Carrie Fisher, who died today aged 60, told truths: hard truths, funny truths, spiky truths. She did it in her books, and she did it on stage, and lately she did it on red carpets and TV shows accompanied by the best-ever sidekick, a dog named Gary, who seemed in his own way to be like his mistress: singular, and pretty focused on doing his thing at nobody else’s behest.
Fisher was an original—a boundary breaker in Hollywood—when she played Leia in Star Wars, a princess quite capable, determined even, to take care of herself, to fight for herself, and live for herself.
Fisher’s sharp intelligence informed that role, and gave Leia all her best edges. Later Fisher said she would have preferred to have played Han Solo—that Leia was too snarky and complaining. But, Fisher said, she was happy that Leia killed Jabba the Hutt, and wore a gold metal bikini while doing so. On another wearer or character that clothing might have implied sexual submission; as worn by Fisher it became pure power dressing.
The ghost of the bolshy, self-possessed Leia proved a useful one, because although there were other movies that Fisher appeared in—she’s the best friend in When Harry Met Sally, observing Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s romantic tribulations and wishing she too may never be single again—what she became best-known as was an in-house puncturer of Hollywood’s egos and absurdities.
She began that with the partly autobiographical novel Postcards From The Edge (1987), which was later made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, in which she first wrote about her addictions and other demons. The portrayal of the diva-ish mother, relentlessly critical of her daughter, was partly based on Fisher’s relationship with her mom, the movie star Debbie Reynolds, once-married to Carrie’s father, Eddie Fisher.
There would be more whip-smart confessionals in Wishful Drinking, and The Princess Diarist, which she was promoting at the time of her death.
In the last book, she discussed her sexual affair with Harrison Ford when they were making the first Star Wars movie. As recently as a few weeks ago, with Gary at her side—his tongue lolling outside his mouth—she made a raucous appearance with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford on the Today program, culminating in her insisting, laughter all around, “I’m not a slut.”
Fisher did tell it as she saw it, over and over again (watch her roast Star Wars director George Lucas as an exploitative money-grabber here, all in a tone of wry affection).
In this, she shared a lot with George Michael this week. What links them, when you think about both of them (and David Bowie, and Prince) is that these are true originals in our culture. In their own ways, they radicalized the genres in which they made their name. They were singular and distinctive, and their contributions to culture equally so. How did they differ? If Bowie and Prince were enigmas in their personal lives, Fisher and Michael didn’t stay quiet.
Their deaths sadden us not just because these were cherished people whose lives ended far too soon, but because we might wonder while looking at the cultural landscape of today which artists share their bravery, originality, and eccentricity.
Of course they are there, but market forces are so much less inclined now to let Fisher’s kind of brilliance flourish. Or maybe Hollywood offspring have gotten a lot more boring.
Fisher, through her mother and her legendary relationship with her father, was a link to a Hollywood era that was much mythologized. Carrie skewered that myth, even as she reminded us of it. As a young woman herself, she really did attend Beverly Hills High School, and had a love affair with Paul Simon.
Despite their differences and fallouts, she loved her mother, and her mother loved her. Of the terrible things that can happen in life, losing a child before you yourself die is one of the most rupturing and terrible, and Debbie Reynolds posted on Facebook on Tuesday: “Thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter. I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop. Love Carries (sic) Mother.”
When I interviewed Reynolds and Todd Fisher, Carrie’s brother, in 2011, Todd told me it was Carrie, who went on to make books and stage performances out of her demons, who first rebelled against Reynolds when Reynolds tried to give her advice about her career.
Then had come Carrie’s various addictions. “My daughter is a manic depressive bipolar,” Reynolds told me. “That’s an illness, something you can’t help. Eddie was manic depressive, it’s genetic. But she has great doctors and is mindful of her illness. For her to be as functioning as she is shows great courage.
“In the past our relationship was like many mothers and daughters: I told her the truth and maybe she didn’t want to hear it or maybe I was wrong.” Carrie had asked Reynolds to play herself in an autobiographical movie she was making. “I said: ‘Oh my goodness, I had to live my life and now I have to live it again.’”
The movie-star mother played by MacLaine was not her, Reynolds told me. “Mike Nichols [the director] wanted the mother to be as cuckoo as the daughter and an alcoholic, which I am not. How could I have been and functioned all these years? I haven’t missed two days’ work in 65 years.”
Mother and daughter may have once been at odds, and may have been very different, but as well as love what they also shared, and showed us, was that the show must go on.
When she stopped acting, Carrie Fisher became a much-in-demand Hollywood script-polisher, and later new Hollywood also fell for her, because Fisher remained a force and something different, long after you might have thought her light had dimmed. Here was a distinctive trailblazer whose toughness was something to look up to, maybe even aspire to emulate. She appeared in Sex and The City, 30 Rock, and Catastrophe.
Carrie Fisher’s legacy, like George Michael’s, lies in a multi-hued body of work, her being different, her calling bullshit when it mattered, and her living a complex, full life.
It’s awful she’s not going to be here to make us laugh more, but her words and piquant honesty will surely remain inspiring, potent keepsakes.