Carrie Fisher: the People's Princess

From left: my father Steve, my brother Aaron, Carrie Fisher, my nephew Danny,
me, my sister-in-law Sabrina, my nephew AJ, my niece (Princess) Leah, my wife Sarit

Four years ago on a cold November night in New Jersey, Carrie Fisher rode in the back of a luxury car to her hotel. With her were her assistant and dog. My brother was driving, while I sat next to him. I could not think of a thing to say. What do you say to Princess Leia? What do you say to the actress who brought her to life? What do you say to a woman who you saw on screen more times than you could ever count?

Simply put, Star Wars would not have been Star Wars without Leia, and Leia would not have been Leia without Carrie Fisher. It’s strange to hear about how Jodie Foster, Amy Irving or any one of dozens of actresses could have been cast in that role. Can you imagine, even for a minute, anyone else playing Leia?

The first time Leia speaks, she’s talking to Darth Vader, and lying to his face (or to his mask). Not timidly, but confidently. This is one of the most threatening, dangerous villains in cinematic history who is twice her size. With Fisher’s grit and presence, you instantly believe that, sure Leia would stand up to him. I’d be cowering in fear, but she wouldn’t. In that first movie, Fisher effortlessly moves from defiance to earnestness to determination, all while imbuing Leia with that spark and warmth that we would associate with the character and, later Fisher in real life.

Leia was the one always focused on the mission. Luke Skywalker cared about the Rebellion too but his journey was also learning the ways of the Force and uncovering family secrets. Han Solo is a mercenary for most of the first movie, and even in the second is worried about Jabba the Hutt. Leia was all about saving the Rebellion and defeating the Empire. The only time she stepped away was to help save Han in Return of the Jedi. Leia was smarter than the boys. She’s the only one to figure out that Vader let her and her comrades escape so the Death Star could track them to the Rebel base. When Han razzed her, she gave it right back to him. She was used to being in charge, demanded it, and earned it. As George Lucas recently said, playing this character was more difficult than you might think. Fisher pulled it off for the first time when she was 19 years old. At that age I was hoping I could pass midterms and that my fake ID would work for another two years.

In the next two Star Wars movies, The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi, she only got better. Fisher had already shown that she could deliver a funny line perfectly (“Will someone get this walking carpet out of my way?” Would it help if I got out and pushed?”), that she could project authority and strength. Now she could show a softer, more romantic side as Leia’s relationship with Han grew. Fisher and Harrison Ford developed and refined their chemistry together. Still, that relationship never defined Leia, or Fisher’s performance. Why should it?

When I was young I did not realize how groundbreaking Leia was. I grew up thinking a princess is smart, tough, funny, outspoken, and brave. Only later did I learn that beforehand movies showed princesses as delicate flowers waiting for a Prince Charming to save them. Leia, partly through Lucas but largely through Fisher, redefined what a princess was, in some ways redefined what a heroine was.

Still later I learned about Carrie Fisher beyond Princess Leia, as she shined in supporting roles in films such as The Blues Brothers, Hannah and Her Sisters, and When Harry Met Sally. She started working behind the camera, becoming one of Hollywood’s most sought-after “script doctors,” writers that provide a last minute polish to a screenplay.

Of course, Fisher did much of her sharpest, funniest writing when she turned her focus inward. She was Hollywood royalty, the daughter of Eddie Fisher and screen legend Debbie Reynolds. Fisher used her complex relationship with Reynolds as the basis for Postcards from the Edge, later made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.

In that novel, and in her non-fiction books such as Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic, Fisher freely discussed her substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and her electroshock therapy. She did it in a way all her own, with frankness and lots of humor. Plenty of other Hollywood figures have had troubled lives, but few have been so open about it. In Wishful Drinking, she wrote that “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is completely unacceptable.” Her eagerness to laugh at herself helped her avoid sounding self-indulgent, which she would have hated. Fisher never wanted you to feel sorry for her, and was the first to acknowledge that she had privileges that many don’t.

Fisher wasn’t afraid to change either. She reportedly went through years where she and Reynolds did not speak, but later they rebuilt their relationship and became very close. They even had houses next to each other. In 2015, Fisher presented her mother with the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. A documentary about their bond will coming out on HBO soon, made all the more poignant by Reynolds’ own death, just a day after her daughter’s.

Over time Fisher’s honesty grew into advocacy, working with her mother to raise money for mental health services. That was just one way Fisher worked to help others with mental illnesses. She urged them to get treatment, saying that she did not necessarily like it, but did it because she had to. Just by going through social media these past few days, I learned that Fisher had an advice column on The Guardian, “Carrie Fisher: Advice From the Dark Side” for people suffering from mental illness.

In her last column, she responded to a young adult suffering from a bipolar disorder. Fisher closed with “As difficult as it seems like it can be, you’re ahead of the game. You’re doing more than I did at your age, and that’s courageous. You don’t have to like doing a lot of what you do, you just have to do it. You can let it all fall down and feel defeated and hopeless and that you’re done. But you reached out to me – that took courage. Now build on that. Move through those feelings and meet me on the other side. As your bipolar sister, I’ll be watching. Now get out there and show me and you what you can do.” It’s that kind of compassion and generosity that made her a hero to many who do not know or care about Star Wars.

Still, even though her life went well beyond Princess Leia, Fisher accepted that Star Wars was so big, so iconic, and so pervasive that she would always have that association. Even in Wishful Drinking, she wrote that “Remember the white dress I wore all through the first movie? Unless you didn’t see Star Wars, in which case, why are you still reading this?” So she embraced Star Wars, the fans, and everything that went with it, while still noting the absurdity of it all. Being Carrie Fisher, she could poke fun at the franchise with some bite, but in a loving way, most notably when she presented Chewbacca with a Lifetime Achievement MTV Movie Award and her roast of George Lucas at his American Film Institute Lifetime Award dinner. My favorite is her guest appearance on “30 Rock,” where she avoided all Star Wars references until the very end when she pleads “Help me Liz Lemon, You’re my only hope!”.

Along with the rest of Star Wars Nation, I was overjoyed to see her return to Princess Leia in The Force Awakens. Now a General, Leia is older and wiser, but still in charge. Han went back to smuggling and Luke disappeared, but Leia, as always, is focused on the mission. Fisher’s spirit is still there, and her chemistry with Ford remained. Their scenes together are among the most affecting in the film. We can draw a tiny bit of comfort that Fisher completed her work on Episode VIII, and we can see her one more time as Leia next December. It’s not nearly enough; there was still so much more for Fisher to do and say.

And so I go back to that November 2012 night in New Jersey. My brother Aaron and his wife Sabrina had named their first-born daughter Leah. Yes, the name was spelled differently, and ostensibly it was for a relative. But we all knew who she was really named after. For years Sabrina has run an annual Jewish book festival, and for years Aaron and I had been urging her to book Fisher. Finally, she was able to make it happen. When Fisher’s car service from the airport fell through, my brother eagerly offered to play chauffeur. Sabrina grudgingly agreed, and I wanted to come along. Aaron told me that it would be weird to have a man with her driver who was there for no discernible reason.

I waited with my wife Sarit, Sabrina, Leah, my nephews, my father, and my stepmother. Fisher arrived and was wonderful. She gave a marvelous talk and was her witty, irreverent, candid self in the Q&A. My niece lit up when she saw Fisher, who addressed her autograph to Leah with “To my namesake ...” Sarit had her sign a Star Wars T-Shirt (that Sarit was wearing). Fisher gave an autograph to everyone there who wanted one, including me (Actually, I got three. Just saying). Since now she had some idea who I was, Aaron agreed I could ride shotgun while he drove her to the hotel.

Carrie Fisher signing autographics
for my niece and nephews

During the drive it was Fisher asking the questions. Aaron is a therapist who treats people with substance abuse and mental health issues. Fisher, given her own background, was eager to hear about Aaron’s work. Meanwhile, I was still sitting there speechless, not fully believing I was in a car with Princess Leia.

We arrived at the hotel. While my mind was still blank, I realized that I would never get this chance again. So I went up to her and told her how much Star Wars meant to me, how much Leia meant to me, and thanked her. She smiled, thanked me back, and gave me a hug.

Last May, a journalist asked Fisher how she would like to be remembered and she replied, “That I was a crazy, blurred, charismatic, weird, aging, kind person.” I’ll remember her as all of that, and much more. I’ll remember her honesty, charity, warmth and humor. Most of all, I’ll remember a woman who became a legend on screen, who stayed endearingly human off screen, and who hugged a shy fan four years ago.

Carrie Fisher and I trying to get in the same frame.

Adam Spector
January 1, 2017

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