Anton: It was shocking and sad to hear that Carrie Fisher passed at the age of 60.
Aren: It’s a death that is so sudden that I’m still having trouble processing it, even after a few weeks. Carrie Fisher means a lot to everyone who loves Star Wars, as we each do. To have her die suddenly from a random heart attack at the age of 60, just when her career was on a new upward trajectory, is heartbreaking.
Anders: It was particularly shocking to me personally, as she was the first of the core trinity of Luke, Han, and Leia to pass away and one of the first actresses I had any real consciousness of as a young kid. And it was sudden (and coming on the heels of news that she had initially survived her heart attack a few days earlier). And then there was the shock of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, dying the very next day (an icon in her own right for films like Singin’ in the Rain).
Princess Leia: The Original Trilogy
Anton: It’s difficult to separate my feelings about Carrie Fisher from my feelings about the most famous role she played: Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars saga. However, I’d like to try to steer the conversation away from the testimonies of adolescent lust and longing I’ve been reading. Yes, her Princess Leia ignited sexual and romantic fantasies in so many boys’ minds, but what’s really special is that the character did more than that.
The sad truth is that so many female characters are relegated to the role of sex object or romantic interest, particularly in action, fantasy, and science fiction films. (Today, we just make the female characters also have fighting abilities and say that makes it all better.) Princess Leia was a female character I liked and could identify with as an adolescent boy. Her character had depth and development, and I cared about how the character changed and grew over the course of the original trilogy.
Aren: I find it impossible to discuss Carrie Fisher without discussing Princess Leia Organa. Yes, it’s her most iconic role, but it’s also one of the most iconic roles in the history of movies. She’s the quintessential movie princess and it’s hard to imagine that the actress who brought her to life is gone, because she casts such a massive shadow over cinema.
You’re right that Princess Leia is so much more than a male Star Wars fan’s first crush. She’s sexy, but she is also strong and witty and intelligent and Carrie Fisher’s undeniable energy is so much of what makes the part work.
Carrie Fisher was just over five feet tall and Star Wars introduces her by first having her shoot a Stormtrooper out the blue and then stand tall against a massive villain in a robotic mask. There’s no fear in Leia. No acceptance that because she is small and she is female that she is not strong and going to win in the end. Fisher imbued her with pluck and pride and the rock-solid belief that she was doing what was right.
We often talk about Harrison Ford as the primary selling point (actor-wise) of the original trilogy, but Carrie Fisher is every bit his equal. Han Solo would not be intriguing or cool if Princess Leia didn’t react the way she did to him. Think of all your favourite Han Solo scenes–whether it’s in the ice caves of Echo Base on Hoth or the carbon freezing chamber on Cloud City, Han Solo’s appeal relies on his banter and friction with Leia. Ford’s charm is a reaction to Fisher’s hostility. One needs the other to work.
In A New Hope, Carrie Fisher conveyed regality and resourcefulness. She embodied the royalty of her character’s name. In The Empire Strikes Back, she became more of a classical hero of romantic comedy. Fisher would’ve fit in well in the screwball era of the thirties. She could’ve been like Katherine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck. Her timing was impeccable, but even more than that, her face was hugely emotive.
Few actors could scowl on screen and have that scowl say so much, or smile and convey a world of subtext through the beaming white teeth. Think about her sulking when Han and Luke haven’t come back yet on Hoth. Leia thinks they’re likely dead and through a mere head nod, the way that Fisher lets her head drop, scrunches her mouth, and keeps her eyes just below eye level of those around her, conveys all the heartbreak inside. She’s dejected, but she’s also a princess and a princess cannot let that emotion out so nakedly to her inferiors.
Even though she was admittedly high on cocaine during much of the filming of Return of the Jedi, her energy comes through in key moments. One is when Leia kills Jabba the Hutt. If she’s sidelined for much of the first third of Return of the Jedi, enslaved in the metal bikini, her throttling of Jabba the Hutt erases any notion that Leia has been defanged of her previous bite.
Return of the Jedi shows a few moments of untapped rage from the main characters—think of Luke’s assault on Vader’s hand during their final showdown. For Leia, her rage is unleashed against Jabba the Hutt. It’s a triumphant moment: cinema’s greatest princess killing a literal slug that represents all the lecherous gangsters, wicked kings, and vile wretches that so commonly torment on screen heroines.
As well, the ewoks would not work at all if Fisher weren’t so compassionate performing alongside Warwick Davis as Wicket. I love the way she explains that her helmet is just a hat to Wicket. She’s so understanding and gentle, even though she’s performing opposite a person in a bear suit.
Anders: Carrie Fisher was an essential part of the appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy. As I mentioned above, Princess Leia was not merely the distant, beautiful princess who serves as a reward for a hero but a core member of the trinity character structure at the heart of the original trilogy. It’s a well-worn trope now to have three central characters whose differing personalities and roles complement each other in their quest (think Harry, Ron, Hermione in Harry Potter, or Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity in The Matrix, or before that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in Star Trek). But as you say, she played an important role in giving women a role in mainstream fantasy and science fiction stories beyond either damsel in distress or evil seductress.
I think what we’re trying to say here is that the character of Princess Leia is inexorably intertwined with Carrie Fisher’s portrayal of that character, as it so often is with the most iconic and memorable screen characters. Carrie Fisher brought a no nonsense attitude and a regal charm to the character that radiates off the screen in the original film. I think it’s notable that she is the first of the main characters to be introduced in A New Hope and the only one mentioned in the opening crawl of the film. She is active, putting the plot into motion through her leadership and decisions. And she is instantly recognizable. When we talk about iconography, think about costumes and performance and how all you need to do is put two buns next to your head and people will instantly say “Princess Leia.” But without the personality and spirit to fill that image, it would never have become an icon.
Lastly, I will mention her appeal as an object of romantic desire to many young fans of the series. When I first began dating my wife, both of you made comments about her resemblance to a young Carrie Fisher. While I did recognize a slight resemblance at the time, looking back, I think the resemblance is more in attitude and intelligence.
Anton: Sure, Anders, sure.
Anders: What I take away from that fact is how Carrie Fisher brought those things to the role of Princess Leia and I think it is as much those things as her physical beauty that people found attractive in the character. Aren mentions the deftness of her performance in the entire trilogy. I think the case can be made that she was the most polished and competent performer of the three main stars at the time.
General Organa: The New Films
Anton: It’s interesting to think about what Carrie Fisher brought to the role of Leia Organa in Episode VII.
Aren: I actually liked how Abrams and Disney made Leia the elder statesman and general of The Force Awakens. Leia was always the smartest of the main characters, so it stands to reason that she’d be the one person who would be actively working against the First Order in the new series. It was an acknowledgement that even though Leia was no longer young and beautiful, her worth did not cease to be. That a princess is more than just a damsel, but is a leader. In many ways, it’s actually kind of a radical statement in a blockbuster culture that has no interest in aging women.
I’m very curious—
Anton: —“Anxious” is the word, I think.
Aren: —as to how Leia’s story will play out now that Carrie Fisher is gone. I hope they don’t digitally recreate her like they did in Rogue One and instead give the character a fitting death. I feel like you have to respect the tragedy that is Fisher’s untimely death by having her most iconic character suffer a similar one. To do otherwise by unnaturally ignoring the limitations of not having her around to film Episode IX and having her character present would feel like a slap in the face to the still-raw pain of her loss. It’d be like saying, “We lost Princess Leia and we’re all very sad but we didn’t really lose her because we can just use a digital image of her to endlessly have her star in our movies while we publicly announce our supposed heartbreak at her loss.”
I’m not against the occasional digital recreation with the support of the family, as was the case with Peter Cushing in Rogue One, but the recentness of Fisher’s loss and the monumental importance she has to this series is not something that can be managed through clever digital effects. It wouldn’t show her proper respect, although if they did digital recreate her for future films, Fisher would’ve been the first to get a kick out of its stupidity.
Anders: I was happy to see Carrie Fisher return to the role of Leia Organa Skywalker in The Force Awaken. I agree also that it was a nice gesture of opposition to the status quo treatment of aging women to put her front and centre in the promotion for the film. However, I would have welcomed more interaction between her and Han Solo in the film. I think Carrie Fisher managed to convey a lot in her short screen time, of a mother grieving her son’s betrayal and the loss of her partner. Her loss adds an extra sting if it means we will never get to see those ideas fleshed out in the future films. I have no idea how much has been filmed for her role in Episode VIII, but the film will take on a new kind of significance as a final screen role for an iconic actor, regardless of whether Disney decides (and is granted the approval by the estate) to bring back Princess Leia digitally. Like Aren, I hope they don’t do it, and I agree that digital recreation should best be left to small roles.
Anton: Recently rewatching The Force Awakens after Fisher’s passing adds yet another layer of poignancy to that film’s treatment of the original trilogy’s three protagonists. Upon the release of Episode VII, I was sad that, with Han’s death, the three characters will never get to share the screen again. I was frustrated we will never get to see that onscreen reunion, even if it was nice to see Han and Leia interact, as you mentioned, and to see the cast together in promotions. Now, with the greater loss of Carrie Fisher in real life, it seems to make the trinity characters’ unrealized “happily ever after” even more sad. The camera will never recapture that glorious ending of Return of Jedi, when all was well with the galaxy. But, yes, that was always futile. Fisher’s death, obviously heartbreaking in a personal sense, is also a harsh reminder of the futility of trying to hold onto a vision from the past.
To her credit, Fisher’s General Organa in The Force Awakens doesn’t try to simply retread the earlier versions of the character. I remember being initially estranged by the opening crawl describing Leia as “General” not “Princess” (a point joked about early in the film: “To me, she’s royalty”), but not only is that a statement in terms of the representation of women in film, but it’s also an acknowledgement that the character has grown and changed. The girl raised on peace-loving Alderaan has felt compelled to dedicate her later years to combat the First Order with force. The war commander side of Leia, always there, has become her dominant side. She will stand against the First Order because no one else will—even her husband, now estranged, has abandoned the fight. It’s interesting that in J.J.’s version both Han and Luke have retreated, in different ways, from the difficulties of the universe—from the greater struggle between the Light and the Dark, in the words of Maz Kanata—and it’s only Leia who is still carrying the flame of the fight. I think that says a lot about what Carrie Fisher brought, and continued to bring, to the character.
Other works and appearances
Anton: To be honest, my knowledge of Carrie Fisher is largely confined to her role in Star Wars, so I won’t wax on about later developments I didn’t really follow. For the most part, I just remember her cameos in movies, and recall how sharp and funny she was.
Anders: The two non-Star Wars roles that stand out to me the most are her supporting roles in Hannah and Her Sisters (my favourite Woody Allen film) and in When Harry Met Sally. But perhaps it was her non-fictional real-life persona as the child of Hollywood royalty and triumph over her personal demons of drugs and alcohol that were her most lasting non-Star Wars statements. She will always represent someone who never pretended not to be flawed in an industry where everyone is constantly putting on a show, even when they’re not in front of the camera.
Aren: Carrie Fisher was also the queen of the comedic cameo. The other day, I was remembering her bit part in the early seasons of 30 Rock, playing a lightly-fictionalized version of herself whom Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon idolizes. She exaggerates all those complaints that were lobbed against her over the years and makes herself master of her own neuroses. It’s one of many examples of Fisher taking away the power of her critics. She owned her faults and refused to apologize for them and used them as a wicked tool of comedy. She does a similar thing in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, although it serves a different purpose in a much darker film.
In regards to her other movie roles, I mostly think of her in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, or as Meg Ryan’s friend in When Harry Met Sally… or as the wife of Tom Hanks in Joe Dante’s The ’Burbs. She was a lively presence in these small parts, even though she easily could’ve been a leading woman in romantic comedies of the eighties and nineties if studios had been willing to work with her.
The question is: does a person need more than one massive contribution to the world of art to be iconic? I don’t think so. Fisher was a novelist and screenwriter and she was an actress in shows other than Star Wars and a mental health advocate, but she will always primarily be Princess Leia and I don’t believe it’s belittling to tie her legacy into that. If I was one of the best pitchers of all time and won several World Series at the height of my game, I would not be sad that when I died, people primarily celebrated me as a really good pitcher. Being great is something worth celebrating.
Carrie Fisher was a great Princess Leia. She changed a lot of people’s lives by playing that role and playing it so effectively. She might not have written the role, but she created the human side of it and without her, there’s no way Star Wars would’ve been what it is.
We’ll all miss her.
Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016.