By now the news of Carrie Fisher’s death has hit hard all over the world. It’s true that for an entire generation of people, her breakout role at 19 as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy has made her a sci-fi icon and a childhood crush—both roles she longed to escape. Tribute after tribute on social media and elsewhere reminded us almost immediately after Tuesday’s announcement that her life and work have had a much wider impact, even on people who have never even seen a Star Wars film.
Fisher’s unabashedly candid public conversations about her personal struggles with substance abuse and bipolar disorder made her a powerful advocate for others who felt ashamed to talk about these too-often-taboo subjects and often too ashamed to seek help. Much like George Michael, another celebrity mourned by millions this holiday season, Fisher refused to be shamed into silence or to capitulate to bullies and bigots. Instead she practically bloomed with earthy charm and wit as she co-opted tabloid character assassination and turned it into her own form of autobiographical art and therapeutic outreach.
Her return to the rebooted Star Wars franchise last year as the wise, aging General Leia Organa elevated the conversation about older women in Hollywood, after her response to some vicious comments about her looks made her haters look small, mean, and stunted. Fisher’s talent for Oscar Wilde-worthy aphorisms that sliced right through layers of insufferable bullshit also led to one of her most successful career stints, as a writer, script doctor, and Hollywood fixer during a “long, very lucrative episode,” as she told Newsweek in a 2008 interview. (In true Carrie Fisher fashion, she brought these life experiences to an Emmy-nominated guest turn on an episode of 30 Rock as her funniest character, Rosemary Howard.)
It’s rumored that Fisher revised her lines in George Lucas’ notoriously wordy Star Wars scripts. (Although one image of Empire Strikes Back edits purported to be in her hand actually contains revisions by the film’s director Irvin Kershner.) But her formal screenwriting career began in 1990, when she adapted her bestselling 1987 autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, into the screenplay for a Meryl Streep-starring film. The project led to rewriting work on high-profile comedies throughout the next decade. In addition to a credit for one of those unwieldy Lucas scripts for The Phantom Menace in 1999, Fisher helped rework films like Hook, Sister Act, Made in America, So I Married an Axe Murderer, The Wedding Singer, and several more.
Always a fiercely outspoken critic of the way Hollywood treats women, Fisher fought to make female characters more three-dimensional. In a WebMD interview, she was asked, “What does it take to heal bad dialogue?” Her pithy answer: “Make the women smarter and the love scenes better.” As a peacemaker for troubled productions, however, she often advised women actors to use diplomacy—with her own spin on the concept. When Whoopi Goldberg feuded with Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, for example, Fisher advised, “Send Jeffrey a hatchet and say, ‘Please bury this on both our behalfs.’” Goldberg thought it over, and “the next day Katzenberg received his hatchet. Within a few days a token of Katzenberg’s respect arrived at her front door: two enormous brass balls.”
Stories like this one, and many more uproarious and often personally self-destructive episodes, formed the basis for Fisher’s autobiographical bestsellers, including her memoir Wishful Drinking, which also became a one-woman Broadway show, then an HBO special (see an excerpt at the top). She has always won over critics as an actress, and she made a wry kind of peace with her eternal fame as Princess Leia, imbuing the character with renewed gravitas and sensitivity in the year before her death. But she did not see herself principally as an actress. “I’m a writer,” she told WebMD. Asked whom she’d choose to share “confined quarters” with from history, she answered—with her winning combination of disarming sincerity and winking self-awareness—“Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was manic-depressive, too.”