Guest contributor Lauren Milberger’s previous pieces for Travalanche have included essays on Gracie Allen and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Today she observes the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars with this tribute to the recently-passed Carrie Fisher.
“I don’t want my life to imitate art. I want my life to be art.” — Carrie Fisher
The day after Carrie Fisher passed away in December, and for subsequent days afterward, letters still flooded the U.K. newspaper The Guardian where Fisher had an advice column. Not because these people had no idea the actor/writer had just died, but because they thought maybe in some way Fisher could still reach out to them, just as her character Princess Leia had reached out when she was in need: “Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.”
After its premiere in 1977, Star Wars became a surprise hit that not only changed the way films were made and how we consume them, but went on to become a global phenomenon. Its creator George Lucas has even referred to it as a “religion,” and for many it holds a cult-like quality over their lives. And what may just be a film for some, has for millions become a beacon of joy passed down from generation to generation. For most, Carrie Fisher’s likeness as Princess Leia has been in their lives since childhood or early adulthood. Whether the film was the glue that brought their family together or solace for them in bad times, Carrie Fisher’s status as a pop culture icon is one draped in the nostalgia of youth, a line of demarcation between childhood .and adult responsibility. I have to digress for a moment and admit that I began writing this essay the day after Carrie Fisher died; but when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, passed away that same night, I just put it away. This is in fact my third, as they say in show business, “pass” writing about Carrie Fisher since her passing. For many, 2016 was a hard year personally and creatively, one which included the loss of so many great artists who had touched our lives. Carrie Fisher was no different but her connection to our childhood as a symbol of, well, hope, gave the end of 2016 even more of a sting. I ended 2016 with a scratched cornea, meaning the year had both figuratively and literally broken me. But I see now that my writer’s block was in fact caused by how hard it was to write about Carrie Fisher in the past tense – so much of her life was lived in the vibrant, take-no-prisoners, present. Because Carrie Fisher to me, and to millions, was more than a pop culture princess. She was a wit, a mental health and addiction advocate, a script doctor, an advice giver, a raconteur … a bullshit barometer. (Not to mention Dog Lover and Coca-Cola connoisseur) Carrie was once asked who she would be without Princess Leia: “Just Carrie” she responded plainly. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate forty years of Star Wars without Carrie Fisher. But maybe the best way to celebrate this day is to remind people of her real impact beyond the stars. So in celebration today here is my new (and a little of the old) essay, I hope you enjoy it.
“You know the bad thing about being a survivor… You keep having to get into difficult situations in order to show off your gift.”
I was lucky enough to have met Carrie Fisher a few times and crossed paths (more on that later) with her on a few occasions over the last fifteen years (as a fan). For me, Carrie Fisher was an inspiration at a very formative time in my life, and is even more so now, after her passing. Now, I’m not talking about Star Wars. And listen, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with remembering Carrie Fisher for Star Wars – as our Princess Leia, and later, General Organa. Carrie herself knew (and repeated in interviews) that she knew that would always be the first– and probably the last – line in her obituary. As she said in public and in private to those who knew and worked with her (including actress Maria Thayer who recalled the same story on my podcast The Fordcast), Carrie Fisher’s impact as a strong female character set the mold – or at least the on-ramp – toward women in (what Carrie called) “all-boy fantasies.” Women who stood up for themselves and were able to take the blasters right out of the boy’s hands and save themselves. First impressions for children are important, as is equal representation, inspiring across the boards and sexes. In 2004, on the radio show Fresh Air, Carrie recounted how she had gone to her first fan convention and was shocked when a woman told her that Leia had inspired her to become a lawyer. What Leia was, and Carrie Fisher became, was a role model – embodying a visual example for men and women, girls and boys – of what a woman’s place in the world could be: working alongside the menfolk, not two steps behind. In the end, Carrie Fisher the person became an icon, as herself: a kickass woman who, like Leia, spoke up for her beliefs and demanded to be heard. For it was in real life that Carrie inspired people, especially women, not only for being outspoken, but also the notion of survival with a sense of humor. Yes, I spent many a day as a tiny tot watching Star Wars religiously, while simultaneously chewing on the tiny nose of her Empire Strikes Back action figure; but it was her words as a writer that I mentally chewed on, way past my teething stage. Look – the internet is lousy with far more qualified people than myself to talk about Star Wars, especially today of all days. I would just be another voice in the crowd, and I don’t need or like to do what has already been done. Carrie taught me that. After her death, I was warmed by how many journalists and social media users took the time to remember Carrie Fisher the writer, the wit and – if I can be so bold – the humorist. Not to mention acknowledging her as a voice for mental health and addiction who has inspired millions fighting their own personal battles, Star Wars was just the vehicle that brought her to us. The same way Leia fought her war of resistance against the Empire, Carrie was fighting her own wars with mental health and addiction, and in time helped others fight this same battle by example.
“Do not let what you think they think of you make you stop and question everything you are.”
George Burns, a humorist in his own right, once said, “Someone who makes you laugh is a comedian. Someone who makes you think and then laugh is a humorist. If you’re familiar enough with the work, comedy, and banter of Carrie Fisher, you know she possessed very little self-censorship when it came to letting an opportunity for a joke or pun pass her by – so much so that it was as if she had been a vaudeville comedian in a previous life. When asked where she got her personality, she replied, “Sears.” In fact, Carrie Fisher would be the first one to make a joke at the expense of her own death. In fact, she would want us all to laugh and make jokes. Yes, I think I would be paying Carrie Fisher the best possible tribute when I say she never left a hole – I mean, that she never left a void – go un- … okay, well maybe that isn’t appropriate for this medium … but Carrie would have loved the effort. Because what Carrie Fisher did was take ownership of her own narrative by making fun of it.
“I thought I would inaugurate a Bipolar Pride Day. You know, with floats and parades and stuff! On the floats we would get the depressives, and they wouldn’t even have to leave their beds – we’d just roll their beds out of their houses, and they could continue staring off miserably into space. And then, for the manics, we’d have the manic marching band, with manics laughing and talking and shopping and f*%#ing and making bad judgment calls.”
If Nora Ephron’s mantra was “everything is copy,” then Carrie Fisher’s might have been that “nothing is sacred” – or in her own words, “If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that is just unacceptable.” Carrie weathered two marriages (she was actually married only once, but often called the father of her daughter her “second husband”), drug addiction issues, bipolar disorder, drug relapse, being committed, electroshock treatment, being left by her “second husband” for a man, her mother’s failed marriages (take a breath now and:), and her mother’s two husbands, who took all her mother’s money and left her bankrupt (and breathe again). However, Carrie found a way to comment and poke fun at every melodramatic moment of her life (“I am a spy in the house of me”); and, as absurd as it sounds, I am now half-expecting Carrie Fisher to comment on her own death, throwing out one of her one-liners on a talk show or in an emoji-riddled tweet (Most of her tweets, if you are unaware, were in need of a cartographer and a U.N. Translator). I wouldn’t be surprised to discover some letter in her will from Beyond. The. Grave. I mean, you can already trace Carrie Fisher’s life by her fiction (or roman a clefs) alone: Postcards From The Edge (rehab), Surrender To The Pink (first marriage), Delusions of Grandma (motherhood), and The Best Awful (institutionalization and release). There are her more recent memoirs detailing the in-between, as well, including the book and Broadway show Wishful Drinking, many of which echo lines and moments from of her aforementioned novels. You might say Carrie Fisher’s life was an open book (yes, I said it…); and, you know what, Carrie Fisher was fine with that. She said it helped her cope; and, just as importantly, it helped other people cope through her honesty. Since her death, stories of fans who spoke to Carrie at signings and conventions – and even in private twitter messages of advice about their shared troubles, have come out of the woodwork. She counseled, advised, and commiserated with people, not just by example as most celebrities do, but with the personal, imperfect precision of her candor. I say imperfect because what Carrie Fisher taught us was that perfect was overrated.
That even though she was born into Hollywood royalty as the daughter of a movie star and a pop star, and starred in a global franchise as a Princess, that didn’t mean she was free of problems – far from it. “Say your weak things in a strong voice,” she would say, “I’m very powerful about my weaknesses.” She inspired many to take ownership and control of what might otherwise tear them down, and not just in brief fan encounters. Carrie Fisher was known to bring strangers and friends to stay in her guest house: those who needed a place to stay, addicts in recovery, even one woman she had just met at an AA meeting who was living in her car. Carrie once expressed that it gave her a sense of community, being open and honest about herself with people, even strangers. She felt that commenting on her own life in humorous ways helped her feel somehow outside of it all, looking down. This way of living life, of not feeling ashamed of one’s own weaknesses – of making sure life was funny – became a battle cry for many people, including myself. And although I personally don’t struggle with mental illness or addiction, she opened my mind up to a world I would have never been privy to. She had this effect not only on her fans, but on many people. The outpouring of remembrance on Twitter from people who had never met Carrie, or who only met her briefly, spoke of how she touched so many with an openness we normally don’t grant to strangers. Even Mark Hamill, her Star Wars co-star (Luke Skywalker) said the same about Carrie when he recalled their first meeting. Stories still pour into Twitter and Facebook about people who sat next to her at a charity event, or on an airplane. And the overall theme (except for maybe the guy who got drunk with her in first class) was that Carrie’s connection to people seemed to come from a genuine place. Sharon Horgan, the star and creator of Catastrophe (Carrie Fisher’s last filmed performance), said “Carrie Fisher was so real it was dangerous.”
“So it’s not what you’re given, it’s how you take it.”
My story with Carrie Fisher may be the least interesting. The first time I met Carrie Fisher was after I had just moved to New York and there were far more Barnes & Noble around than there are today. I attended a free signing for Carrie’s book, The Best Awful. It was a moment I had been waiting for since my mother took me as a young teen to the used book store in our home town and I bought a beat up copy of Surrender The Pink. Carrie, first of all, was funny, and that meant something to me at that age. I don’t remember when I first knew that, knew that she was funny – that she could spin words in the air the way my youthful mind dreamed up, in comic couplets and wry, irreverent phrases. All I know is that Carrie Fisher being funny was what led me to buy that first book, and later pay more attention far past a childhood fancy. And I knew long before I read her fiction, the above-mentioned quote, “If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true…” resonated with a little dyslexic girl who was struggling. I had clung to that phrase as my own mantra. When I would come home from school, crying my eyes out from being bullied, there was that line telling me: “Have a sense of humor. Life is hard. You can get through this.” I would try to craft my own one-liners (e.g. “Majoring in acting in college is a high-priced degree in waitressing,” and “I’m Jewish, the other white meat!”) and practice my “talk show” banter. I wrote her quotations, among others, on my notebooks and brown paper-covered school books. I borrowed her other books from the library and never missed a talk show appearance. Any memories of Star Wars I had slowly faded away, replaced by Carrie Fisher The Writer. At this signing, not only had I brought her current book, but the aforementioned beat-up copy of Surrender The Pink. I was young and nervous, and sat in the back.
On every seat in the small room across from Lincoln Center, were papers with the rules of Barnes and Noble: no pictures (pictures in line that don’t stop the line are fine), and no signed memorabilia…books only! I saw two people holding Return Of The Jedi 8x10s (a young man and woman) sit down next to me, read the paper, and then leave. I was appalled. “How dare they!” At least stay and hear her read her amazing words. Carrie arrived and posed for pictures in a comedic way that suggested she found the whole idea absurd. After all, that was her persona: the child of a celebrity who saw it for what it was, in all its, well, absurdity. After Carrie read from her book, I made my way through the line until I was finally face-to-face with my hero. “You make me want to be a writer,” I blurted to her and then she smiled and said only one sentence to me. It confused me, so I gave her an odd look back, and just walked away. What had she said to me? Later, while recounting the story to a friend, I tried to remember. She had said something about…trying. I think…
My friend interrupted, “Did she say, ‘Do. There is no try?’”
“Yes,” I exclaimed, “How did you know that?”
“That’s Yoda, Lauren. She spoke Yoda to you.”
The last time I had seen Empire Strikes Back was in high school and it wasn’t like I hadn’t had all the Han Solo and Princess Leia scenes memorized; but, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me she would speak Star Wars to me. I wasn’t there for Star Wars. And my friend and I both just laughed our faces off.
‘There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.”
I’ve often said being dyslexic is like having a buffet not of your choosing and everyone’s plate is different. Carrie Fisher grew up with a love of books and words, and so did I – only that part of my life was a tragic romance. And today, her frankness still resonates with me – especially after, three years ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease … ”Say your weak things in a loud voice.” This is the first time I have admitted publicly to what has been a four year struggle with my health. And even now, saying this in print is scary. Here’s the thing about Carrie Fisher: she was still sensitive and vulnerable and filled with self-doubt like all of us are – and this isn’t a guess, this is based on her own words and her Twitter feed. Up to her death she was still fighting against Hollywood’s and society’s age and beauty restrictions on women: “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings.” Or in a lighter mode, at Montreal’s Just for Laugh’s Festival 2016, “Can everybody see me okay? I have to double check because I’m from Hollywood, and ya know, women my age tend to be invisible there.”
Her last book, The Princess Diarist, published only a month before her death, contained Fisher’s personal diaries from when she was nineteen and filming Star Wars in 1978. It was raw, unedited and unflinching, and showed – at least to me – a young women I recognized as once having been in my life, and one I think many women could relate to. It also showed how far Carrie Fisher had grown emotionally. What many creators of current heroic female characters in pop culture seem to forget is that strength in a woman (or any human) isn’t about how strong she is physically, or how little emotion she expresses; it’s that vulnerability is its own form of strength. “Be afraid. But do it anyway,” was how Carrie Fisher said it. That’s bravery.
“I have problems; my problems don’t have me.”
What I think may be most important thing about the last years of Carrie Fisher’s life is that, unlike her Fresh Air interview in 2004, she now understood not only what Star Wars meant to people, but also what she had meant to people. There is a moment in HBO’s Bright Lights, the documentary about her and her mother (most likely filmed in 2014), in which Carrie tells the camera that she believes her fans look up to Leia and not her. Yet with all the stories of people’s interactions with Carrie, sharing their stories with her, of how she had helped them with their depression, anxiety, and so on, I can’t imagine that, by the end of those two years, she didn’t see how they loved her, just Carrie. She looked people in the eyes, made sure they got a picture (even when they weren’t allowed to), held hands, and often hugged people as soon as they started crying. She showered them with actual glitter, because everyone deserves a little glitter in their life. Some might say she faked this for the money. Carrie herself even comically called them “lap dances” but at least from the outside it looked like the resurgence of Star Wars had helped her understand her own appeal. Through the release of The Force Awakens I found myself being reminded of my love of Star Wars and my first introduction to Carrie. I had forgotten what it had meant to me. I started co-hosting a Harrison Ford podcast and now, if someone quotes Yoda to me, I know it. Because of that podcast, I was lucky enough to attend the Catastrophe TV panel at the Tribeca Film Festival and the premiere of Bright Lights at the NY Film Festival with Carrie (Debbie actually called and sang to us over the phone). It even seemed odd to me at the time, but in 2016 I crossed paths with Carrie Fisher about four times. The last time I saw Fisher was a signing for The Princess Diarist, in NYC. If you’ve seen Bright Lights or read her Twitter feed, you’ll understand why I gave Carrie a package of Coca-Cola Lip Smackers, because it made me laugh and I thought it would make her laugh, too. It did. I also had the feeling I should give her a little note to tell her how she had helped me. The signing was November 22nd in New York City, and she collapsed on Dec 23rd, preparing to land in Los Angeles.
“I feel I’m very sane about how crazy I am.”
Meryl Streep’s posthumous quotation from Carrie at the Golden Globes this year, “Take your broken heart, make it into art,” seemed like the fitting epitaph to her life. And then about a month after Carrie’s passing, a Women’s March was held around the world. A feminist icon herself, Carrie was there, to my own surprise and delight. In posters and signs, shirts and slogans, the rabble-rouser Princess from the rebel base shone big and bright. Mixed in with the rebel princess signs were a few “Carrie Fisher sent me,” because send us she had. After Carrie Fisher passed away, her ashes were kept in a giant, vintage Prozac pill-shaped impromptu urn (a favorite item or hers). Not her idea, per se, but her spirit. So…we should all be so lucky be live life big enough to end up in a big, giant, porcelain Prozac pill. Carrie Fisher’s life, like the books she loved, now has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Carrie went from the Princess to the Jedi Master. She became Obi Wan Kenobi the teacher … or perhaps one of the letters sent to The Guardian sums it up best:
“Hi Carrie….I know you’re dead. But that shouldn’t stop you from continuing to respond to those who are sick and suffering, because come on, you were super-human in life – and in death you’ve become even more powerful.”
“Back then I was always looking ahead to who I wanted to be versus who I didn’t realize I
already was, and the wished-for me was most likely based on who other people seemed to be and
the desire to have the same effect on others that they had on me.”
Carrie Fisher — 1956-2016