“I don’t want my life to imitate art, I want my life to be art.” – Carrie Fisher
American actor Carrie Fisher will probably be remembered by most people for her iconic role as Princess Leia in George Lucas’ magnum opus, the Star Wars franchise. However, there’s a lot more to unpack when it comes to understanding Fisher’s complex life as a troubled childhood, broken marriages and drug addictions took a heavy toll on her mental health. She was known for being unflinchingly honest about her problems in public, prompting her biographer Shiela Weller to write: “Her honesty about her problems gave her a strength – empathy toward and relief for others with problems; a unique, wise humour that would grow over the years.” But where did all of it start?
Born in Los Angeles in 1956 to celebrity parents, singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds who divorced when she was just two-years-old, Fisher famously joked that someone like her (with all her personal battles) was “truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.” As a child, she found her escape in books and was referred to as the “bookworm” in her family. An avid reader of classical literature, Fisher felt inclined towards the arts right from the beginning and wrote poetry as well. “I started reading really early,” Fisher admitted to The Los Angeles Times in 2008. “I wanted to impress my father, who is unimpressable…My family called me ‘the bookworm’ and they didn’t say it in a nice way. I fell in love with words.” She added:
“I always wrote. I wrote from when I was 12. That was therapeutic for me in those days. I wrote things to get them out of feeling them, and onto paper. So writing in a way saved me, kept me company. I did the traditional thing with falling in love with words, reading books and underlining lines I liked and words I didn’t know.”
Following in the footsteps of her parents, Fisher entered show business at the age of 16. She first appeared a debutante and singer in the 1973 hit Broadway revival, Irene, starring her mother, but her time on Broadway interfered with her schoolwork, and she ended up having to drop out of high school. The same year, she started studying at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, and she followed up education in the arts by enrolling at Sarah Lawrence College, but she left without graduating.
Fisher officially made her film debut two years later in the 1975 comedy Shampoo starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn. It was filmed the year before, a time when she was just 17, but it wasn’t until 1977 that Fisher got her big breakthrough in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. It was during this whirlwind period that Fisher met musician Paul Simon while filming Star Wars, and the pair dated from 1977 until 1983, eventually going on to be married before the relationship broke down within a year. Fisher was brilliant as Princess Leia, a character which further solidified the strong female archetype in the genre. While reflecting on Fisher’s presence on set, Lucas said: “She was extremely smart; a talented actress, writer and comedienne with a very colourful personality that everyone loved. In Star Wars she was our great and powerful princess—feisty, wise and full of hope in a role that was more difficult than most people might think.”
Although she made numerous appearances on TV specials during the intermediate period, Fisher’s next feature film came three years after A New Hope. Listed in the credits as ‘Mysterious Woman’, she played the part of a vengeful ex-lover in John Landis’ 1980 musical comedy The Blues Brothers with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Fisher, again finding love in a high profile place, was briefly engaged to Akroyd, who proposed to her on the set of their film about which she said, “We had rings, we got blood tests, the whole shot. But then I got back together with Paul Simon.”
That year was an eventful one for Fisher. Not only did she appear on Broadway in Censored Scenes from King Kong, but she also reprised her role in Lucas’ follow-up to the original Star Wars film: The Empire Strikes Back. During this period, Fisher was quickly establishing her celebrity status with multiple appearances on Rolling Stone covers. She also starred as Sister Agnes in the Broadway production of Agnes of God in 1983. To promote Episode VI – Return of the Jedi in 1983, Fisher again appeared on the summer issue of Rolling Stone in the iconic metallic bikini which has garnered a cult following of its own over the years. She later revealed that she would have turned down the role of Princess Leia had she realised it would give her the celebrity status that made her parents’ lives difficult—another eye-opening aspect of her personal turmoil.
It was around this time that Fisher began to notice that she had become increasingly dependent on drug use. In an interview, she recalled using cocaine on the set of The Empire Strikes Back, “Slowly, I realised I was doing a bit more drugs than other people and losing my choice in the matter.” After months of sobriety, Fisher accidentally overdosed on a combination of prescription medication and sleeping pills in 1985. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a child and “drugs made [her] feel more normal.” Years later, in 2013, Fisher openly discussed what it was like for her: “My illness took hold when I was 14 or 15 years old—my father had it too,” she said. “Having had this illness my entire life, I accommodated it by developing a very big personality…Over the years, writing about [having bipolar disorder] did help me to be able to talk about my illness in the abstract, to make light of it. That’s my way of surviving, to abstract it into something that’s funny and not dangerous.”
Despite the success of Star Wars, Fisher starred in a number of mediocre films during the early to mid-1980s, including Under the Rainbow in 1981 and Hollywood Vice Squad five years later in 1986, a period of flux which, in truth, was dominated by her struggles with depression and addiction.
In 1987, she published her first novel Postcards From The Edge which was semi-autobiographical in nature because she fictionalised and satirised real-life events such as her drug addiction of the late 1970s and her relationship with her mother. As a child, she had always felt like she was living in her mother’s shadow: “When we went out, people sort of walked over me to get to her, and no, I didn’t like it. I overheard people saying, ‘She thinks she’s so great because she’s Debbie Reynolds’ daughter!’ And I didn’t like it; it made me different from other people and I wanted to be the same.” The book became a bestseller, and she received the Los Angeles Pen Award for Best First Novel. It was a significant moment in Fisher’s life, opening up new doors and allowing a more concentrated sense of artistry.
Fisher had starred alongside Barbara Hershey and Mia Farrow in Woody Allen’s 1986 comedy-drama Hannah and Her Sisters but she slowly re-aligned her focus to writing. She published two more novels in the ’90s and also wrote a film adaptation for her first novel, starring Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine and Dennis Quaid. Fisher was also involved in uncredited script work for films like Lethal Weapon 3 and wrote an episode of the television sitcom Roseanne entitled “Arsenic and Old Mom”, in which her mother Debbie Reynolds made a guest appearance. With the focus now on writing, between 1991 to 2005, Fisher became an unsung hero of the major film industry and was one of the top “script doctors” in Hollywood which meant that she edited and polished other screenwriters’ works often without being credited. She was hired by George Lucas to polish scripts for his 1992 TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and the dialogue for the Star Wars prequel scripts.
Aside from acting and writing, Fisher was a supporter and advocate for several causes, including women’s advocacy, mental health awareness, animal rights, and LGBT causes. In 2008, she wrote her autobiography Wishful Drinking based on her one-woman play of the same name which she wrote and performed at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles from November 2006 to January 2007. Later, the show opened on Broadway, and Fisher’s audiobook recording of Wishful Drinking earned her a nomination for a 2009 Grammy Award in the Best Spoken Word Album category. Fisher made guest-appearances on TV series like 30 Rock (for which she earned an Emmy nomination) but it wasn’t until 2013 that she confirmed she was going to be a part of a major feature film trilogy, beginning with the 2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens. She described the old Leia as “elderly. She’s in an intergalactic old folks’ home [laughs]. I just think she would be just like she was before, only slower and less inclined to be up for the big battle.”
In December of 2016, Fisher was on a commercial flight from London to Los Angeles when her fellow passengers noticed that she had stopped breathing. After four days in intensive care, she was declared dead at the age of 60 at the UCLA Medical Centre, news which rocked the film industry to its very core. The reports that came back were initially inconclusive but later stated that she had cocaine in her system, as well as traces of heroin, other opiates, and MDMA. Her daughter Billie Lourd said, “[Fisher] battled drug addiction and mental illness her entire life. She ultimately died of it. She was purposefully open in all of her work about the social stigmas surrounding these diseases…I know my Mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles.” The next day, her mother Debbie Reynolds suffered a stroke while planning Fisher’s funeral arrangements and died that afternoon in a devastating period for the Fisher family.
Grieving fans made a personalised star for Fisher on Hollywood’s walk of fame as a memorial for the late icon. Along with flowers and candles, words put on the blank star read, “Carrie Fisher / May The Force Be With You Always / Hope”. The 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi was dedicated to her memory. Her last appearance on the British sitcom Catastrophe aired in April of 2017 and made many fans emotional and earned her a posthumous Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series nomination. Fisher’s life was complicated and tragic in a lot of ways but she always managed to come out on top and to be honest to herself and her experiences. In her words:
“There’s a part of me that gets surprised when people think I’m brave to talk about what I’ve gone through. I was brave to last through it.”