Returned to the Force: The Life, Death and Legacy of Carrie Fisher
By Kevin M. Brettauer

“Sometimes you can only find Heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.”

  • Carrie Fisher

2016 has claimed a lot of beloved icons who were so much more than the end result of their resumes. By now, you can recite a litany of names off the top of your head. Edward Albee. Prince. Alan Young. Muhammad Ali. Anton Yelchin. Kenny Baker. Elie Wiesel. George Michael. Alan Thicke. Sharon Jones. Darwyn Cooke. David Bowie. Steve Dillon. Leonard Cohen. Gene Wilder. Jerry Doyle. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Michael Cimino. Alan Rickman. Jon Polito. Fyvush Finkel. Robert Vaughn. Merle Haggard. Harper Lee. Garry Shandling. Jo Cox. John Glenn. Lemmy Klimister. Abe Vigoda. Doris Roberts. Richard Adams. Gary Marshall. Florence Henderson. Shimon Peres. Ron Glass. Noel Neill. I could go on.

Some of these names belonged to people who helped define modern celebrity; if you recognize names Gabor’s, you know what I’m talking about. Others like Bowie, Prince, Michael, Albee, Cohen and Ali were giants in their fields, but also stood for something, meant something, showed the world a reflection of its marginalized people and said “this could be you, too”, influencing countless fans to live the dreams they saw on stage, screen or in the ring. Others, like Glenn, left massive shoes to fill in multiple pursuits, in his case politics and space travel. Authors like Wiesel, Lee and Adams helped shaped the minds of entire generations, thereby shaping the culture they helped to create. Others had just barely begun their work, with powerful voices like Yelchin’s and Cox’s cut down in their prime, either by accident, as with the former or, sadly, purposefully, as with the latter.

And then Carrie Fisher died just after Christmas.

Many know her as Princess, and later General, Leia Organa, the heroine of the Star Wars franchise, but she was so much more than that. In films like Hannah and Her Sisters, The Blues Brothers, and When Harry Met Sally…, she worked alongside luminaries like Peter Ustinov, Lauren Bacall, Michael Caine, Nora Ephron, John Gielgud, Woody Allen, Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, Hal Ashby, Julie Christie, Meg Ryan, Dabney Coleman, Billy Crystal, Dan Aykroyd, Steven Spielberg, Lance Henriksen, Tim Blake Nelson, and Kevin Smith, often outshining their accomplishments in the same projects, regardless of the length of her appearance on screen.

She was also a gifted writer, both of fiction and non-fiction, contributing great writing to not just prose, but also to stage and screen. Novels like Postcards from the Edge cemented her voice as an essential one of the modern era, and non-fiction memoirs like Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic are as hilarious as they are poignant. Her written work included film and stage adaptations of her own work, including Postcards from the Edge, and original works including the television film These Old Broads (starring her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who passed away mere hours ago as of this writing, a day after her daughter) and the 2008 stage play A Spy in the House of Me.

And like fellow sci-fi icon Patrick McGoohan, she was one of the best script doctors Hollywood has ever seen. If you have a favorite film of the last twenty-five or so years, chances are Fisher was involved in some capacity. Scripts she was confirmed to have reworked in part or in full include the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Sister Act, the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore romcom The Wedding Singer, and even Last Action Hero, the Arnold Schwarzengger redux of The Purple Rose of Cairo.

But beyond the writing, beyond the acting, beyond even the daily witticisms (many of which are preserved on her Twitter page), Fisher was an icon for the ages.

She took her role as a feminist icon seriously, publicly speaking out against sexism in media and in politics. Before Leia, calling someone a “princess” was often marginalizing; Fisher took the gauntlet thrown at her feet and ran with it, providing young women with a hero they could look up to both on and off the screen.

Fisher was also a recovering addict, whose dependency issues forever changed how Hollywood, and indeed, the world, talked about addiction. She talked about it with great import firmness and honesty – and always, always, with dark humor that would make Kurt Vonnegut blush. Because of her openness and frank sincerity, people like Robert Downey Jr., Ed Harris, Bob Dylan and Craig Robinson have been able to be open about their experiences with substance abuse.

Fisher also struggled with bipolar disorder – she was diagnosed in 1985, two years after the release of Return of the Jedi — and with her trademark openness and pride, became a lightning rod for the mental health community. If Carrie Fisher could face bipolar disorder and live with it on a daily basis, learning to handle the “new normal” as it came and, as always, went, and do all of it openly, why couldn’t the rest of us? Fisher didn’t take any lip from anyone on or off-screen; why should we?

And now her death is poised to shine a light on women’s heart disease. Even in death, she’s still changing how we look at the world.

And that is what she’ll be remembered for. Even if the legacy of Star Wars and Leia Organa were to fade away tomorrow (and they won’t), Fisher opened – no, knocked down – doors, discarded taboos, threw out “propriety”, and she did it with aplomb, vigor and side-splitting humor. She was her own person, a singular woman who always stood for what’s right, and left behind a legacy of 60 years full of work, compassion and human decency that most people wouldn’t reach if they lived to be one hundred.

A Princess of Alderaan, a queen of social justice, an empress of health advocacy.

Rest in Peace, Carrie Fisher.

 

“‘The General’? To me, she is royalty.”

– Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)