Many tributes have been pouring out over Facebook and other social media. I understand why. First, 2016 has taken a lot from us. Not that every year doesn’t do its fair share of reaping, but this year’s “in memoriam” looms larger than most, I suspect because those of us who are Gen X (the original fanboys and fangirls, thank you) are seeing our childhood literally pass away. We are used to seeing the elderly pass, those whose achievements we have collectively filed in “the past.” But this year seemed to take those still very much present who also shaped our lives. George Michael, Prince, David Bowie, and Glenn Frey – whether or not you cared for their music, they were the soundtrack of childhood and early youth. Nancy Reagan, first lady for most of the eighties, passed away, as did Gene Wilder – the only Willy Wonka for a certain age set – Florence Henderson (C’mon – Mrs. Brady?), and even Kenny Baker – R2-D2 himself. Alan Rickman hit many of us hard – raise a glass to Professor Snape, one of the bravest fictional characters I have ever read. And now, to lose Carrie Fisher right at year’s end seems wrong, somehow – just cruel.
Second, for many of us, Carrie Fisher represented our first crush and/or hero. It was June, 1977. My family was camping on Cape Cod. It was raining, for something like the fourth day in a row. I was eight. My parents, desperate to get us out of the tent, took us to a movie theatre to see whatever was playing. Whatever was playing was something called Star Wars. When it was over, I knew I had found my new religion. I saw it seven more times before the summer was over. To my eight-year-old self, Princess Leia was confusing. She was a girl, but she didn’t act like it. She took command. She shot holes in the wall and said to Han Solo (coolest guy in the universe next to Mr. Spock, thank you), “Into the garbage chute, fly boy.” She wasn’t intimidated by Chewbacca (“Will someone get this big, walking carpet out of my way”), and he was known to pull people’s arms off when he loses. And I’m not gonna lie – when Vader came into her cell with that floating ball with a big needle on it, it scared the crap out of my eight-year-old self. Everything that happens next takes place off screen, so you can imagine the worst, but when he comes out, Vader is frustrated at how much she is able to resist torture. I mean she was amazing. She was a princess who was also a general. If I ever had to be a girl, it would be her, I decided. Carrie Fisher made my eight-year-old self a feminist, even if I didn’t know it.
I was fourteen when Jedi came out, so I went through puberty during the first third of that film. (Yes, I realize that is sexist, but it was 1983 and it is true that “Slave Leia” was for me, like many of my generation, a fantasy.) But the thing I always remembered was that SHE was the one who killed Jabba the Hutt. Not Han, not Luke. Leia picked up her chain and made him pay. How badass is that? In a franchise full of men with weapons, it was the woman who brought down the guy who had Han running since before the first film. Forget that at your peril. Fisher made it all look so effortless. We loved Carrie Fisher from the beginning.
But I am not an eight-year-old, nor an adolescent with dreams of princesses in gold bikinis anymore. And I came to love, yes love, Carrie Fisher for three new reasons.
First, her appearances in other films, from John Belushi’s homicidal girlfriend in The Blues Brothers, to her wonderful turn in When Harry Met Sally (The scene where she and Bruno Kirby, ostensibly brought to date Harry and Sally, begin talking and find they are perfect for each other [“No one has ever quoted me back to me before. You want to get out of here?”] is sheer comedy gold.), to her playing the “Woman Who Looks Just Like Carrie Fisher” in Scream 3, showed that she had range, warmth, and a wonderful sense of humor. The Star Wars films work, in part, because she can deliver acerbic lines in a manner so wonderfully arch and yet not nasty (“You came here in that thing? You’re braver than I thought!”) that we laugh and want to hang with Leia, just because she seems so cool, but not too cool. Her scene in Scream 3 (“I could have played Princess Leia if I had slept with George Lucas.”) pokes such delightful fun at herself. Carrie was always in on the joke. She was happy to be the butt of it occasionally. She played herself in numerous cameos, from Sex in the City to The Big Bang Theory. I think this is one of the reasons why fanboys and fangirls loved her so. Unlike Leonard Nimoy (who we also lost too soon and whose name I am not taking in vain), who struggled for years with the character he was most identified with and titling his first autobiography, I Am Not Spock, Carrie Fisher never rejected who she was, the characters she played, or the fans who loved her. She was happy to play the woman who played Princess Leia. She also played small roles in other films that showed she was fun – the nun in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, for example. She showed she could play serious in Hannah and Her Sisters, directed by Woody Allen, but was hysterical in Amazon Women on the Moon. By God, the woman had range. When she showed up on screen, it was always a treat that brought a smile to the face.
Second, she was open and honest about her own struggles with controlled substances and mental illness. She was not only honest, she found the humor that allowed her to talk about both in such a way that dealing with them was normalized. Others who read her work found they could better deal with their own depression, or bipolar disorder, or substance abuse problem. Postcards from the Edge, the book and the film based on it, pulled back the curtain and showed a fictionalized Carrie Fisher dealing with rehab and the pressure that Hollywood puts on young performers. Wishful Drinking, a play that became a book that became an HBO special, should be required viewing (or reading) for all fans, for all who think Hollywood is nothing but wonderful, and for those who struggle, whether with depression, substances, or just life itself. Shockaholic, her autobiography that revealed Star Wars and her life since was not all “sweetness and light sabers,” a story continued in the recent The Princess Diarist – she found the journal she kept while filming Star Wars and published the damn thing! Seriously, I would not want anything I wrote about my personal life when I was nineteen published, but she put it out there. Not out of a sense of lurid tell-alls to make a quick buck, but because honesty about who she was and is became Carrie Fisher’s stock in trade. Here is who I am, she says, like it or leave it. Taken together, her writings reveal the tapestry of her life in all its highs (sometimes literal) and lows (all too often), made with humorous observations, insights, and a self-awareness all too rare to those who live out their lives in the gilded cage. Forget Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher is a hero for not being ashamed of her problems, and told them to us all so we would not be ashamed of ours.
Third, she came back. The Force Awakens was a present from Lucasfilm to those of us who saw the originals in the movie theatre and suffered through the prequels like good sports. I was delighted to see the Falcon – she’s still a great, old ship. I was pleased to see Han and Chewie, they were home, but Leia. Carrie Fisher brought something new to a film that was meant to feel like old times. She was General Organa. She was the leader of the Resistance, which is just the Rebellion with trendier branding. But she was in charge. No gold bikini, no running around shooting things up. She was cool, calm, and in charge. Where she should be. But that wasn’t what was new – she was cool and in charge even back in A New Hope. (It’s still hard for me to call it that – it’s Star Wars!) What was new was she was a mom. Ben Solo, who goes by the street name of Kylo Ren, is her and Han’s son. Her lines about seeing him and bringing him home hit me right in the feels, because I am a parent now, too. Princess Leia grew up, but did not become Queen Leia, she became a General and a Mom, a mom who loves her son and who loves the father of that son, even if “it’s complicated.” Her heartache on screen is palpable. Almost forty years later, and she’s still got it. Her own actual daughter was in that film, as well, showing up on screen next to her mom several times (and my heart breaks for you, Billie Lourd. Know the world loves and misses your mom, too.). And it was good to see Leia again. I forgot how much the series missed her until she showed up. (Sorry, Natalie Portman – you’re good, but you’re no Leia.)
It is a trite observation from a tweet that went viral at the beginning of 2016 that, “Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves” (@elusiveJ). But the observation is nonetheless true for its triteness. Indeed, in Carrie Fisher’s case, this seems especially true. To the end, however, she kept a sense of humor, and even indicated that she had chosen her own obituary. Far be it from me to disobey General Organa. Carrie Fisher passed away on the morning of December 27, 2016, drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra. I weep for her, for her family, for her fellow actors, for all of us. We have lost our princess, our general, our Carrie. The stars burn both more brightly for her having lived and less brightly for her having left us.
Article photograph courtesy of a Google image search.
Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University. His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.