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Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Harrison Ford-Carrie Fisher affair: Does it tell us anything new about Star Wars?

Carrie Fisher at around the time of
the affair with Harrison Ford
on the set of Star Wars

After Carrie Fisher revealed details of the affair she had with Harrison Ford during the shooting of Star Wars, Episode Nothing considers whether there are some things about Star Wars that we’d be just as happy not to know.

Carrie Fisher's memoir and the Harrison Ford affair

Carrie Fisher's book The Princess Diarist reveals
 her affair with Harrison Ford during Star Wars

There’s no doubt that Carrie Fisher is a gifted writer – and one who mines her personal life in her books. Postcards From the Edge, which chronicles an actress’s battle with drugs and her difficult relationship with her famous mother, was a great read. It was always tempting to wonder whether Fisher would succumb to the temptation to tell her personal story. She did that in a pretty slim memoir called Wishful Drinking, based on her own stage show, in 2008. Now comes The Princess Diarist, in which she finally addresses the character whose name she has said will probably appear on her tombstone – Princess Leia.

Judging by an extract in The Guardian, the prose style is witty, perceptive, honest and occasionally a bit exhausting. But what light, if any, does it shed on Star Wars?

The night of George Lucas’s 32nd birthday party on the set of Star Wars

Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher
on the set of Star Wars
After reading that extract from Carrie Fisher’s book, I went to JW Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars to see what he wrote about the night in May 1976 when the crew of Star Wars held a party to celebrate George Lucas’s 32nd birthday.  There’s no mention of it, although we learn that the day before Lucas’s birthday – Thursday, on May 13th – the crew moved from Elstree Studios to Shepperton for several days, to film scenes set in the Rebel base, including the medal ceremony that ends the film.

Fisher remembers the party being held in a room at Elstree that Friday and she paints a slightly ambiguous, disturbing picture of the event. She remembers being “surrounded by musty, sweat-scented, denim-clad men” and says that “having the only girl at the party completely off-her-ass drunk became one of the main focuses of the night”, even though she had told people she was allergic to alcohol.

She goes on to talk about the crew “organising a kind of joke abduction of me”, a “jovial plan to take me to wherever movie crews take young actors when they want to establish that she belongs to them, at least for the moment”. But she adds: “Certainly it wasn’t a serious thing. What made it look serious was how big the men tended to be.”

Her account of the episode continues with one of the crew attempting to taker her out to “get some air” and Harrison Ford intervening. “He was suddenly making a great show of saving me from what I can only guess at,” she says.

“After a mad scuffle, Mr Ford threw my virtue and me into the back seat of his studio car and commanded the driver to ‘Go! GO!’ We went, followed by the crew,” she writes.

Ford and Fisher are pursued by another car driven by production assistant Peter Kohn, carrying Mark Hamill and Koo Stark, and the group all go to an unnamed London restaurant. Later that night, Ford and Fisher begin an affair that will continue each weekend until Ford’s work on the film is finished.

It’s difficult to know how to read that account of the party at Elstree. Fisher drew on her diaries from the time, admitting that her memory was clouded by the marijuana she and Ford used that summer. Was the set of Star Wars a place where the 19-year-old female lead ought to feel unsafe? And as for that locking of horns between Ford and some of the crew, should we take it as larking about, or serious conflict?

 What the Carrie Fisher/Harrison Ford affair tells us about the shooting of Star Wars

A Carrie Fisher photo shoot for Star Wars

The gossip sites and tabloid papers have, unsurprisingly, lapped up Fisher’s revelations about her affair with Ford. There’s quite a bit in her account that makes uncomfortable reading. Ford was a married man with two children and at 33 couldn’t use youth as an excuse for the infidelity. Fisher was young, desperately trying (according to her account) to come across as worldly and sophisticated, but in fact insecure –and she suggests that Ford backed off somewhat when he realised she was not as experienced at relationships as she had made out. You can feel her vulnerability throughout the story. 

Ford has not commented on the book, and apparently didn’t respond after she sent him the manuscript, so we have only Fisher’s account to go on

But what, if anything, does this tell us about the shooting of Star Wars – apart, perhaps from the local interest in knowing that the North Star pub at St John’s Wood was one of the venues for the Fisher/Ford encounters?

We’ve long known there was an uneasy relationship between the British crew of Star Wars and the American principals. Mark Hamill remembers a member of the crew calling him a “wanker” as he collected his medal in the throne room scene, filmed at Shepperton at about the time these events were taking place. But Fisher’s story suggests a slightly more troubling dimension to the whole rivalry, as though the crew were marauding locals, terrifying – or at least worrying – an under-confident young woman. With all those years, and all that marijuana use, between then and now, it’s hard to know what to make of it.

The full book may enlighten us more about the production of Star Wars than this episode does. But for now, perhaps this very personal revelation teaches fans something surprising: Even where Star Wars is concerned, there can be such a thing as too much information. 


steve said...

I'd never heard that story about Mark Hamill being called a wanker. I love it. Made me laugh. I love the word "wanker" and use it often. Even though I'm from the US. The word was introduced to me when I got cable TV in 1987 and turned on MTV Sunday nights to watch The Young Ones.... the greatest TV show of all-time in my opinion. Love it. Calling Mark Hamill a wanker is too funny.

Darren Slade said...

Hi Steve.
Yes, I got that from a Star Wars supplement in the UK's Empire magazine in 1997. It quoted Hamill as saying: “None of the background artists knew who we were. I remember Harrison and I walking down to get our medals and these guys saying ‘wanker’ under their breath and it really upset me.”
I didn't know The Young Ones had made it to the US. Glad you enjoyed that.
It's one of the stronger swear words in the UK and I've seen a couple of American shows slip it into their scripts. I seem to remember it cropping up in Sledge Hammer and being the name of a family in Married With Children.
Thanks very much for commenting.