SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE Carrie Fisher, child of Hollywood, grew up fast. This was a mixed blessing for her, but a good thing for “Star Wars.”
Fisher was 19 when she first played Rebel Alliance leader Leia Organa in “A New Hope” — a role she would reprise for the final time in “The Last Jedi,” filmed before her death at age 60 in December 2016 and opening Friday (Dec. 15).
She did not seem teenage on screen. Her smoky voice and show-business-bred poise lent her authority. She was crisp where so many 1970s actresses were languorous. (Leia’s infrastructure-heavy hairdos helped).
In Leia’s verbal interplay with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), one could see glints of 1930s movie serials in which “Wars” was rooted and also Rosalind Russell’s and Katharine Hepburn’s 1940s workplace comedy characters. Leia never was as funny as those characters, but she could be as brisk and self-possessed.
Old Hollywood was never too far from Fisher, daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher. Reynolds had caught the tail end of cinema’s golden age, and never got over it. As we saw in “Bright Lights” — the HBO documentary that aired just after Fisher died (of sleep apnea, with traces of heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy in her system) and Reynolds died a day later, from a stroke — Reynolds was an avid student of show business. And Fisher was a dedicated student of her mother.
Reynolds amassed an impressive collection of Hollywood artifacts and performed on stage into her 80s. In “Lights,” the adult Carrie joins her on stage, to belt out a song and tell jokes, just as she had as a kid. Fisher learned how to be in public by posing for publicity stills with her parents, or just Reynolds, after Eddie left her for Elizabeth Taylor. In private, a 13-year-old Fisher learned how to smoke pot.
These two strains — Hollywood royalty and addiction — fueled Fisher’s 1987 semiautobiographical first novel “Postcards From the Edge,” which became a film starring Meryl Streep, as well as later novels, memoirs and a one-woman show, “Wishful Drinking,” that Fisher once performed at Berkeley Rep. As a writer, her peculiar yet incisive wit allowed her to craft the horrific into the palatable.
But first, there was “Star Wars.” She published “Postcards,” and readers were interested in it, because of “Star Wars.” Because Fisher had been so likable in “A New Hope” and its sequels “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.”
She had carried the load of representing her gender, with Leia moving from haughty to softly romantic, and from motherly to (spoiler alert) sisterly, while remaining steadfast to her political cause. Fisher had to be all these things, because the trilogy held few other female characters of note.
Fisher was the funniest human or creature ever to appear in “Wars.” And Leia got in a few zingers, like the one where she implies Luke (Mark Hamill) is short when they meet (rich from Fisher, who was 5 feet 1). But Ford got all the best lines. Even Chewbacca was given better comic setups than Leia.
Which came first, Fisher in a bikini before a backdrop of Jabba the Hutt flab, in “Jedi,” or the sexism pervading fanboy culture? It’s a push, since fanboy culture started with “A New Hope.” What’s certain is Fisher’s eccentric humor would not have flown in ’70s and ’80s “Wars” films. Not when women being funny in blockbusters is still so controversial that an Internet firestorm erupted when a female “Ghostbusters’” was announced.
Who knows if Fisher’s wit would have translated to narrative film anyway? She played a woman with a cockeyed sense of humor on Amazon’s “Catastrophe,” and went over the top. The closest she came as an actress to capturing what was special about her as a writer was on an episode of NBC’s “30 Rock” in which she played a brilliant, life-challenged writer.
Fisher was the first to acknowledge the messiness of her own life. Only she did so neatly, with lines like this one from her 2011 memoir “Shockaholic”: “That was when, like most fathers and daughters, we began doing coke together.” She was writing about Eddie, long absent from her life but with whom she reunited after her first success with “Star Wars.”
The line is classic Fisher, in its pithiness and its devastation. Humor, especially the gallows kind, can be an important tool for people in recovery. Such humor was the bedrock of Fisher’s non-“Star Wars” career. The co-star of one of history’s biggest movie franchises writing humorously about addiction, and later, her bipolar diagnosis, illuminated and helped destigmatize these topics.
Fisher weighed in so frequently about her struggles that her apparent relapse before her death seems more tragic because she never got to address it, to illuminate and destigmatize it, in writing. But we get to see her one final time in “Star Wars” — the vehicle that enabled her to write about such things in the first place — and that’s something.