Carrie Fisher (1956-2016), Rocket Girl

The first time I ever stood in line for a movie was when I was eleven years old. I remember the line wrapping clear around Wilshire Blvd, and what seemed all the way down a block of Glendon Avenue in Westwood. My brother, then thirteen, and I waited for over an hour to see a new film called Star Wars. The film was terrifying — at least Darth Vader was. And thrilling. It would be many years later as an adult when I would actually understand a large chunk of the storyline, despite the confusing and uninspiring Revenge of the Sith and Attack of the Clones prequels. 

I, like so many of my contemporaries, grew up on Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. And after my initiation, I enthusiastically waited in overly-long lines to watch subsequent releases, just to catch a glimpse of the beautiful, elegant, tough, smart and spirited leader protecting the galaxy from the Dark Side. I wouldn’t call Carrie Fisher my role model. At least not then. After all, I was neither a leader nor a princess. Rather, I was awkward and eclipsed by my larger-than-life mom and the Beverly Hills milieu in which I was steeped. Funny to find out years later, that, so was she.

The product of the short-lived marriage between Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie had preceded me at Beverly Hills High School by nine years, and described herself as “a clumsy-looking and intensely awkward, insecure girl.” The defender of our galaxy felt as unprepared to do so as I, though with far more yiches (pronounced Yikh-uss; Yiddish word for “connections, pedigree.”)

Plucked out of these gilded shadows by George Lucas, Carrie Fisher became a hero for a new generation, many of whom were too young to had ever heard of her famous parents. Carrie Fisher had come into her own, not as Debbie Reynolds’ daughter, but as Princess Leia, with her signature white dress and challah-roll hair buns; a defender of good against a backdrop of seemingly unconquerable evil.

Prior to Princess Leia, women weren’t often portrayed as heroes in adventure sagas, but rather the objects of the hero’s quest. Sure, many heroines had come and gone before her, but as was most often the case, some man would come along and win her fair hand. Leia, on the other hand, could not be “won.” This was a woman those of us growing up in the 70s could get behind.  

And yet, neither the daughter of Hollywood royalty nor galactic superhero defined Carrier Fisher. While Princess Leia was fighting the enemies on the outside, Carrie was fighting the enemies from within. Because underneath it all, as Carrie Fisher chronicled rather loudly throughout her life, was a woman suffering from mental illness and her corresponding drug and alcohol abuse. Fisher writes candidly in her many semi-autobiographical novels about her alcohol and drug use, hospitalizations, depression and electric shock therapy. In the midst of fighting her own demons, she reinvented herself into a much sought-after actor, author and screenwriter. She co-starred in the now-classic film When Harry Met Sally, wrote the screenplay from her novel Postcards from the Edge and wrote and starred in her own one-woman show “Wishful Drinking.” In addition, she was a strong mental health advocate. As she wrote in Wishful Drinking:

In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of duty in 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.  (Wishful Drinking, Simon and Schuster)

It was immensely satisfying taking my 9-year-old son to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens last year. I felt as if I were transported once again to that 11-year-old girl, sitting with my brother in the Avco theatre. I cried and I cheered, however, from a depth my 11-year-old self could never have comprehended. Watching a much older Carrie Fisher (she was 19 years old when she first portrayed Princess Leia), whose lifetime struggles no amount of Hollywood makeup magic could hide from her visage, despite the 35 pounds they made her shed, I realized we were both no worse for wear. Rather, we were better for it. Though heavier, grayer and not necessarily where we had planned to be by this time in our lives, we were here. We were stronger, wiser, smarter and more resilient. Not Hollywood’s ideal for the female ingenue, but then again, what real person is?

When Carrier Fisher passed away last month at the young age of sixty, I felt a blow to my stomach like none other. Carrie wrote about a similar feeling after hearing that Cary Grant had passed away:

And I remember getting this pain— the kind you get when you experience a body blow. Or lose something essential. (Wishful Drinking, Simon and Schuster)

 

I had never met Carrie Fisher, and yet, I felt like a part of me had died with her. Yes, Princess Leia, just like The Force, will always be with us. The Hollywood digital magic that recreated her likeness in Rogue One proved this to be so. And General Leia Organa will reprise her role in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII.

But Carrie Fisher was one of a kind. In the midst of voices — both inner and outer — demanding her to be someone other than herself, she chose instead to address mental illness, aging, and being a woman in Hollywood honestly, bluntly and even crassly.  

Her character Princess Leia was the quintessential fictional Rocket Girl, a tough female leader, with the technical and strategical know-how to fight an epic cosmic battle of good against evil.

I’ve written in a previous blog post about the characteristics that Rocket Girls possess, those of curiosity, grit, toughness, being a lifelong learner, observer, independent, creative and original thinker, communicator and collaborator, and the willingness to fail.

By all accounts, Carrie Fisher was the true Rocket Girl. May her memory be a blessing.

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