“You know what would be really good? To get to the end of my personality and just lie in the sun,“ says Carrie Fisher in a tense moment in Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, the documentary about her mother, Debbie Reynolds, which is scheduled to run on HBO in 2017.
Carrie Fisher’s career was defined by her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars. The role outdistanced all her other films and TV appearances, including Shampoo, When Harry Met Sally and Blues Brothers. When she auditioned for the role of Princess Leia, she beat out 20 other actresses to the role. In a roast tribute to George Lucas, she famously teased, “I hope I slept with you to get the job, because if not, who the hell was that guy?”
But perhaps even Princess Leia could not compete with the publicity — and the sincere and global outpouring of sympathy — which burst out when Carrie suffered a heart attack while en route from London to Los Angeles. Tragically, her mother Debbie Reynolds followed Carrie’s death a few days later, reportedly saying she wanted to be with Carrie just 15 minutes before she suffered a stroke.
I saw Bright Lights at the Telluride Film Festival and moderated a post-screening panel with Carrie Fisher and her brother Todd. Her beloved French bulldog, Gary, was also present. (Todd Fisher’s wife, Catherine, has a pet chicken which, she said, the airline would not allow her to transport).
Bright Lights is a film about Debbie Reynolds, but Carrie figures in it very prominently — she lived in a house next door to her mother and saw the increasingly fragile Debbie on a daily basis. To its credit, the documentary goes beyond personality (or Carrie’s struggle with addiction and bipolar disorder) to also show us the contradictions of stardom.
The one thing that emerged from the discussion with Carrie and Fisher at Telluride (Gary, the dog, remained silent) was the loving relationship between Carrie and her younger brother Todd. It’s easy to see why: they had to be in order to survive.
They were small children when Eddie Fisher, Debbie’s husband #1, skipped out for a relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. Husband #2, the owner of a chain of shoe stores, burned through the family money, on his gambling addiction. Husband #3, said Carrie after the screening, is someone the family doesn’t even talk about. Obviously, Debbie did not have the best judgment when it came to men.
She DID have the good instincts to start collecting movie memorabilia — Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat, Audrey Hepburn’s dress from My Fair Lady, Marilyn Monroe’s ivory “subway” dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The film spends some time on the family trying dispose of the collection – finally auctioned when the money could not be raised to house them in a museum.
Growing up, as Carrie and Todd did, under constant bright lights of the movie industry, coupled with the long absences of the parents, led to Carrie becoming an inveterate reader (and later a writer), and to addiction and to an eventual bipolar diagnosis. Carrie spoke of the isolation the kids felt living in a showpiece Hollywood home, always subjected to public scrutiny.
This was no easy life, but honed Carrie’s sharp tongue. She had a gravelly voice, and was very funny. You can read many of her musings in quotes collected in multiple postings on the web. Writing about her father’s relationship with Elizabeth Taylor after Taylor’s husband Michael Todd died and Fisher stepped in as friend, Carrie said: “He first dried her eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and he ultimately consoled her (more intimately). This made marriage to my mother awkward.”
Her sense of humor was direct and not afraid to make herself the object of her wit. This applied to mental illness. In her book, Wishful Drinking, she wrote, “In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”
Carrie and her mother, Debbie, lived in two houses next to each other on the same property. Carrie’s house was, to put it mildly, “idiosyncratic.” She was an obsessive collector — of portraits of clothed animals, with signs of “Beware of crabs” and “Public Telephone Within” on the front gate, a life size cutout of herself as Princess Leia. As a lonely female character in the ongoing Star Wars enterprise, she famously battled George Lucas after being told Princess Leia does not wear a bra (she questioned whether Lucas had researched this in outer space until he explained to her that a weightless body swells in space whereas a bra does not).
The worldwide outpouring of sympathy at Carrie’s death was astonishing. Everyone weighed in. Interviews and conversations with Carrie (and an interview Carrie did with Madonna) seemed to be everywhere. Suddenly she was the “it” girl of the moment.
The news about the election seemed tired and went on pause and Carrie’s life suddenly encompassed a mythic and tragic arc. In her sudden death, her life seemed epic: she was born into celebrity royalty. She suffered from its dysfunction. She became a victim. And she emerged a princess, in the largest movie franchise in history. And she spoke to us. Her observations cut through the political lies of our daily lives and admitted our vulnerability and susceptibility to failed marriages, addiction, mental illness. Yet by making it, and being able to laugh about it, like she did, we could all be heroic.
Even Carrie’s frankness about her own relationships – her marriage to Paul Simon, relationship with agent Byron Lourd – and honest talk about sex – was a relief to the hypocrisy women face every day.
Carrie Fisher also embodied empathy. A guest house on her property was filled with the famous and near-famous, and with individuals in the process of recovery from addiction. Late an hour to her interview with Madonna, she explained she was with a friend as he was dying of AIDS.
Questioned why Princess Leia never got her own light saber, she said, “Even in space, there’s a double standard.”