See It Instead: Carrie Fisher Edition.
2016 takes yet another star from us, but we look back fondly at Carrie Fisher’s contribution to cinema.
This year. With only 3 days left in 2016, I’m afraid to even check my news feed. Who can’t this year take from us? (*Editor’s note: while writing this article, Carrie Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, died. Goddammit.*) We already lost luminaries such as Gene Wilder and David Bowie. Now, fresh off of a wonderful return to the big screen in Star Wars (and the little bit less wonderful CG insertion into Rogue One) we have to mourn Carrie Fisher. A late career renaissance cut short by this awful, no good year.
We can take heart in two facts: Carrie Fisher had two projects in the works (including Star Wars Episode VIII,) so we can look forward to seeing her again; we have a treasure trove of her past work to celebrate. In See It Instead tradition, we’ll look at three of her most memorable works as a tribute to her cinematic legacy.
Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)
Carrie Fisher was born in Beverly Hills in 1956 to two very high profile parents. Her father, Eddie Fisher, was a television personality most famous for a million dollar deal with Coca-Cola as a spokesperson and for his singing, which appeared in many movies and variety shows. Her mother, Debbie Reynolds, was an iconic singer and actress who became Hollywood royalty, starring in hits such as Singin’ in the Rain and How the West was Won. Fisher had her first role singing in the chorus for one of her mother’s stage shows, Irene. Shortly afterward, she was hired by George Lucas to play Princess Leia Organa in a sci-fi trilogy: Star Wars. Her fame in that role made her a household name, but her biggest contributions to cinema would mostly come away from the camera.
A series of rocky relationships with Hollywood bigwigs like Paul Simon, Dan Aykroyd and Harrison Ford troubled her burgeoning career, and a lifelong battle with bipolar disorder led her to rely on alcohol and prescription drugs until ultimately entering rehab. While she continued to play small parts in films, Fisher became a prolific writer. Her novels, semi-autobiographical, were great successes (several being optioned for films, though only Postcards from the Edge was to eventually be made) and Carrie worked as a scriptwriter for troubled projects, largely rewriting treatments for well-known actresses in films such as Hook, Sister Act, and Lethal Weapon 3.
Buoyed by a resilient spirit and candid approach, Fisher experienced a renewed interest in her acting, making several high profile cameos late in her career. When Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars, she reprised her role as Princess Leia in Episode VII: The Force Awakens, one of the highest grossing films of all time. She had completed her work on the followup Episode VIII, and was working on a project called Wonderwell when she suffered a heart attack and passed away in December 2016, at age 60.
The Serious Pick: Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
The role that propelled Carrie Fisher to fame came early in her career, when she was only 19 years old. As the fiery leader of the rebellion, Princess Leia was an iconic and genre-defying character. In interviews, Fisher recalled that her willingness to the play the role was founded on Leia being an empowered and intelligent person, capable of taking care of herself without a knight in shining white Stormtrooper gear by her side. Her character was fundamental to the success of the trilogy, part of the triumvirate of heroes alongside Luke and Han, who each helped the rebellion achieve unlikely success through different tactics. A political leader and shrewd tactician, Leia became the backbone of the rebellion, and the franchise.
Her character developed and matured throughout the series, but even in the very beginning of Episode IV, we get a sense of how powerful Leia was, and how much fun Fisher’s portrayal would be. Fisher was equally capable of showing steely resolve in the face of one of cinema’s greatest villains, Darth Vader, as she was at trading quips with Harrison Ford’s rascal bandit, Han Solo. She was able to show warmth and vulnerability, but never lost her edge. While “may the Force be with you” became the film’s catchphrase, her comedic barbs directed towards her hapless rescuers helped to ground the film in the real world, and to make the characters feel alive and dynamic.
The Lighthearted Pick: When Harry Met Sally (1989)
In this film, Carrie Fisher plays the fiance to Billy Crystal’s best friend, providing a foil to the hyper-neurotic and self-involved main character. Her on-screen relationship with Jess (Bruno Kirby, who would go on to play beside Billy Crystal again in the City Slicker’s franchise) is the antithesis of Harry and Sally’s perpetually mercurial relationship: Kirby’s Jess is sweet and dumb, all surface level instead of being constantly in his own head like Harry, and Fisher’s Marie was all brutal honesty and practical realism, the opposite of Sally’s passive acceptance or Harry’s neurotic bloviating.
I was never much a fan of this rom-com; I feel that Billy Crystal is cribbing this relationship comedy heavily from Woody Allen and that Meg Ryan is much more likable opposite Tom Hanks in the series of comedies they shared. That being said, it is one of the most well-loved romantic comedies, and it succeeds because Fisher and Kirby are there to balance out all of the wildness from Crystal and the meekness from Ryan. Fisher’s style once again provides the bedrock of realism that allows the more manic elements to shine without becoming a one note comedy.
The Unconventional Pick: Postcards from the Edge (1990)
This pick is unconventional in so far as it doesn’t actually star Carrie Fisher, but instead features her long-time friend Meryl Streep. Fisher wrote the book that the film was based upon, as well as the screenplay, and the events in the film largely mirror her own struggle with addiction and the rocky love/hate relationship with her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds (whose stand-in is here played by Shirley MacLaine with aplomb and terrific energy.)
The film follows a former big-screen actress (Meryl Streep) who is desperately trying to remain relevant in Hollywood. Her use of drugs and alcohol, and propensity for poorly chosen lovers had landed her on the blacklist; directors are afraid to cast her and the industry is leery to insure her, as she may break down at any moment. Shortly after wrapping a film in which the director threatens to kill her if she doesn’t clean up her act (Gene Hackman, once again being wonderful,) she has a wild affair with a pretty boy star-f*cker (Dennis Quaid) that devolves into a bender that lands her in the hospital. She is shuttled off to rehab and remanded into the custody of her mother (Shirley MacLaine,) a domineering but well-intentioned creature who was once on of the biggest names in Hollywood, and who still holds a great deal of clout.
The inspiration for the drama is obvious, but Postcards from the Edge is filled with humanity and pathos. Streep and MacLaine give stellar performances, and their characters are very convincing. You can feel the antipathy they have for each other’s quirks, but also the deep affection they share. The film also surrounds them with fantastic supporting roles; Gene Hackman is simply wonderful as the tough-love director who tries to get Streep to grow up, Dennis Quaid is a convincing cad who is desperate to bed the former starlet, and Richard Dreyfus gives a good turn as the ER doctor who saves our hero and becomes infatuated with her. Especially memorable was Robin Bartlett, who plays Streep’s rehab roommate, who is down to earth and endearing, while completely no-nonsense.
If you haven’t seen this movie, it is well worth your time. So many autobiographical sketches, especially those about fame and Hollywood, can be cloying or self-aggrandizing. Not Postcards from the Edge. This movie is serious and unvarnished, while still remaining wildly entertaining and self deprecating. The hero is a character you will love to root for, while still flinching at her raw edges. The performances are magnificent and the film breezes by at just shy of two hours, making you wish you had more time with these characters. Which you can have anytime by reading Carrie Fisher’s wonderful books.
There were many roles that could have gone onto this list. While Carrie Fisher often took small parts, she was memorable in so many of them. Her jilted lover out for revenge in Blues Brothers; her self-referential cameos in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back or Fanboys; down to her small comedic turns in such odd films as The Burbs, Drop Dead Fred and Scream 3. Her work on famous scripts is too long to list, and she made many of the great female leading roles in big productions feel real and alive. Her memoirs give a fantastic window into her life lived in a glass bowl, and she embraced her fame and notoriety, using it for personal growth and public enrichment as a spokesperson for better understand of mental illnesses.
Carrie Fisher may be best known as the plucky princess in a galaxy long ago and far, far away, but she was a tremendous human being who accomplished so much more all through her life. Her story is an inspiring one of acceptance and healing, and an uncompromising resilience that challenged life to accept her contributions on her own terms. She will be sadly missed.