In her 2011 memoir, “Shockaholic,” Carrie Fisher opens with a quote from Jewish poet, playwright and paratrooper Hannah Senesh: “There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.”
Self-deprecating to a fault, it’s unlikely Fisher would’ve ever referred to herself in such complimentary terms, but six years after her death, and soon to be bestowed with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on May 4, it’s impossible to ignore the way her brilliance continues to permeate our cultural consciousness, and how much dimmer the world seems without her.
Although she became synonymous with one undeniably iconic character, Fisher never allowed herself to be defined by playing Princess Leia Organa, the fearless and feisty — if sometimes questionably costumed — rebel leader she portrayed in George Lucas’ game-changing 1977 blockbuster “Star Wars” and its sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” Three decades later, Fisher reprised her role when Disney revived the franchise for three new installments, “The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi,” completed before Fisher’s death, and “The Rise of Skywalker,” in which she posthumously appeared using archive footage.
The first “Star Wars” film was only her second film role — following a brief but memorable appearance propositioning Warren Beatty in “Shampoo” — but Fisher recognized its gravitational pull on her career trajectory from the start. “It’s sort of the engine that pushed everything else through … I didn’t really mean to be an actress. But if your second movie is ‘Star Wars,’ you’re done. You’re gonna be pursuing that because otherwise it’ll pursue you,” she told Rolling Stone.
No one is better positioned to understand the glare of that global spotlight than Fisher’s “Star Wars” co-star Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker throughout the franchise. He recalls first arranging to meet Fisher over dinner before they started filming together, when Hamill was 24 and Fisher was 19. “I was completely unprepared for the person I met, who just was overwhelming, in the sense that she seemed so much wiser than her years,” Hamill says. “Very funny, very spontaneous, very witty.”
Even then, Hamill says, Fisher was “disarmingly candid” about her personal life and her parents — actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, who had been considered “America’s Sweethearts” in the 1950s before her father’s affair with Elizabeth Taylor turned them into one of Hollywood’s earliest tabloid scandals. “She was talking about her father’s addiction to painkillers … Things I would never offer up, even the people I’ve known for a long time.”
According to Hamill, the force of Fisher’s personality only became more apparent once she stepped on set and donned Leia’s distinctive hairstyle, the twin buns that would follow her for the rest of her life.
“[She was] the perfect person in the perfect role,” Hamill reflects. “She was as far from a damsel in distress as you could get. She was in charge of her own rescue. I think that first impression that the audience got really established how they perceived Carrie overall, and she just grew from there.”
Despite her likeness being plastered on everything from PEZ dispensers to soap, Fisher maintained that the public’s fascination was reserved solely for her character. As she wrote in her 2016 memoir “The Princess Diarist”: “Princess Leia was famous and not Carrie Fisher. I just happened to look like her.”
While Hamill admits that he, Fisher and their co-star Harrison Ford all struggled with the overwhelming attention that came with their newfound fame after the release of “Star Wars,” he says Fisher was the first to recognize that “the good far outweighs the bad. She embraced it in a way that was far beyond me. She loved going to the conventions, meeting the fans. She just reveled in it.”
Fisher could’ve comfortably maintained a career coasting on that recognizability. But following the seismic impact of “Star Wars,” she found roles that were considerably more down to earth and allowed her to showcase her comic timing, including scene-stealing turns in “The Blues Brothers,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “The ’Burbs” and “Soapdish.”
A lifetime of what Fisher termed “associative fame” — being adjacent to celebrity parents, or briefly married to singer-songwriter Paul Simon — and her well-documented struggles with bipolar disorder and drug addiction had also armed her with endless material to mine for comedic purposes, and she found a secondary and equally successful career as a writer of novels, screenplays and memoirs.
Fisher also became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after script doctors, particularly when it came to giving more depth and dimension to female characters. Films as diverse as “Sister Act,” “The Wedding Singer,” “Hook” and “Scream 3” all bear her fingerprints.
Fisher readily admitted that writing was a way of coping with her manic episodes. “I’d always written, since I was about 12. It seemed to calm me, getting anything that might be chaotic behind the eyes onto the page in front of me where it could do me less harm,” she explained in “The Princess Diarist.”
Her first novel, the semi-autobiographical “Postcards From the Edge,” detailed an actress’s struggle to rebuild her career and make peace with her larger-than-life mother following a drug overdose — inspired by Fisher’s accidental overdose and stint in rehab at the age of 28. Acerbic, hilarious and often poignant, it typified what was so compelling about Fisher’s writing (and many of her on-screen performances) — incisive observational humor, rapid-fire banter and a self-awareness that often bordered on self-flagellation. Published in 1987, it quickly became a bestseller. Fisher adapted it into a screenplay for director Mike Nichols, with the film version hitting screens in 1990, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine as the embattled daughter and mother at its center.
Growing up in one of Hollywood’s most written-about families, it’s no surprise that Fisher relished the opportunity to shape the narrative before others could cement it for her. “It’s sort of a defense, like ‘You can’t fire me, I’ll quit.’ If I tell you what I’m like before you decide, then it’s sort of a control mechanism,” she said of her writing in an interview with the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune.
Fisher was characteristically honest about her lifelong battle with bipolar disorder and addiction in her writing and interviews, working tirelessly to destigmatize mental illness. She vividly shared her experience with electroconvulsive therapy, which “did for me what drugs had done for me. It was like a mute button muffling the noise of my shrieking feelings,” she wrote in “Shockaholic.” In 2016, her activism earned her an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from Harvard College.
Her final years saw Fisher enjoying an acting resurgence on the small screen, playing a succession of memorably caustic characters in comedies like “30 Rock,” “Entourage,” and “Catastrophe,” and cameoing as herself in “The Big Bang Theory,” which finally allowed her to meet James Earl Jones, the voice of her on-screen father Darth Vader.
But it was her full circle return to the role of Leia — now promoted from Princess to General — in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy that proved to be the most poignant, not just for reuniting her with Hamill and Ford on the big screen, but also allowing her to share scenes with her beloved daughter, Billie Lourd, who told Time magazine it was a life-changing experience to get to make a “Star Wars” film with her mother, let alone two. “On our second movie together, I really tried to take a step back and appreciate what I was doing. I couldn’t tell her because she’d think I was lame, but getting to watch her be Leia this time made me feel like the proud mom.”
Looking back on Fisher’s eclectic body of work, it’s clear that her legacy extends far beyond a memorable hairstyle or metal bikini, no matter how eager she was to give Leia all the credit for her success.
“It’s hard to think of her in the past tense. There are people that you encounter in life that are so vibrant and make such a profound impact on you, they stay with you forever,” Hamill reflects. “Had she only done Princess Leia, that would be enough. Had she just written one book, that alone would be something that would be enough to satisfy someone who wanted to make a mark on the world. But she did it from every different direction. … She really was just such an original.”