Until Carrie Fisher, “princess” was a dirty word.
Before “Star Wars,” I had seen princesses. I was a little girl, and when you are a little girl, all anyone seems to want to do is to show you princesses to emulate. I wanted no part of it. Princesses were things who got rescued. Princesses wore pink. Princesses sat in castles waiting for their dragons to go off duty and their knights in shining armor to come to the rescue. Princesses were dreamy and spoke softly and little birds alighted on their arms and they brushed out their long golden hair and sang and they didn’t crack jokes and they didn’t get frustrated and they most certainly didn’t take matters into their own hands and rescue themselves.
And then I saw “Star Wars,” and Princess Leia, and suddenly “princess” meant something altogether different. She was not an object to be rescued. She was someone we saw from the inside.
“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” Princess Leia asks her would-be rescuer.
“I’m Luke Skywalker,” he announces. “I’m here to rescue you.”
In a few moments, she is the only one with a plan, leading everyone to temporary safety in a garbage chute. (“Somebody,” she notes, “has to save our skins.”)
Birds don’t land on her arms. She doesn’t sing (except on “SNL” and in the Christmas special, of which the less said, the better). She doesn’t take guff. She is, in short, a real, full-fledged person, a survivor, capable, smart and worthy of love.
But Carrie Fisher, whom we lost Tuesday, was so much more than just Princess Leia (or even General Organa). What made Carrie Fisher such a wonderful presence was that hers was a writer’s mind dropped in the midst of a fascinating story. Born showbiz royalty as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher (who left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor and “basically fled the scene of the accident,” as Carrie Fisher quipped), she wound up starring in perhaps the biggest film franchise of all time. She had a life few people on Earth could imagine — until she wrote about it, and then you were right there, seeing it all and laughing with her.
She was a novelist — her “Postcards From the Edge,” which drew on her own experience in a showbiz family, brimmed with wit and became a movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine — and a memoirist and a raconteur, and her greatest gift was sharing the wild ride she was on with anyone who cared to listen.
You could always tell there was a real human being in there beneath the silly space hair — one with a sharp wit and an observer’s eye. She did not take fame seriously, and through her writings demystified it, often hilariously. She shared too, with warmth and courage, her experiences of loss and mental illness. Her life was an open book, and it was fantastically well-written.
Her much-quoted account, from “Wishful Drinking,” of why George Lucas wouldn’t let her wear a bra remains one of the funniest things ever. (“George came up to me the first day of filming, took one look at the dress and said: ‘You can’t wear a bra under that dress.’ ‘OK, I’ll bite,’ I said. ‘Why?’ And he said: ‘Because … there’s no underwear in space.’ He said it with such conviction. Like he had been to space and looked around and he didn’t see any bras or panties anywhere. He explained, ‘You go into space and you become weightless. Then your body expands but your bra doesn’t, so you get strangled by your own underwear.’ I think that this would make a fantastic obituary. I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”)
And she imbued Leia with these qualities, too. Leia is not just an amazing female character but a great character, full stop: strong and vulnerable and funny and kind, with causes she is willing to fight for — with a blaster or even a spear if necessary.
A lot of what I know about how to be a person in the world I learned from Princess Leia — and, when I got old enough to separate the actress from the character, from Carrie Fisher herself. Both had a remarkable gift for cutting through nonsense. Fisher poked fun at her own performance and Leia’s “viral” faux British accent that “came and went.” She wielded a wit like Dorothy Parker’s, with the same gift for the piercing phrase (“Instant gratification takes too long”) and the apt pun — she described the experience of a manic episode as “I was trapped in a metaphor. Everything I looked at had a meaning. Everything was a warning or a sign. … ‘Metaphors be with you.’ ” Carrie’s account of how Leia got into the infamous gold bikini is: “A giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it.” That’s about right.
She gave Leia a voice of her own that extended even past the movies, one that was observant and tart and full of life. She didn’t exist as a love interest or a sex object. She was her own person, and she would strangle Jabba the Hutt herself for making her wear that awful bikini, thank you very much. As Fisher told the audience at the Hay Festival, “I had a lot of fun killing Jabba the Hutt. They asked me on the day if I wanted to have a stunt double kill Jabba. No! That’s the best time I ever had as an actor. And the only reason to go into acting is if you can kill a giant monster.”
The inadvertent high priestess of the “Star Wars” cult, she was always cracking wise about her peculiar position as merchandise, sex symbol and mother figure to generations of fans. (“I liked being a shampoo where you twist off my head and pour liquid out of my head. … I’ve been licked like a stamp. I’ve been a robe.”)
She knew it was ridiculous. And she let us in on the joke. And we loved her for it. “You feel like a camp reunion,” she quipped of “The Force Awakens,” “only Harrison and I look a little melted.’ ”
“Han and I had a volatile relationship,” she joked. “We have space estrangement. We had a child who turned out to be Hitler.”
What a void her voice will leave.
The one consolation is that losing a celebrity is always different from losing a real person. The way you know a famous person during their lifetime is not so different from the celluloid cenotaph they leave for you after death: the record of a life scrawled in light on a dark screen, the words on a page that peered into your life and made you laugh, even while your heart was breaking.