Carrie Fisher’s Legacy Was Greater Than Princess Leia

A look back at the late actress and writer's achievements, on-screen and beyond.

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Dec 28 2016, 6:21pm

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Carrie Fisher—the actress, writer, geek culture matriarch, Hollywood sage, and mental health advocate—was first introduced to America as a daughter. At first, she was the child of actress Debbie Reynolds and pop singer Eddie Fisher, but after Fisher scandalously left the family for Elizabeth Taylor, it was Carrie and Debbie. It's easy to forget now, but for a while the showbiz mother-daughter association was so strong that Fisher, in character as the child of a wealthy Beverly Hills housewife, had to definitively declare that she was "nothing like her mother" in Shampoo, her film debut.

As it turns out, Fisher, who died this week in Los Angeles at the age of 60, carved out an indelible identity for herself. She did this not only on the screen through other people's mythologies, but through her own—in how she mined the ups and downs of her sometimes chaotic life for wisdom and humor. She was vocally skeptical of celebrity culture from the start of her career while existing at the heart of it in the 70s and 80s. All this made her a reassuringly wry documentarian of the surrealities of fame, addiction, and mental disorder, which she did over the course of three nonfiction books and five novels, including her groundbreaking debut Postcards from the Edge.

In this week of Fisher's death, there is a bit of Star Wars over-saturation in the air, and thus an understandable desire to downplay Princess Leia as the centerpiece of her legacy—and there's so much else to highlight in her filmography: When Harry Met Sally…, The Burbs, The Blues Brothers, all just as seared into the collective pop culture memory. Fisher herself was openly ambivalent about the iconic role, even as the image of the twin buns and white gown followed her through multiple book covers and promos—a stubborn little specter she'd long since disembodied that still hung over all she did.

But perhaps the reason it stuck—aside from the immense popularity of Star Warsis that the character was as much Fisher's creation as George Lucas's; in the six years she spent playing her, Fisher likely thought more critically and deeply about who Leia needed to be than any of the original trilogy's credited writers. In a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone, she digs out her copy of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment to explain the subliminal power of a strong, aspirational figure like Leia. "You can play Leia as capable, independent, sensible, a soldier, a fighter, a woman in control—control being, of course, a lesser word than master," she said. "But you can portray a woman who's a master and get through all the female prejudice if… you're dealing in fairy-tale terms. People need these bigger-than-life projections."

That doesn't sound like the typical "so happy to be a part of this journey" interview that an actress would give for a major film series—it's as if Fisher was trying to do all she could to counteract the bikini-clad object of fantasy on the cover. (Fisher famously detested the bikini: "It wasn't my choice," she told PEOPLE in 1983. When [Lucas] showed me the outfit, I thought he was kidding and it made me very nervous.") But it also belies her writer's mind—which was as much the mind of a jaded child of Hollywood as it was of a humorist and mental health advocate. Fisher became a highly sought-after script doctor in the 90s, though she was never credited for her work on Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, or The Wedding Singer; while she helped Hollywood men make millions at the box office, she also became a kind of guru to Hollywood women. 

She offered dating advice to Courtney Love and advised Whoopi Goldberg to handle the contentious production of Sister Act by sending a hatchet to then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg for him to bury. (She did, and Katzenberg sent back a pair of brass balls: message received.) Reading the tweets of celebrities reacting to her death gives the sense that she was a regular, stabilizing presence in brainy, post-middle-age circles of Hollywood that perhaps still privately struggled with the insecurities of waning celebrity that Fisher spent so much of her writing career looking in the eyes.

Fisher is survived by her mother and daughter, whom Fisher was close to her entire life. And somehow, it still makes so much sense to think of Fisher as part of a mother-daughter dynamic—not as a docile caretaker or a fragile child on the edge, but as an empowering figure, a nurturer, the wise old General Organa handing off the lightsaber to a younger generation of self-possessed women.

Follow Emily Yoshida on Twitter.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article pointed to purported script changes that Fisher made to The Empire Strikes Back, which have since been debunked as fake.

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