Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A tribute to Carrie Fisher: actor, author, and Princess Leia

"If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable." - Carrie Fisher.

It's ten years ago, almost to the day, and thanks to one of my closest friends, I'm sitting in the Geffen Playhouse for the first public performance of WISHFUL DRINKING, Carrie Fisher's one woman show. With the above quote, our evening begins, taking us on a hysterical and candid tour of the life of the woman best known as Princess Leia. Before the evening is out, she has become much more than that for many audience members, she's become Hollywood royalty, a bipolar sufferer, an addict, a mother, a writer with a keen sense of self-deprecation, and (perhaps most remarkably for anyone who came just because of her connection to a galactic freedom fighter) a human being.

For someone who achieved iconic status at 19, that is no easy task. The show touches on this, in some semblance, as she quips that "I'm not famous. Princess Leia is famous and I look like her."

Carrie, with all due respect, your mother was Debbie Reynolds and her union with your father was so famous that announcement of your impending arrival made the front page of the Los Angeles Times. I'm gonna call bullshit on that "I'm not famous" line.

Today we mourn, for Carrie Fisher has left us at the too-young age of sixty.

Like many of my generation, Princess Leia was my introduction to Carrie Fisher. Also in line with most men of my generation, Carrie Fisher was my first crush. I think. There's a chance it was Vanna White and right now I'm not writing Vanna's obituary. (Though with the kind of year 2016 has been, who knows what the next week will bring.) Leia was bold, brassy and she didn't take shit from anyone. Think of how many young men grew up seeing this "damsel in distress" snark back to her captors and then take charge of her own rescue. That had to have an impact. Over the last several days, I've seen women of all ages pay tribute to how much of a feminist icon Leia was to them. I have to believe that many a young boy grew up more enlightened because of seeing kickass women like Leia.

And there's no doubt that Leia is one of the most iconic, perhaps MOST iconic badass women in popular culture. She's on that particular feminist Mount Rushmore, probably with Ripley and Sarah Connor as companions. (I'd love to recognize a non-genre female as the fourth one, but let's face it, it's Lois Lane.)

I've gone to San Diego Comic Con every year for over a decade and soon after I started attending, there was an explosion of cosplayers wearing the iconic golden bikini Leia wore in RETURN OF THE JEDI. Now, like most men of my generation I had a certain affection for that outfit, but it surprised me to see such passion from the opposite gender. As I observed a gathering of some 40 such fans for a photoshoot, overheard snatches of conversation left little doubt they were TRUE fans. (They invoked the Star Wars Expanded Universe, mentioning things like "Thrawn," "Mara Jade," and "Jania.) I had a few instances to make conversation with these ladies (and BELIEVE me in that situation you are trying hard to make eye contact, so engaging them in substantive topics is suggested) so I asked, "Why this outfit?" The answer usually was some version of "Because she's a badass in it!"

I think of that whenever I see a thinkpiece attacking the "sexism" of Slave Leia. And then I think of Carrie's perfect reply to a father wanting to know what to tell his daughter about the merchandising of Slave Leia: "Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage."

(And I think most of the male appeal for the outfit is a mix of this and how attractive the performer appeared in it. For most of them I don't think it promotes slavery any more than a Dark Side Anakin cosplay advocates child murder.)

I saw some tweets today chiding people for honoring her "only" as Princess Leia. There was a weird sort of shaming going on, an implication that not genuflecting on her writing career was some kind of disrespect. Poppycock, I say! Mourn how you choose to mourn. That doesn't take away from the fact she was an accomplished and witty writer of several books and an accomplished script doctor. During the 90s, she worked on HOOK, SISTER ACT, and THE WEDDING SINGER.

You might not realize that because she never sought credit for her rewrites. Today on Twitter, Robert Hewitt Wolfe relayed the following anecdote:

"I had one professional interaction w/ Carrie Fisher. We were on an arbitration panel together, got on a conference call to determine credit. These calls are anonymous, but I recognized her voice immediately. Carrie Fisher was a top notch script doctor... but spent the call passionately defending the credit of the original writer over the parade of rewriters and script doctors. Fisher saved Writer A's [WGA-speak for "the original writer"] credit. It would have been understandable if Carrie Fisher had sided with rewriters like herself, but instead she protected the little guy. It's noteworthy... praiseworthy, in fact, that Carrie Fisher never sought or accepted credit on the scripts she rewrote. She was all class."

For those not in the business, screen credit means royalties, and that's a huge loss of income for a writer who get's arbitrated off the credits. Some rewriters try to secure their place by changing as many details as possible just in a bid to grab credit. A rewriter who fights on behalf of the writer who originated the project is a true class act.

I'm traveling this week, so I'm tabbing this obituary out on my iPhone from my hotel room. As it happens, the same hotel room where I rewatched THE FORCE AWAKENS the night before. I think it was a great gift to us that Carrie was around to resurrect Princess Leia one more time to see her continuing to persevere in the fight against evil. It may have been a great gift for Carrie herself too. There are too few roles for strong women of a certain age in Hollywood and it makes me happy she got to experience that once more.

There is still one more outing for General Leia, as Carrie had completed next year's EPISODE VIII. Inevitably, talk will turn to how her loss will impact the conclusion of the trilogy. I like to think that some of this is about people hoping that an icon like Leia is allowed to retire with dignity, to honor Carrie. There are bigger concerns than a film, but I get that Leia meant a lot to many men and women and it's hard to picture her fading away, suddenly gone from the narrative mid-story. So I will strive to take the "What this means for EPISODES VIII and IX" talk in that spirit. No one can bear seeing Leia die after losing Carrie Fisher. Hopefully the character is retired with grace.

I only met Carrie Fisher once, during a time when I worked on a small film in which she appeared. We were on location when I glanced down the street and saw a diminutive woman approaching from about a half-block away. She had a trenchcoat and dark glasses on, so I didn't yet recognize her but even at that distance, she walked with such authority that I found myself involuntary standing straighter, almost at attention.

Some people in power carry themselves with such authority that you can feel it before they speak. And here was five feet and one inch of pure "Don't mess with me" headed my way. My gut reaction was that this was either a studio exec or a producer headed to set. It wasn't until she was almost upon me that my brain went, "Wait, isn't that.."

I tell this so that you can understand the strength and charisma she carried herself with, and how in those moments I first saw her, none of that was mortgaged from identification with Princess Leia. That was pure Carrie.

My only regret is I never had a conversation of significance with her, though I do hope whoever is showing her around Heaven is stocked with a great deal of the vice she indulged in on set and that it was mandatory we had plenty of on that production: Diet Coke. Farewell Carrie Fisher.

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