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Carrie Fisher (1956–2016)

What we liked about Carrie Fisher was that she seemed inclined to tell the truth, and almost nobody does that, certainly not Hollywood stars.

Carrie Fisher in 2012. Gage Skidmore

For many people, the death of Carrie Fisher means the death of Princess Leia. She knew it would, writing,

I tell my younger friends that one day they’ll be at a bar playing pool and they’ll look up at the television set and there will be a picture of Princess Leia with two dates underneath, and they’ll say “Awww — she said that would happen.” And then they’ll go back to playing pool.

I‘ll have to let someone else write that Princess Leia tribute, someone who can do it with proper fervor. That’s not the Carrie Fisher that interests me.

What I liked about Carrie Fisher was that she seemed inclined to tell the truth, and almost nobody does that, certainly not Hollywood stars. Most certainly not Hollywood stars that are also what Fisher called “the product of Hollywood inbreeding,” referring to her status as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, the star-child of star-parents. Maintaining stardom generally results in a lot of secrets, and you’d think dynastic stardom would only intensify that tendency over generations.

But Fisher seemed allergic to secrecy. “You’re only as sick as your secrets,” she wrote in the process of telling all, or at least cleverly seeming to tell all.

People who are rich and famous in America, and therefore have as much choice about how to live their lives as anyone is ever likely to get, are inclined toward public pieties disguising their actual experiences. It seems to be part of the guild membership rules that you never tell the proles what really goes on behind the mansion gates. You definitely don’t tell about taking all those drugs. But Carrie Fisher never stopped telling us about taking all those drugs. “They were my friends,” she said endearingly, though the friends turned on her eventually.

The compulsion to normalize the abnormal, illustrated by those Us Weekly spreads under the heading “They’re Just Like Us!” showing celebrities wearing sweatpants while buying to-go coffee and walking their dogs, was not Carrie Fisher’s way. She came right out and said the whole Hollywood thing was crazy, and told detailed anecdotes to back it up. For this we bless her and mourn her loss.

She was able to recognize and entertainingly expose, in books, interviews, and a one-woman show, the relationship of her own experience to supposed normalcy — or at least her best guess about normalcy. This is from the admirably titled Wishful Drinking:

I mean, if I came into a room and said, “You know how you saw your father more on TV than you did in real life?” I don’t think many people would say, “Oh my God! You, too?”

And by the same token, I have to ask you, how often do you say, “in real life”?

When Debbie Reynolds wanted someone to counsel teenage-daughter Carrie about her drug use, former LSD user Cary Grant was called in as counselor. When Fisher was choking on a Brussels sprout, it was Dan Ackroyd who gave her the Heimlich maneuver. Meryl Streep played her alter ego Suzanne in the film adaptation of Fisher’s first book, Postcards From the Edge, but people frequently asked her why she didn’t play the character herself. “I already played Suzanne,” she said, referring to her own life as one long performance.

The fact that Fisher knew all this was weird, and seemed compelled to share the weirdness with us, the public, made her seem almost like one of us, an honorary regular person.

She had a regular human longing to be part of the pantheon of vivid, high-living, screwed-up Hollywood truth-tellers that she admired, the legendary over-sharers such as Judy Garland and Ava Gardner, who at the end of their epic lives loved to dish the Hollywood dirt, and did it hilariously. Fisher made lists of ill-starred celebrities — drunks, drug addicts, survivors of mental wards who thought long and hard about suicide — and proudly added her name to them. She bragged, for example, about her fellowship of famous electroconvulsive-therapy-receivers including Judy Garland, Cole Porter, Lou Reed, Yves St. Laurent, Ernest Hemingway, and Vivien Leigh, exulting, “Look at what all these fuckups managed to accomplish!”

Perhaps it was the excesses of what she called her “all too eventful” life that prematurely aged her. Fisher seemed to go swiftly from peppery starlet in an iconic metal bikini to jaded middle-aged veteran of the showbiz wars, displaying her scars and croaking out sardonic been-there-done-that one-liners, as if she’d been aiming at “great old broad” status from her cradle.

This impression of accelerated aging was created partly by her hodgepodge acting career that resulted in a surprisingly limited filmography for one so famous. Rather than building on her early fame by playing a succession of leading roles in movies, she sidestepped into book-writing and script-doctoring behind the scenes, never pursuing top film stardom with anything like her mother’s steely old Hollywood discipline.

Ultimately Fisher’s stardom got bound up in her autobiographical writing about growing up and getting wrecked in Hollywood, and she became the amused, self-deprecating, perversely proud embodiment of the Damage Done.

I came to appreciate this Fisher image largely because I got a peek behind it. I know it’s not the done thing among the cognoscenti to talk about going to Hollywood and seeing stars at film-industry parties, and taking a big interest in those sightings. We’re supposed to affect an air of lofty indifference to Hollywood stars, because they’re mere manufactured commodities within the capitalist system sold to a gullible public, or something like that.

But I think film scholar Richard Dyer got it right when he argued for the intense significance of stars. Their images reflect and help us identify the values of the society that produces them — they represent and negotiate for us the impossible contradictions of that society. And they sell individuality to us, that maddening American mirage of fully realized and empowered personal uniqueness, not only because their images are designed to be distinctive, as part of “product differentiation,” but because we’re fascinated by the occasional evidence of a flesh-and-blood human being struggling to maintain that supposedly distinctive image.

That evidence usually emerges in the form of scandal, of botched public appearances and real human tragedies, of apparently accidental slippages of all kinds. That’s the uncomfortable territory where Carrie Fisher staked her claim on lasting stardom, with her crafty sleight-of-hand that showed us the personal mayhem behind the image and, in doing so, paradoxically kept control over it.

It wasn’t just the Princess Leia character, it was her eagerness to be The Princess Diarist that defined her friendly smack-talking persona. Who else in the Star Wars cast or crew would’ve shared with us George Lucas’s loony “no underwear in space” edict, or joked about the Princess Leia Pez dispenser, or told the story of the young male Star Wars fan who confided to her that he thought of her every day for years — “actually, four times a day.”

So here are my true Hollywood stories about Carrie Fisher, in her honor.

Once upon a time, Carrie Fisher helped ruin Hollywood for me. I went there seeking crazy showbiz vitality with all the desperation of a humanities graduate student who can’t take the complacent dullness of academia one more second. But to my horror, Fisher was instrumental in showing me that underneath its superficial porny allure, Hollywood’s elite had blazed alternative paths toward boredom and mediocrity. No wonder drugs were Fisher’s friends, and that she found them so hard to part with.

I was a guest at two Hollywood parties attended by Fisher — one that she actually co-hosted — and they were such a rotten parties that all my youthful idealism was crushed. If you can’t find gleeful depravity at a Carrie Fisher party, where can you hope to find it?

She must’ve gotten a lot of that over the years. If Carrie Fisher comes, can riotous coke-addled orgies be far behind?

Party #1 was the shared birthday party of Fisher and Penny Marshall, who alternated the location of their party each year. That year was at Marshall’s house, which provided all the necessities for a real Hollywood blowout with a spacious starlit terrace around an artfully lit swimming pool, an awe-inspiring view of lit-up Los Angeles, and wall-to-wall celebrities. However, the entire event was conducted in a stilted atmosphere of twelve-stepper careerism, with decorously sober clusters of famous people standing poolside, talking shop. It was incredibly depressing. Co-host Fisher, looking lovely and girlish at that point, surveyed the tepid scene with round eyes, and offered a verdict in her carrying voice: “I think this thing works better at my house.”

Party #2 was a small afternoon barbecue at which Fisher exuded misery. She slammed the garden gate while entering, stalked in looking heavy and haggard, with her hair chopped crudely short as if she’d butchered it with her own hands in a fit of self-loathing. With no amusement in her face, she was almost unrecognizable. She enacted depression and disgust at operatic levels that day. It was hard to blame her, since the party was truly dire. The host’s herd of tiny dogs roamed freely among the guests defecating everywhere, and as the enervating event wore on, more and more people tracked Shih Tzu poo around the patio in the smelly heat.

If she’d felt like it, Fisher could’ve transformed that party in writing into something funny, another wacky Hollywood social calamity. The saving grace of that dispiriting star-sighting was thinking of the humorous public image she crafted out of witnessing the rank failure of the rich and famous to live well.

The keynote of so many of Fisher’s most memorable stories is the incongruous fuckup that shatters the image of high-living in Hollywood. The time her brother Todd accidentally shot himself in the thigh, spraying Debbie Reynolds’s whole immaculate film-star bedroom with blood; the time Fisher’s friend, come to town to escort her to all the Oscar night parties, died in her bed and then came back to haunt her, literally; the time her father, Eddie Fisher, wrote a memoir claiming his ex-wife Debbie Reynolds was a lesbian, and Carrie Fisher felt compelled to publicly state, “My mother is not a lesbian. She’s just a really, really bad heterosexual.”

In presenting stardom as a hilarious, freakish mess, Fisher stayed tightly connected with the general public, whose lives are also messes, though less fraught with general interest. And the artfulness of this public presentation that rang so true puts her in the pantheon of her beloved famous fuckups with all their accomplishments. RIP Carrie Fisher!