I’m pretty sure Carrie Fisher never raises her middle finger in any of the Star Wars movies, yet that’s my enduring memory of watching the series as a child.
Fisher, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles at age 60 after suffering a heart attack on a flight from London to LAX on Friday, might as well have flipped the bird. Because, in a story that is mostly about men saving the day while ladies wait on the sideline, Fisher’s Princess Leia — the role she landed at 19, which catapulted her to fame shortly thereafter, and which stuck with her for the rest of her life — had no time for anybody’s bullshit.
The real-life Fisher operated in much the same way as her most famous character: Time and again, she rolled her eyes at the events around her, openly addressing her battles with addiction, mental health, and the demands of an industry that is manifestly unkind to women. As the child of Hollywood royalty, actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, she was perhaps better equipped than most to shake off these close calls, of which she had more than a few, using sarcasm and dark humor.
Star Wars was just Fisher’s second movie appearance, a role she joked in 2006 that she obtained after she “slept with some nerd.” (“I hope it was George,” she added, offering that she “took too many drugs to remember.”) Yet here she is, the only one of the three actors without a weapon, unwilling to suffer fools even as her director insisted she not wear a bra beneath her virginal gown, and casually setting off the scene’s most devastating ordnance:
And here she is with Harrison Ford, inducing a shadow of what looks an awful lot like actual embarrassment:
In her recent memoir, The Princess Diarist, Fisher confirmed a long-rumored dalliance with Ford during the filming of 1977’s A New Hope. She described their relationship as brief and one-sided, with her feelings for her married costar, 14 years her senior, largely unreciprocated. Yet still she was able to bring poise — dare I say fire? — to a scene like this, filmed sometime after their affair came to an end.
Fisher brought magic to Leia, and allowed a character with holes (and unrepentant Wookie-bashing) to hold her sharp-witted own, waltzing past indignities with head held high. She took the writing, the spareness of which has not always been held up as masterful character development, and transformed her lines into proof of her own unflappability, creating an iconic character in the process — one who, she made clear through one sigh after another, just happened to be a woman.
The loss of Fisher would have been devastating any time, but it’s amplified now, coming on the heels of a book tour — not to mention a delightful recurring guest appearance on Catastrophe — that was a frequent reminder of just what we fell in love with in the first place. In recent years, she has served as a regular fount of wit about the realities of life in Hollywood. Criticized by a cavalry of Twitter eggs on the occasion of her cameo in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens for no longer being a teenager, Fisher fired back: “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well,” she wrote. “Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings.”
The wry sense of humor found other targets as well. In her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking, she wrote that her answering machine message was: “Hello and welcome to Carrie’s voice mail. Due to recent electroconvulsive therapy, please pay close attention to the following options. Leave your name, number, and a brief history as to how Carrie knows you, and she’ll get back to you if this jogs what’s left of her memory.”
The old line about Ginger Rogers is that she did everything Fred Astaire did, except backward and in high heels. Leia — and Fisher, still tied to the image of the princess four decades later — did it all, except backward and in space, in braids and a robe.