Critic's Notebook: Carrie Fisher, Child of Hollywood and Droll Observer of Celebrity
Her role as Princess Leia in the 'Star Wars' franchise defined her to millions of fans, but it was in her ability as a writer and humorist to bring self-deprecating insight to her own bumpy life that Fisher truly ruled.
Irony, self-deprecation and deadpan acerbity were key weapons in the arsenal of the irreplaceable Carrie Fisher, who died Tuesday morning, four days after suffering a massive heart attack on an inbound Los Angeles flight from London.
Those tools equipped her to deal with the destabilizing funhouse reality of being born to Hollywood royalty and then getting caught in the fallout as her parents' marriage imploded in scandal and divorce. They helped her through years of drug and alcohol abuse, a likely offshoot of then-undiagnosed depression and bipolar disorder. And they must have proved extremely useful in processing the barbs of misogynistic geeks across the globe, who seemed to believe that having appeared at age 23 in a metal space-kini as Jabba the Hutt's love slave meant she was contractually obliged to maintain that youthful body forever.
The online fat- and age-shaming to which Fisher was subjected at 59 when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released last year made many of us fans want to torch every vicious troll in every parents' sad basement across the country. But Fisher endured it all with peerless humor. She embraced the iconic status bestowed upon her as Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, bagel-haired rebel foe to the Empire, while simultaneously shooting us a sly wink to share her bemusement that she, of all people, should be entrusted as the guardian of such a sacred personage.
Perhaps the defining irony of her life was that Fisher was part of the biggest franchise in movie history, while making no secret of her ambivalence and irreverence toward Hollywood, a bottom line-driven corporate town that often likes to consider itself a temple of art.
I'm reminded today of the incongruous sight of Fisher ascending the giant red-carpeted staircase at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes this past May, accompanied by her emotional-support dog Gary. Fisher could be relied upon to deflate the ceremonial pomposity in any occasion.
Her insouciance toward the whole dream-factory mythos seemed to be embedded in her preternaturally poised screen debut at 19 in Hal Ashby's Shampoo, in which she needles Warren Beatty's womanizing hairdresser over refrigerator snacks before propositioning him, almost as an afterthought.
The Star Wars phenomenon exploded soon after, and a similar droll edge characterized Fisher's flirtatiously adversarial banter with Harrison Ford's cocky Han Solo. Regardless of the situation, whether she was sizing up a potential sexual conquest almost two decades her senior or holding her own among the guys in intergalactic warfare, Fisher steadfastly refused to play the little woman. Her brittle intelligence and wit simply wouldn't permit it.
But she was also willing to be made a fool of for a gag, as in The Blues Brothers, when she played the gun-toting jilted bride of John Belushi's Jake, her murderous revenge plan put on hold when she succumbs to his manipulative charms. She's sublime as April, competing with Dianne Wiest — her friend, fellow aspiring actress and business partner in the Stanislavski Catering Company — for Sam Waterston's attentions in Hannah and Her Sisters, prompting a hilarious interior monologue from Wiest ("I hate April. She's pushy.") after Fisher's character gets the advantage. And in When Harry Met Sally, she turned what could have been the standard smart-mouthed rom-com sidekick into one half of the couple in that movie that we really wanted to spend time with, dispensing Nora Ephron's world-weary wisecracks like jewels. While never claiming to have the widest acting range, she nonetheless brought a distinctive edge and personality to every role.
But despite her indelible association with Star Wars, acting became a sideline for Fisher, who pulled off a uniquely impressive transition from performing into writing. She garnered a strong reputation as a script doctor, renowned for her skills at polishing dialogue on a number of major movies throughout the '90s, and joined the Oscarcast writing team in 1997, churning out jokes for the Academy Awards ceremony.
It was as a memoirist that she really found her calling, however, whether in the semi-fictionalized form of Postcards From the Edge, a wickedly funny and unflinching depiction of Hollywood mother-daughter co-dependency; in the more straight-up autobiography of Wishful Drinking, a one-woman show seen on Broadway that was turned into a book and an HBO special; or in the recent The Princess Diarist, drawn from intimate journals she kept while shooting the first Star Wars movie.
Fisher's life was always her richest material, not in the way a stand-up comic draws on personal experience for laughs, but in the manner of a survivor who, by hanging out the good and the bad of her existence for public inspection with a sardonic spin, succeeded in neutralizing the hurt. Or at the very least, in masking the vulnerability.
Watching Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher earlier this year, the terrific documentary by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens that will air on HBO in 2017, cemented the impression that Fisher's enduring closeness with her famous mother was perhaps the central relationship of her life.
That intimate, fiercely affectionate portrait is filled with moments of glorious eccentricity that paint the pair almost like Beverly Hills counterparts to the Beales of Grey Gardens. A dishy and delicious private club for two. And their dogs. On the other hand, they're also battle-scarred warriors, absorbing the knocks of a withering public eye — failed marriages, meltdowns, rehab stints, not to mention the cardinal sin in Hollywood of aging — without surrendering the irrepressible urge to entertain.
The documentary steered me back to rewatch Postcards From the Edge, an underrated Mike Nichols movie for which Fisher penned the tart screenplay. In it, Meryl Streep plays a thinly veiled stand-in for the writer — a substance-addicted actress forced to move back in with her mother to pass studio insurance requirements. Streep has rarely been more appealing, exuding spiky warmth and "are you kidding me?" exasperation at each fresh indignity, while sifting through the debris of a messed-up Hollywood childhood and inching toward a peace treaty with her self-absorbed mother, a glamour-puss barely held together with tape in Shirley MacLaine's wonderful performance.
Whether in fictionalized or real form, the pair of them are Hollywood heroes — never casualties. How tragic that Reynolds, the eternally sunny Kathy Selden from Singin' in the Rain, should now be faced with the pain of outliving her daughter. And how very sad for the rest of us that we will no longer have Fisher's brilliant sense of humor to guide us through the peaks and pitfalls of celebrity life.