Wednesday 21 August 2019

Sass and steel: Carrie Fisher was a true star, in any galaxy

There was much more to the actress than Princess Leia, writes says Robbie Collin

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia

Robbie Collin

The arena at the Anaheim Convention Centre holds 5,000, and every last seat was taken. The audience was listening to a woman speak - though it felt less like an address or lecture than an hour with an old friend, dishing the most drippingly succulent gossip you've ever tasted.

Carrie Fisher - born to the actress Debbie Reynolds and the singer Eddie Fisher in 1956, crowned intergalactic royalty 19 years later, and who died yesterday at the unthinkably young age of 60 - was picking over her life's highs and lows at last year's Star Wars Celebration event in southern California.

Carrie Fisher with mother Debbie Reynolds. (AP Photo/Jill Connelly, File)
Carrie Fisher with mother Debbie Reynolds. (AP Photo/Jill Connelly, File)

On her lap was her French bulldog Gary, who over the next 60 minutes of uproarious reminiscences was the only one in the room who kept a relatively straight face, lolling tongue notwithstanding. With quicksilver wit and candour that would make a priest flinch, she made a room larger than an airport departure lounge feel like a quiet booth at a Santa Monica piano bar, and every one of us there felt like the only other person in it. At home or in a galaxy far, far away, that's real stardom.

Almost everyone came to know Fisher via Princess Leia, the role she played in five Star Wars films - in 1977, 1980, 1983, 2015 and the as-yet-unreleased and untitled Episode VIII, which is slated for release next Christmas.

She was 19 years old when George Lucas cast her, though his original script places the Leia character at "about 16", describing this "beautiful young girl" evading an Imperial boarding party as looking "surreal and out of place, dreamlike and half hidden in the smoke".

But barely minutes of the first film has passed before this dream girl jolts everyone around her rudely awake. Darth Vader may be approaching 6ft 8in in his Sith Lord boots, but Fisher - all 5ft 1in of her - somehow manages to make him look like a shrimp.

The sass underpinned by pure steel that Fisher brought to Leia - time and again, up to and including 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' last Christmas - was almost certainly rooted in her show-business upbringing. She spent her teens either buried in books or being dragged from them onto the stage of some Las Vegas showroom or other, as a dancer in her mother's nightclub act.

She would later reflect that the experience, however hairy at the time, had set her up for life: "Chorus work is more valuable to a child than any education could ever be," she wrote in 'Wishful Drinking', her typically frank and fearless 2008 memoir.

Read more: 'Brilliant, funny and talented' - Tributes pour in for Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher who died aged 60

Something it did immediately yield was a small but unforgettable role in Hal Ashby's tangy 1975 romantic comedy 'Shampoo' as Lorna, a nymphet in a tennis skirt who seduces her mother's lover, played by Warren Beatty. In the script, the 18-year-old Fisher was supposed to ask Beatty: "Wanna f**k?"; her mother unsuccessfully petitioned Ashby to have it toned down to "Wanna screw?".

Carrie at the age of 16 in 1973. (AP Photo/Jerry Mosey, File)
Carrie at the age of 16 in 1973. (AP Photo/Jerry Mosey, File)

Years later, another kind of shampoo would become a long-standing source of fascination to her: at a press conference promoting 'The Force Awakens last year', I watched her tell that film's star, Daisy Ridley, that one of the strangest parts of being a Star Wars heroine was being turned into a shampoo bottle, "so that the fans could twist my head off and pour stuff out of my neck".

More so even than Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, Fisher was an ideal ambassador for Star Wars, because she always understood that a pop-cultural phenomenon which is taken impossibly seriously by tens of millions of followers around the globe loses sight of its own inherent silliness at its peril.

Many of her best moments in the series - like Leia's offhand offer to "get out and push" when the Millennium Falcon wouldn't start to her diplomatically crisp response to Lando Calrissian's attempted flirtations - were vital winks of humour amid all the wide-eyed excitement.

As for her wrought-iron bikini in Return of the Jedi, that item of costuming alone was enough to chisel her onto the souls of countless young male admirers. The outfit cemented Fisher's sex-symbol status, though officially it was homage: Slave Leia was the latest in a long line of exoticised sci-fi bondage pin-ups, which fed on the seamy frisson of unobtainable women (e.g royalty) looking sexually available, and could be traced back to Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Dejah Thoris' in 1917.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia with Harrison Ford. (AP Photo/George Brich, File)
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia with Harrison Ford. (AP Photo/George Brich, File)

Fisher herself was less circumspect about it: she claimed in one interview that the assorted cast members positioned behind her could "see straight to Florida". Looking back, what's so striking about the bikini scene, other than the obvious, is the way Fisher makes Leia looks powerful in spite of the costume, her shame registering clearly, but her appetite for revenge redoubled.

Fisher was able to joke about the bikini in years to come, but then she was able to joke about everything: divorce, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, bipolar disorder. She sent herself up gamely in David Cronenberg's acrid 2014 Hollywood satire 'Maps to the Stars' as a confidant of Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading daughter of Golden Age Hollywood royalty.

Fisher's own relationship with her mother heavily inspired her semi-fictional 1987 novel 'Postcards from the Edge', which was later turned into a film by Mike Nichols, though starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine rather than Fisher and Reynolds themselves.

So much of her non-Star Wars work has bobbed along in that iconic role's wake that it's easy to forget how at ease she always appeared on the few occasions she was unmoored from it entirely. She excelled in best friend roles: she was drily hilarious as Marie in 'When Harry Met Sally', and urbane as April in Woody Allen's 'Hannah and her Sisters'.

It makes perfect sense, given that Fisher herself - or at least her public persona - felt like someone you'd been sharing secrets with since childhood.

Carrie Fisher. Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
Carrie Fisher. Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

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