It probably wouldn’t have been a surprise to Carrie Fisher that headlines of her sad premature death this Christmas season mostly trumpeted the fact that the actress was best known for her role as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” films. The actress known as much in Hollywood circles for her lacerating wit and comic timing often had a complicated relationship with the intergalactic Princess who made her internationally famous while barely out of her teens. While the surprise mega success of the “Star Wars” films set the actress up financially for life thanks to director George Lucas giving the principal cast members a percentage of the film’s profits, the international fame that came with the role often seemed to haunt the actress.
Born in 1956, Fisher was the first child of celebrity couple and entertainers Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. The spotlight that illuminated the couple only increased when Eddie’s best friend producer Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash and Eddie subsequently began an affair with Todd’s widow Elizabeth Taylor while still married to Reynolds. Carrie Fisher would later go on to describe the events as the equivalent of the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie/Jennifer Aniston scandal of its day. Reynolds took to the road performing concerts after the scandal and it is in those shows that Fisher first began performing. She made her first appearance on Broadway in the musical “Irene” which her mother starred in for a year in the early 70s and in which Carrie played a small chorus role. Fisher often lamented that due to her mother’s touring schedule Fisher had a very erratic education in many different schools, some of which she described as not really “attending” but more accurately “running thru.” In an effort to perhaps correct this Reynolds insisted that Fisher attend the Central School of Speech and Drama in London as a teenager. While Fisher would later fondly recall the experience as the only “unexamined” period of her life, she would also often joke that her mother desperately wanted for her to become a legitimate actress as opposed to the “band of gypsies” that they had been in the past.
That unexamined period of Fisher’s life ended suddenly upon Fisher’s return from London. Shortly after she returned back to Los Angeles she was cast in a small role as a precocious teenager trying to seduce her mother’s lover (Warren Beatty) in the acclaimed film “Shampoo” and then at the age of 19 she was cast in “Star Wars.” The years following the “Star Wars” films seemed to be a highly difficult period for Fisher. She appeared alongside Laurence Olivier and Joanne Woodward in a television production of the play “Come Back, Little Sheba” for which she received good notices but film roles other than Princess Leia seemed hard to come by for her. She returned to the Broadway stage a few times first appearing in a production called “Censored Scenes from King Kong” which only ran three days and then a few years later she took over the title role from Tony winner Amanda Plummer in the play “Agnes of God.” While initially greeted with praise for taking on the demanding role Fisher’s run in the play became plagued with absences and then she quietly left the role prematurely.
This dark period culminated in a drug overdose that nearly killed her, but subsequently became one of her great triumphs. In 1987 Fisher published her first novel “Postcards From the Edge” that chronicled her drug addiction and sometimes rocky relationship with her mother. The novel introduced the world to Fisher’s gift for sardonic humor and was subsequently made into a film starring Meryl Streep as the Fisher character and Shirley MacLaine as her mother. Fisher wrote the screenplay which included such memorable quotes as “instant gratification takes too long,” and “Thank GOD I got sober now so I can be hyper-conscious for this series of humiliations.”
The success of the film and novel launched a fruitful period for Fisher where she became known as a latter-day Dorothy Parker. She subsequently published more novels and biographies and garnered work as a script doctor punching up screenplays which may have needed a few jokes or her own brand of dark humor. She also came to realize that her drug abuse was due to undiagnosed bipolar disorder and became a frequent speaker on mental health issues.
As she would later document in a one-woman Broadway show “Wishful Drinking,” Fisher felt a tremendous sense of self-consciousness regarding her public addiction issues and often fantasized (in a philosophy close to Gold Derby’s heart!) about winning an award and marching proudly to the stage to accept it, thereby showing the world that her issues were over. Fisher took great joy in pointing out that her dreams of winning a showbiz award went largely unrealized but she was often ironically bestowed with awards for her mental health advocacy. In her one-woman show which would go on to earn her an Emmy nomination in 2011, she laughingly showed slides of a psychology textbook that featured a photo of her as Princess Leia next to the explanation of bipolar disorder.
Perhaps Carrie Fisher’s life didn’t really resemble that of a Princess but her contributions to this galaxy went far beyond her best known role. Who’d have thought years ago when Fisher first appeared in that hologram stored in R2D2 beseeching Obi-Wan for help that one of the nation’s greatest wits and humorists lurked in the brain flanked between those two large side buns. Good night, sweet Princess.