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28 December 2016

No one else will write about Carrie Fisher as well as she wrote about herself

The Star Wars actor has died at the age of 60. Her own words should be the most lasting memorial.

By James Cooray Smith

Carrie Fisher was a writer and performer who found worldwide stardom as Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977), released when she was just 19. It was her first leading role, after a striking cameo in Shampoo (1975), and she reprised the part in two sequels in the 1980s, and a further two made this decade.

Fisher would later say that Star Wars had inadvertently “tricked” her into celebrity; that she had been a bookish teenager, more interested in writing than performing, and had she known how famous the film would make her, she would have turned it down.

Yet stardom was the family business. Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, had also achieved international fame aged 19, for her first leading role (in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain), and her daughter was surrounded by almost impossibly famous people since birth.

To create a single iconic screen characterisation – as Fisher did with Princess Leia – is more than most performers hope to achieve. It does not denigrate Fisher’s work in other fields to acknowledge the scale of Star Wars’ cultural impact, given that she made a significant contribution to its popularity.

It is also not true to imply, as some have, that she achieved little else as a performer after the original Star Wars trilogy. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), The ‘Burbs, and When Harry Met Sally… (both 1989) are fine films, great examples of their respective genres, and Fisher is extremely good in all three of them. She might never have played the female lead in a film as successful as Star Wars again – but for decades after she did, neither did anyone else.

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In 1987, Fisher published Postcards from the Edge, a novel that drew on her own life as second generation Hollywood Royalty. When her book became a film, Fisher wrote the screenplay, and many expected her to also play the lead, Suzanne. The role instead went to Meryl Streep, who was nominated for an Oscar. When asked why she didn’t take the part herself, Fisher was clear that she didn’t want to, insisting: “I’ve already played Suzanne.”

From then on, Fisher’s acting work, such as playing a therapist in the first Austin Powers (1997) or her Emmy-nominated turn in 30 Rock (2007), took its cues from her own writing. It played on her fame, public persona and known interests and passions, including her work with mental health organisations – an intertwining of her life and art that continued for the rest of her life.

In parallel to performing, and a continuing career as a novelist, the success of the Postcards film made Fisher an in-demand Hollywood screenwriter. This was largely “polishing” – for payment but without credit – scripts attributed to other hands. A comprehensive list of these screenplays is inherently difficult to compile, but her uncredited work is acknowledged to be seen in Hook (1991), Sister Act (1992), The Wedding Singer (1998) and several Star Wars films in which she did not appear.

She did receive credit for her episode of Star Wars creator George Lucas’ Young Indiana Jones television series. (It depicted the teenage Indiana’s affair with Mata Hari, was directed by Nicolas Roeg, and is as odd as that description makes it sound.)

In 2001, she wrote and received credit for the screenplay for These Old Broads, a celebration of women in Hollywood in the generation above her. It starred Shirley MacLaine (who had played Suzanne’s mother in Postcards from the Edge) and Elizabeth Taylor, the woman for whom her father, Eddie Fisher, left her mother in 1959.

Her most recent book, The Princess Diarist, published in November this year, was a volume based on diaries she had kept while making Star Wars. Witty and emotionally complex, it provoked headlines by confirming longstanding rumours about her on-set affair with Harrison Ford, and was accompanied by an international signing tour, from which she was returning when she was taken ill.

On the London leg of her tour, a friend of mine found himself roughly in the middle of the long, long queue of people wanting a few moments with her. As his turn approached, she shot him a wicked look: “I’ll do you before my break,” she said. “And then during my break, I’ll do you. A girl has to relax somehow.” My friend – not easily embarrassed and far from a blushing novitiate – turned crimson and was reduced to monosyllables, to Fisher’s great, cackling delight. She then posed with him for a picture in which both are beaming. Like a Colette or even an Anaïs Nin, her public life had become as much her art form as her performances and writing.

It is her writing that should be a lasting memorial. Others could perhaps have played Princess Leia nearly as well, but only Carrie Fisher could have written Postcards from the Edge or her one-woman show and subsequent memoir Wishful Drinking. The next few days will be filled with tributes to her, including this one, but all will be insufficient. No one else will ever write about Carrie Fisher as well as she wrote about herself.

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