clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Carrie Fisher Made Fame Her Own

And became a revered author and mental health advocate in the process

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Carrie Fisher never wanted to be famous. Why would she, when her entire childhood doubled as a front-row seat to fame’s horrors?

Before she was a writer, before she was Princess Leia, Fisher was the child of a celebrity couple, and an unusually tempestuous one at that. Her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, was driven to drinking by the twin pressures of being a studio-era performer in her 40s and having a husband who left her for her good friend, who also happened to be Elizabeth Taylor. Said husband, singer Eddie Fisher, was an addict with whom Carrie Fisher took cocaine. Perceptive from an early age, Fisher knew fame was too toxic to be worth wanting.

Yet it found her anyway. Surely, the skeptical viewer could and did reply, Fisher must’ve sought out the spotlight, given that it eludes so many people who spend their lives chasing it. “I didn’t,” she wrote in The Princess Diarist, her second memoir, published just a few weeks ago. “It’s just that it turned out to be a lot harder to stay out of the famous fray than to enter it.” First came performances backing up her own mother; then came a cameo in Shampoo. Fisher introduced herself to a generation of moviegoers, the ones Fisher’s age rather than her parents’, with a memorable question for Warren Beatty: “You wanna fuck?

Two years later, Star Wars brought fame of an infinitely larger degree, but a similar kind. Or at least it did to the legions of fans whose most enduring image of Leia was of her in captivity, her skin shellacked in a gold bikini. Millions of people knew her that way — more for her appearance than for her caustic wit. And Fisher didn’t have a way to reach them. Before social media, fame was all mediation. For better or for worse, there were no direct lines between public figures and their fans. There was only what the media showed us, and for years, Fisher’s chosen medium was movies.

Fisher spent the early ’80s as an actress. She had famous boyfriends (Dan Aykroyd and Paul Simon, who briefly became a famous husband). She was in a Woody Allen movie (Hannah and Her Sisters) — one of his best, even. She was in Blues Brothers. And she had a drug problem.

A beautiful, famous young woman, struggling with substance abuse. We know how this goes, and it starts with the word “troubled.” Except for Fisher, it didn’t.

It’s what Fisher did in the aftermath that would inaugurate her second act and a permanent shift in her celebrity. Postcards From the Edge, published in 1987, isn’t a memoir; Fisher would hold off on that confessional genre until she was well and ready, with Wishful Drinking in 2008. Fisher’s first book was a novel, albeit one playfully close to real life. Postcards follows an actress recovering from a drug overdose not unlike the one Fisher herself suffered in 1985, complete with a subsequent stint in rehab. The New York Times christened her “a sort of Betty Ford for the ‘Star Wars’ generation,” though even then Fisher was adamant that “the book is not an exorcism.” The novel was a story, not an involuntary — or, God forbid, ghostwritten — outpouring of emotion. And Fisher was an exceptionally talented storyteller.

(Lucasfilm)
(Lucasfilm)

From Postcards, Fisher found a passageway from one well-established genre of Hollywood fame — women leveraging their personal experience — into a less-established female arc: a diversified career. Fisher may be forever linked with Nora Ephron through When Harry Met Sally, but the women were connected by something more fundamental: which stories they told, and how they told them. Just as Ephron, another scion of Hollywood, had used her own thinly veiled novel as an entree into screenwriting just a few years before, so Fisher was able to position herself behind the camera for Postcards film adaptation and many a project thereafter. The two writers shared a director as well as an m.o., and they even shared an onscreen avatar: Mike Nichols directed both Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge, with Meryl Streep in the starring role in each.

Fisher had done informal script work before; in recent days, an image of an Empire Strikes Back script page with Fisher’s handwritten adjustments circulated on Twitter, and it’s well known that much of Princess Leia was the actress’s own invention. After Postcards, though, Fisher became a well-regarded script doctor, at least within the industry: Her work on Hook, Sister Act, and The Wedding Singer remained uncredited, as most punch-up work does. She also continued to publish under her own byline, with four novels and three memoirs to her name. When Fisher later made a cameo appearance on 30 Rock as a comedy idol of Liz Lemon’s, it was partly a wink at Liz’s lifelong Princess Leia obsession. It was also partly based on Fisher’s influence, which went far beyond the princess. No role, however iconic, could contain everything Fisher had to offer.

When Fisher finally did venture into nonfiction, she did so in a way that upheld her then-decades-long pattern of subverting her own image. What Postcards did for one starlet cliché — the A-list kid overwhelmed by fame — Wishful Drinking and Fisher’s 21st-century persona did for another: the crazy girl. For years, Fisher was open about her struggles with bipolar disorder, characterizing her drug problem as a coping mechanism and openly discussing her reliance on electroshock therapy as well as medication. (She told Oprah that EST helped to “blow apart the cement” in her psyche.)

Fisher was almost so forthright about her mental illness that parts of it went unremarked upon. Everyone loves a good Gary meme, to the point that we forget that Gary, her beloved French bulldog, was a therapy dog to help Fisher with her anxiety. She wasn’t just bringing him along because he was cute or because she didn’t give a shit, although he was and she never, ever did. She had Gary with her because she needed him, the way millions of people needed their Garys, in whatever form those took. She dared us to judge her, and them, for it, and so we didn’t. She dared us to judge her many times, for the same reasons we judge so many others — for being a beautiful object, or a badly behaved miscreant, or an out-of-control mess. Carrie Fisher overcame the judgment by meeting it head on.

Over the years, Fisher grew from someone who was presented, as so many telegenic young women are, to someone who presented herself, unflinchingly and hysterically. Is it any wonder Twitter suited her so well?