An appreciation: the humanity and self-lacerating humour of Carrie Fisher
“Some crappy dessert. Anything. I’ll take it all.”
That was Carrie Fisher ordering a midafternoon snack at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where she was doing interviews for Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a documentary about her mother, Debbie Reynolds; Fisher confided that she’d wanted to make the film for the past few years because, as she explained, “my mother had been sort of declining, and I didn’t know how much longer she would be performing.”
In a cruel, cosmic twist Fisher herself would no doubt appreciate with her distinctive brand of gallows humour, she wound up going first - ahead of the mother whose multi-hyphenated gifts (singer-dancer-actress) and marriage to Eddie Fisher catapulted Carrie into fame that never seemed to fit her entirely comfortably.
Carrie Fisher died on Tuesday at the age of 60, days after suffering a heart attack on a plane flight.
She went into the family business as an actress, vaulting from off-screen Hollywood royalty to the on-screen version as a generation’s most revered space princess, along the way picking up and dropping a drug habit, turning it all into fodder for one of the finest, funniest show business memoirs ever written, albeit in the form of a semi-autobiographical novel. Movie fans may consider Postcards From the Edge a piquant Meryl Streep comedy, but writers worship the book for the same tough, wry self-awareness Fisher brought to her script-doctoring work (including uncredited improvements to the dialogue in The Empire Strikes Back and other Star Wars sequels), her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, and her actual memoir, the just-published The Princess Diarist.
Approaching the nearly deserted hotel dining room where Fisher was holding court at Cannes, a certain amount of anxiety was in order. She was, after all, a bona fide icon, whose contribution to Star Wars and its mythic status cannot be overstated, if only because her version of a princess was so subversively, sarcastically salty. She was also whip-smart, armed with a well-attuned b.s. detector and a lethally barbed verbal arsenal with which to enforce it.
Happily enough, Carrie Fisher turned out to be, not an Important Figure or Towering Intellect but, of all things, a person - whose mix of forthrightness and humor were on full, disarming display as she nibbled at a plate of petits fours and shared a dish of vanilla ice cream with her beloved French bulldog, Gary. (The two had been the hit of the red carpet at the White House correspondents’ dinner just a few weeks earlier. “He’s changed,” she said of the attention. “It’s gone straight to his tail.”).
Although she looked terrific - if exhausted - she didn’t hesitate to share the mortification of confronting her ageing face and body on a 10-metre screen, in both Bright Lights and, a few months earlier, in The Force Awakens. “I see it and I suffer, and then I see it again, and I’m sort of able to watch it,” she said, admitting that it was never easy to watch herself on the big screen, “but now it’s just ridiculous.” Last week, after seeing her 1977 Star Wars persona briefly come back to life in the new spinoff Rogue One, she tweeted, “cgi me ... like uber-Botox only more persistent,” spelled by way her own private language of emoji hieroglyphics.
Back at Cannes, even within the necessary confines of a rushed 20-minute interview, Fisher displayed what made her so distinctive as an actress and a writer: her honesty. No sooner had she ordered her “crappy dessert” than she launched into a monologue about how ice cream and peanut butter help manage bouts of depression. Although she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder more than a decade ago, “I don’t get depressed that much,” she confided, adding that “I think it’s important not to look for those things. So I don’t.”
Fisher eagerly recounted how she advocated for electroconvulsive therapy after having been helped by the treatment. “It has such a bad rap,” she said, “because it’s used as a technique of torture in every Hollywood movie in which it’s ever been depicted. There’s no shame in it, but there is shame in it. And part of me, I guess, likes to be sort of shocking.”
Fisher will be duly remembered for her wit, her intelligence, her lacerating self-awareness and her status as a pop culture legend in one of the most pivotal films of the late 20th century (and beyond). But it’s her willingness to bring lucid, sometimes lacerating candour to even her most private struggles that will be her most meaningful legacy.
“The great thing about it is when a 14-year-old comes up and says, ‘I found out I was bipolar, and my mom told me that Princess Leia is bipolar as well,’ ” Fisher said, adding that “anyone who has this illness is heroic.” Leave it to Fisher to have embodied that principle literally, figuratively and, now, forever more.