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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Carrie Fisher: October 21 1956-December 27 2016

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, unfazed by
Darth Vader in Star Wars 

Today, like every Star Wars fan in the world, Episode Nothing tries to process the news of Carrie Fisher's death – with a particular focus on how Princess Leia changed things for women in cinema.

Carrie Fisher and the curse of 2016

Almost our first sight of Carrie Fisher in Star Wars

I’m the least superstitious of people, but even I wouldn’t find it too much of a stretch to believe that some sort of a curse has been placed on 2016.

In its own dying days, the year that had already robbed us of so much talent has taken away Carrie Fisher.

We’ve lost members of the Star Wars supporting cast before, but now we first generation fans have been reminded that the three principals – so young and vibrant in that first movie – were mortal as well.

It’s easy to argue that the best of Carrie Fisher was revealed outside Star Wars. Her fierce wit and intelligence came out best in her own writing, especially her excellent novel Postcards From the Edge. She used her public profile to advocate for better understanding of mental health problems and addictions.

Her relationship with Star Wars must have been a difficult and contradictory one. But rewind to the 1970s and you see a very young, insecure woman who helped create one of the genre’s great characters – and who played a part in changing the role of women in mainstream cinema.

A princess with insecurity and weight issues: Carrie Fisher in 1976

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia faces
Tarkin and Vader in Star Wars

When Star Wars was filmed in 1976, Carrie Fisher was barely known at all, except as the offspring of two famous Hollywood names, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.  By 1977, she was known the world over as the princess with the earphone hairdo.

Her recent account of her on-set affair with Harrison Ford has revealed just how little confidence she drew from the “Hollywood royalty” label. But even in her comments from decades ago, it is clear she was far more insecure than people might have thought.

Fisher had emerged from a lengthy casting process which involved George Lucas holding joint interviews with Brian De Palma, who was looking for actors of similar age for his film Carrie. (Fisher, it is said, ruled herself out of Carrie because she wouldn’t do the nudity that film required.)

Fisher arrived at Elstree, aged 19, having lost only five of the ten pounds in weight she had been instructed to shed. “I thought I was gonna arrive on the set and they’d say, ‘Well, you didn’t lose the other five, so we have this other actress waiting here,” Dale Pollock’s book Skywalking quotes her as saying.

Pollock’s book also has her saying: “I kept reading the script, and it was saying how incredibly beautiful Leia was. I didn’t think I was pretty. I was a little Pillsbury doughgirl.” As the only woman in the cast at Elstree, she recalled being routinely called “the girl” by the crew.

The most distinctive feature of Fisher’s personality, then and later, was her sense of humour, but she was forbidden to use it. George Lucas insisted – rightly, as the finished film proved – that everything in the movie should be played without any hint of irony.

I think you can see some of that insecurity in the performance. Having studied at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, Fisher used something like a British accent in parts of the film, especially in her scenes with Peter Cushing. At other times, it disappears.  And yet, through all her inexperience and off-set difficulties, a character did emerge that impressed girls and boys alike throughout the world.

Carrie Fisher and women in science fiction

Carrie Fisher as Leia opens fire on a stormtrooper
almost as soon as we see her in Star Wars

Look at the female characters in on-screen science fiction before Star Wars and you don’t find much that’s edifying. In Planet of the Apes, the only woman among the principals was beautiful and mute. In Logan’s Run, the intelligent and massively talented Jenny Agutter is given little to work with other than alluring costumes. Even in the Star Trek TV series, the principal women are essentially a nurse and a telephonist. Things seemed to have regressed since the days of the Flash Gordon serials forty years earlier, when women were strong-willed and independent, whether they were on the heroes’ side or the villains’.

Lucas did things differently. He took the old-fashioned idea of a princess being held captive and gave it a new twist for the 1970s. This princess was not a pawn in the conflict being played out in the movie. She was a combatant. In fact, almost the first thing she does in the film is pick up a blaster and take down a stormtrooper. She stands up to Darth Vader; she dispenses insults to Grand Moff Tarkin. When she’s freed, she berates her rescuers for their bad planning, and gets them out of the tight spot that they’ve got into. 

And yet Lucas resists the temptation to make an overt point of all this, or to knowingly send up the genre's tropes. This is not like the 1976 King Kong, in which Jessica Lange's character calls Kong a "male chauvinist pig ape".

Another thing Lucas didn’t do was present Leia as glamorous. Her white dress covers her from head to toe, while her hair is done in a novelty style that was much joked-about. Pollack’s book quotes the director Michael Ritchie, who had wanted to cast Fisher as a beauty queen: “George had completely covered her up! I thought for sure that was his one commercial mistake. Even Dale Arden (from Flash Gordon) had cleavage.”

Freed from the requirement to be decorous, Fisher plays Leia with intensity. We get that she is a fierce leader, a warrior, perhaps with a bit of royal entitlement but with a lot of courage too. Ironically enough, the insecure Fisher became one of the most confident and capable women in genre cinema.

Carrie Fisher and life after Star Wars

Carrie Fisher as Leia in the Rebel
operations room in Star Wars

The huge success of Star Wars meant it would overshadow the subsequent careers of everyone in it. Fisher would struggle to do anything in film that came close.

Despite being very funny herself, her appearances in comedies among the Saturday Night Live generation of performers would be particularly thankless. Her best films outside Star Wars are probably Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, in which her role is pretty small, and When Harry Met Sally…, in which Norah Ephron wrote her a terrific supporting part. It’s in her own writing, particularly her novels, that her talent was given free reign.

A pretty happy image by which to remember
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia

As for Star Wars, Fisher spent the rest of her life learning to live with the fame that it brought her. Doubtless it fed her addictions and her mental health problems, but she seems to have come to put it into perspective. Her DVD and Blu-ray commentaries on the Star Wars movies reveal something of the amused detachment she eventually to achieve.

“I am Princess Leia, no matter what. If I were trying to get a good table, I wouldn’t say I wrote Postcards. Or, if I’m trying to get someone to take my check and I don’t have ID, I wouldn’t say, ‘Have you seen Harry Met Sally?’," she said.

"Princess Leia will be on my tombstone.”


John i white said...

This a great piece--as usual--Darren. I felt that I should step up and pen something myself but I couldn't come up with anything like this.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks very much John -- but what you've written at Star Wars Age 9 is excellent.

Steve said...

Nice job Darren. Perfect tribute.

Dec Cart said...

Yes, very well put.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks very much for the kind feedback, Steve, Dec and John.

Dan Brown said...

Great piece. Great blog. Best blog name ever.

My own take:

Kathy Kyger said...

I recently saw or read that Carrie wasn't necessarily trying to use an accent for Leia. It came from her then natural habit of sliding in and out of the accent she was picking up while studying in England, and hanging out with the British students in the school.

What I always found more interesting (even in '77) is that Lucas let it go on without either noticing and caring or reshooting.

Now it kind of feeds into my belief that Lucas may have always been Asperger's (a form of high-functioning Autism). It would be natural that some one with Asperger's who was more focused on the technology and special effects wouldn't see any big deal in the accent slipping in and out.

Just an idea. In any case it never bothered me enough to ruin her performance.

There is absolutely no way you boys would know the excitement we girls had then to find a hero who was smart, mouthy, tough, and pretty in a science fiction movie. She was the equal of Luke and Han, and we then knew that we could be too.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks very much for commenting, Kathy. I loved what you said about Leia being "smart, mouthy and tough". That's so true -- and yet the film isn't self-consciously make a big deal of it. It's just there and the guys had better deal with it!
By the way, there will be more, and regular, posts at Episode Nothing very soon.

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