How Carrie Fisher created Princess Leia and reclaimed her legacy
Princess Leia is slumped forward, face buried in her arms. There’s an empty martini glass in one hand, and there are suspicious green-blue pills scattered in front of her. Is she crying? Passed out? The martini glass wavers: You sense that this is the frozen moment right before the glass drops out of her hand, to break or shatter.
This is not a scene from a Star Wars movie, but the cover of Fisher’s 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking. In Star Wars movies, people don’t drink, they don’t pop pills, they don’t pass out with their clothes on. Maybe they overdose on the Dark Side, but they never go to rehab, which means they never make any rehab jokes. Heck, maybe that’s not even Leia on the cover. The face is obscured; it doesn’t even look like Fisher. This goes without saying, but the actress didn’t own the character. (She would joke, sometimes, that the reverse was true.)
Fisher’s work as Princess Leia in Star Wars touched 41 years in her life: She started at 19 and died at 60, having finished playing the now-General Leia Organa in Episode VIII, due out next December. And her digital visage is in theaters nationwide right now, as Princess Leia from the original Star Wars makes an appearance in Rogue One.
Back in 2011, Fisher revealed to Newsweek that when she signed onto Star Wars, she signed away her likeness for free. She was the daughter of Hollywood people — a famous actor and a famous singer and an infamous divorce — but nobody in Hollywood imagined four decades of toys and merchandise and Leia dolls and Leia Pez dispensers and Leia shampoo. “The identity of Princess Leia so eclipses any other identity that I’ve ever had,” Fisher told Newsweek. Fisher had a fine few careers outside of Star Wars — read her obituary here. But note the word choice in that sentence, because Fisher was clever and careful and painfully honest with her words. Not “role,” not “part,” not “job,” but “identity.”
What was that identity? Who was Princess Leia? The first Leia moment in the first Star Wars that you might call truly “iconic” happens early, via hologram, a famous line repeating like a record skipping a beat: “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she says, a little blue girl. “You’re my only hope.” But the moment of Leia’s complete creation comes later: She has been captured by the Empire, has watched her home planet been blown up by a super laser. There is the implication of torture or at least some seriously enhanced interrogation. (She has a posh accent, and then sometimes she doesn’t.) Luke Skywalker, impersonating an Imperial, walks into her prison cell and freezes. There’s a long pause; Leia lazily hangs her arm over her waist, looking amused and bored and dismissive. “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” she says. It is one of the greatest moments in any movie, one of the funniest things anyone has ever said in a science-fiction movie, one of the most subtle line deliveries George Lucas would ever allow. After that, Luke Skywalker always looked smaller.
That was Leia: She cut everyone else down to size. The Empire Strikes Back gave her a fine witty romance with Han Solo — an onscreen love and an offscreen affair. Fisher told Rolling Stone that although their relationship became physical, “We weren’t communicating a lot.” Art doesn’t imitate life: In The Empire Strikes Back, Leia and Han communicate a lot — their mutual distaste and their frustration and their intense attraction. He’s stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking; she’d rather kiss a Wookiee.
It became common to praise Leia as a strong character, a pioneer. She is the fiercest soldier of the main cast of characters: a Rebel already when Luke is just a farm boy and Han is still a scoundrel. In Star Wars, the boys save her, not well, and not professionally. (“This is some rescue!” Leia says, always sarcastic.) But she saves them, too: Luke in Empire, hanging over the infinite Bespin sky; Han in Return of the Jedi, frozen in despair.
People remember that moment in Empire, right before Han goes in the carbonite: She says “I love you,” and he says “I know.” It’s romantic and funny and maybe a bit of a power move for him. But I always remember the scene right after that, when Chewie starts choking Lando. They still think he’s a traitor. Lando says that he’s just trying to help, that he had no choice. “Oh, we understand, don’t we, Chewie?” Leia says, rage and sarcasm blazing in her eyes wide open. “He had no choice.” In that moment, you feel some essential truth about Leia: If you hurt the man she loves, she’ll let a Wookiee strangle you and watch it happen, up close.
Leia defined Fisher, as far as the world was concerned. Fisher accepted that, with humor dark enough to suggest that “acceptance” was a daily ritual. Star Wars became an American myth. Hollywood was a myth, too — a myth that Fisher happened to be born into, Eddie and Debbie and Liz and beloved Uncle Cary Grant telling her to stay off drugs. Unsurprising, maybe, that she became one of the most practiced puncturists of both myths. In the stage version of Wishful Drinking, she said, “George Lucas ruined my life, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.” She could make a joke out of any harsh truth, and you started to notice that she was full of harsh truths about Leia. In that same stage show, she remembered being told to lose 10 pounds when she weighed 105. In 2015, she claimed that to star in her fourth Star Wars movie, she had to shed 35 pounds.
In the puncturing of the myth, Fisher was creating her own counter-myth: A vision of Star Wars, from the inside, but also upside-down, with humor and self-awareness and honesty and clarity. She was doing to Star Wars what Leia does to Luke in that Stormtrooper scene: cutting the whole thing down to size. Leia was always cool — too cool to mourn for Alderaan, too cool for the heroes trying to rescue her, too cool to ever truly be in distress — and Carrie Fisher could make it feel like Leia was too cool for Star Wars. So she complicated the character’s legacy, and in the process, she reclaimed it. She was the real rebel.
Consider: In Return of the Jedi, Fisher wears her gold bikini. It is one of the franchise’s most iconic images, and its single most problematic: The undressing of a strong female character, forced into subservience to a barely-metaphorical slug-monster who keeps underdressed ladies chained to an easily accessible casting couch. It’s not as simple as that, maybe: Leia strangles Jabba with her chains of captivity, the most disgusting death in the franchise and the most righteous. Fisher would joke about the bikini, and she would be honest about it, would glory in the idea that it made her a sex symbol and would joke about the boys who lusted after her. When Fisher spoke to her Force Awakens costar Daisy Ridley last year for Interview, she had some advice: “Don’t be a slave like I was,” she said, “You keep fighting against that slave outfit.”
Leia kept fighting. In The Force Awakens, she’s a general. It’s technically a promotion, though it’s a smaller role. But Fisher was the undisputed star of the Force Awakens press tour, willing to talk about practically anything, tweeting about anything she forgot to talk about. She would talk about being a female human in Hollywood over 50. She would tell everyone to kindly f— off about her age. Her young costars and most of the world could seem positively in thrall to the legend of Star Wars. Fisher grew up with legends, and as Leia, she became a legend. But Leia was too blunt to believe in legends. (Size matters not, sure, but really, aren’t you a little too short for a Stormtrooper?)
And Fisher was too funny, too honest, too inextricably herself. Leia became a legend first, but Fisher burnished that legend, added to it, made Star Wars smarter, made Leia’s coolness somehow bigger than the movies around her. The next time you go back and watch Star Wars, marvel at how you see Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher: Tough, amused, unimpressed. Leia was a princess and a general, a standard-bearer for women in the blockbuster era. The woman who played her was nobody’s slave, and with honesty and humor, she kept fighting.