make herself “feel normal.”
So she turned to electroshock therapy for relief, something that startled anyone with negative associations to the procedures—what about convulsions?!—but which Fisher said was safe in the voltage dosages that she received: "I loved it because it worked."
It did, however, leave a four-month gap in her memory, and she told The Telegraph in 2014 that she was no longer receiving treatment.
The reason we know any of this is because of Fisher's own honesty and outspokenness.
Part of that was in her writing, which was prolific and often autobiographical.
1987’s semi-autobiographical Postcards From the Edge chronicled her drug use, depression, and relationship with her mother, and was turned into a film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. The novel was born out of an accidental overdose Fisher suffered through a combination of prescription medication and sleeping pills in 1985, after months of the actress working on her sobriety. Asked why she didn’t play the film’s lead, Suzanne, herself, Fisher quipped, “I’ve already played Suzanne.”
Her writing career was marked by novels, including Surrender in the Pink and Delusions of Grandma, and brutally honest memoirs Wishful Drinking, Shockaholic, and The Princess Diarist, the latter of which she was promoting at the time of her death. Those works made headlines to the bitter end, with The Princess Diarist’s revelation that Fisher had an affair with Harrison Ford on the set of the first Star Wars film setting the tabloids on fire.
In fact, Fisher seemed to find a bit of naughty glee in her personal life generating controversy, a glint on her eye that sparked any time she sat down for an interview to talk about her past drug use, electrotherapy, or past romances. In addition to a tryst with Ford, there was a tumultuous marriage to Paul Simon in ’80s, and a relationship with agent Brian Lourd, with whom she had a daughter before he left her for another man.
Fisher said that her mother, Debbie Reynolds, told Fisher at the time, “We have all sorts of men in our family. We have horse thieves. We have one-man bands. This is our first homosexual.”
There was something not only self-healing about the self-deprecation with which Fisher discussed her own life, but healing for others, too. It was immeasurably useful in her work, both overtly and in her mere candid existence, as an activist for those with addiction and mental illness.
They are two topics rarely discussed in Hollywood, and certainly not by people of Fisher's stature. But because of her crusading and her honesty and especially because of her humor, they were normalized, made relatable, and taken seriously.
She turned mental illness, which we so often think of as limiting, and made living with it something meant to be inspiring instead of repressed. To people with mental illness who may be afraid to pursue their dreams, she said, "Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What's important is the action. You don't have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow."
In 2016, Harvard College gave Fisher the Outstanding Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, explaining that “her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”
It's a testament to how healing candor and outspokenness can be that, for all her comments about fame and regret, she returned to the franchise responsible for her celebrity with such enthusiasm for 2015's Force Awakens and, of course, humor.
“I’d like to wear my cinnamon buns hairstyle again but with white hair,” she joked. “I think that would be funny.”
What's amazing about Carrie Fisher is how varied her contributions have been, whether they're the on-camera achievements with which we're all familiar or ones that many of us didn't even know about. Her writing, for example, was so good that for many years she worked anonymously as a Hollywood script doctor, doing uncredited polishes on the screenplays for Hook, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer, The Mirror Has Two Faces, and many more, including the Star Wars prequels.
As Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher arguably played the most famous, most visible, most important female role in cinematic history. How remarkable it is, then, that the actress's own intelligent, candid, crusading, and at times riotously off-message eccentric character overshadowed it.
It's a powerful and feminist message and the greatest testament to authenticity we might have from a Hollywood fixture, be it Princess Leia kicking ass to save the galaxy or the accomplished writer, actress, and activist who played her, we might have.
In her life, Carrie Fisher witnessed fame as a child, embodied it in as a young woman, suffered drug addiction and mental illness, weathered tortured romances, had a child with a man who turned out to be gay, wrote a lot, spoke a lot, and raised an adorable dog.
It’s a dizzying array of experience that, wrangled by Fisher’s dynamic nature, became remarkably unified. She dealt with it and shared it all, with impeccable wit and wisdom that turned her life not only into something that entertained us, but something we could all relate to and, by extension, learn from.
And so in tribute to that wit and canny perspective on her own celebrity and its reach and influence, we’ll end with an excerpt from her memoir Wishful Drinking, which was adapted into a fabulous stage play and then HBO special—and which is the source material for that aforementioned moonlight bra strangling.
Do yourself—and Fisher—the service of reading the full excerpt in the tweet below.