She’s Royalty to Me: A Tribute to Carrie Fisher

She’s Royalty to Me: A Tribute to Carrie Fisher

It was December 14th, 2017.  Standing in line, freezing – ticket in one hand, lightsaber on the other- I eagerly awaited a preview night screening of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Despite my initial concerns about being so far back in line (note to self: pick a theater with assigned seating next time!) I found myself in a reasonable seat, heart pounding with anticipation.  Like millions of fellow Star Wars fans around the world, this current sequel trilogy provided me a much needed palette cleanse after the bad taste the prequels had left in my mouth. The lights dimmed, the trailers dragged, but eventually the shimmering Lucasfilm logo and those timeless blue letters appeared. However, as thrilled as I was to be seeing a new Star Wars flick, this time it came at a price. Regardless of how good or bad the film turned out to be (and for the record I personally loved it), there was another inescapable fact: this would be the final film of the late Carrie Fisher, who passed away slightly over a year ago after slipping into cardiac arrest.

Fisher’s death came as a shock to millions of us who grew up watching her as a different kind of princess. Instead of needing to be swept off of her feet, or letting her hair down,   for  some nobleman to climb, Leia is the kind of princess who will take charge the minute she’s extracted from her cell. She is in fact, a self-rescuing princess, something unheard of classic adventure film.

Although Fisher will always be remembered for the role of Princess Leia Organa, this barely scratches the surface of the talent she possessed. The daughter of the late Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher could very well have lived in the shadow of her entertainer parents.  However, as Fisher Steven’s wonderful 2017 HBO special Bright Lights shows, the was not the case. Fisher defied conventions to a whole new level. Very early on, it became apparent that Fisher had a unique artistic voice of her own.

While she never became a leading lady or an A-list movie star, Fisher displayed incredible range as an actress.  Beyond cinema she expressed herself through several avenues, such as her candid one-woman show, and a series of quirky novels.  The most famous of these would be the semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge, which she would also adapt to an acclaimed Mike Nichols-directed film.  Fisher also worked as a script doctor, polishing numerous films (Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, Sister Act to name a few).  She also became quite open about her unconventional life.  Her willingness to talk candidly and even poke fun at her own personal struggles - substance abuse problems in all, a turbulent but loving relationship with mother Debbie Reynolds, etc.- won her a loyal fanbase. Her eclectic talents, humorous demeanor and candor  made losing her all the harder. Our “beloved princess” may be gone, but she shall remain a force to reckoned with forever.

The following films/franchises see the late Carrie Fisher at her very finest: Shampoo (1975), Star Wars saga (1975-2017), The Blues Brothers (1980), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Postcards from the Edge (1990).

SHAMPOO (1975, directed by Hal Ashby)

Set on the eve of the 1968 US Presidential Election, Shampoo tells the story of promiscuous hair stylist “George Rounder” (Warren Beatty), who has used his profession to bed countless women.  As the film opens we see George shuttle between his current two conquests: his wealthy married mistress “Felicia” (Lee Grant) and his current “girlfriend”, struggling actress “Jill” (Goldie Hawn).  Despite his success as a hairdresser George yearns to start his own salon, but lacks the necessary finances.  Felicia gets him a meeting with her investor husband “Lester” (Jack Warden).  However during the meeting George soon discovers Lester has a mistress of his own in “Jackie”(Julie Christie), another old flame of George’s.  Further complicating matters is the fact that George and all three women are circumstantially invited to the same Election night fundraiser by Lester.  Suddenly George tries frantically to keep his secret lives from colliding, while also discovering what he truly wants out of life.

Directed by the late “New Hollywood” great Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Being There), Shampoo is a memorable product of one of the America’s greatest decades for filmmaking – an era in which young fresh faces were encouraged to take chances, and Ashby certainly does that with Shampoo.  Working from a script by Robert Towne and Beatty himself, the late director brought to life a clever blend of satirical comedy and surprisingly deep drama about personal crisis. All of the lead actors are terrific in their performances.  Warren Beatty shines as an immature philanderer.  As the film progresses George goes from his comedic, sometimes-pathetic shenanigans to having an existential crisis as he realizes he loves someone possibly unattainable. All three leading actresses give remarkable performances, each sharing a very different chemistry with Beatty.  But wait…there is another!

That would be young Carrie Fisher making her film debut in a small, but memorable role.  Fisher portrays Lorna, the nosey teenage daughter of Felicia and Lester, who first notices George as he arrives at Felicia’s mansion for an in house hair appointment. As he waits, Lorna lures George into the kitchen where the two engage in a rather amusing conversation. Already frazzled at juggling his charade with his multiple sexual partners, George dodges questions for as long as he can, as Lorna repeatedly prods him with rather blunt subjects, ending with the most blunt of all. While Fisher has less than five minutes of screen time, she makes an incredible impression. Every time George attempts to tap dance around her questions, she calls him on it, throwing them right back at him.  With just this brief scene Fisher displays an impressive range of emotions, at one point growing rather defensive when Beatty compares her looks to Felicia, insisting she’s nothing like her mother. Interestingly, while watching this scene one thing occurred to me: Fisher is indeed nothing like her own mother Debbie Reynolds.  She is talented in her own distinct way and this highly memorable debut perfectly illustrates that.  Great potential,  is on display here.

Funny, intimate, heartbreaking and at times bleak, Shampoo is a solidly recommendable film for many reasons, and Carrie Fisher’s impressive debut proves it.

THE STAR WARS SAGA (1977-1983, 2015-2017, Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand, J.J. Abrams & Rian Johnson)

A few decades ago in our galaxy… a budding filmmaker named George Lucas created a pulpy little sci-fi flick that contained elements of mythology, Akira Kurosawa films, and old Flash Gordon serials. Even as the cameras were rolling no one besides Lucas (not actors, crew members, most studio executives etc.) took it seriously. However once that silly little space film hit theaters in May 1977, well, the rest is history. Over 40 years, nine films, countless toys later…this space opera has become a multi-billion dollar franchise that countless people - including me -have emptied their wallets for time and time again. You might say the force is strong with this one! In case you hadn’t guessed by now I refer to Star Wars!

The Star Wars universe, only ever identified as  “A Long Time Ago in A Galaxy Far, Far Away...” is filled with dashing heroes, menacing villains, magical creatures, and epic battles.  It has proven timeless, resonating with people of all ages since its debut over four decades ago. Additionally Star Wars captivated audiences like never before with its technical achievements, perfecting visual effects to a whole new level.  While the films have widely varied in quality over the years, their appeal has endured.  It’s not often a film simultaneously becomes a mainstream hit and a cult classic, but Star Wars has managed to do just that. From the glowing lightsaber to the ominous Death Star to that mystical energy field known as “The Force”, Star Wars has become ingrained in worldwide pop culture. And right in the middle of this groundbreaking series was Carrie Fisher as “Princess Leia Organa”. A pivotal role in the original trilogy and Disney’s currently unfolding sequel trilogy, Leia continues to influence generations of women both in cinema and real life.  

When we first meet Leia, she is captured by the evil “Darth Vader” (a powerful figure in the oppressive Galactic Empire), but not before hiding the plans to the galaxy’s most lethal weapon –The Death Star-- in a sassy little droid called R2-D2.  R2 and his talkative counterpart C-3PO jump ship in an escape pod, landing on Tatooine, the desert planet below. Before long, adventure-yearning farmboy “Luke Skywalker”(Mark Hamill), mysterious hermit “Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi” (Alec Guinness), and space pirate duo “Han Solo” (Harrison Ford) and “Chewbacca” (Peter Mayhew) find themselves swept up in an adventure as they rescue the Princess, reach the rebellion and… well I think most people know the rest by now.

Carrie Fisher made numerous accomplishments throughout her career but make no mistake, her signature role has and will always be Leia Organa, and it’s not because of the bun hairstyle!  Of course in the briefest of brief summaries above I mentioned she gets rescued.  She may sport the title of princess, but is never treated as eye-candy or a damsel in distress.  A better description would be pistol-packin’ mama, and a smart one at that.  Once Luke infiltrates her cell to bust her out, she quickly takes charge of the situation.   While Fisher’s beauty is obvious, the film doesn’t make a big deal out of it. Who gets the group out of a corner when they’re backed into? Leia. Who puts arrogant smartass Han Solo in his place? Leia. Who’s unafraid to take off the gloves and get her hands dirty? Leia.  In the first film alone Leia breaks so many conventions, and but it doesn’t stop there!

The next chapter, The Empire Strikes Back is commonly considered the best of Star Wars film, and for me that can be explained by two words: writing and direction!  Under the direction of Irvin Kershner everyone, including Carrie Fisher is given believable growth.  Throughout the entire film there is considerable sexual tension between Han and Leia, as Han unabashedly pursues the Princess, in a very natural, believable love story. Han and Leia’s budding romance works so well because the screenplay, as well as Fisher and Ford’s performances do exactly what a film is supposed to do: show, not tell!  With a script devoid of contrivances, Fisher’s Leia feels naturally progressed from the previous film.  While it may seem that she’s merely playing hard to get, Fisher’s performance says that Leia will be with Han, not because he chases her, but because she wants to be.  And one of the finest moments of Fisher’s career comes at one of the most quoted exchanges, when she finally professes love to Han as he’s about to be cryogenically frozen.  Of course, Leia’s role is more than just an object of desire, as she takes charge just as much as previous film. After losing an intense battle with Darth Vader – you know the one where he revealed cinema’s worst kept secret to our hero! – an injured Luke dangles precariously from underbelly of the floating Cloud City. Yet Leia hears his telepathic call and saves our hero. Need I ask who saved the day again?

1983’s Return of The Jedi is frequently criticized as the weakest of the original three Star Wars flicks, and while I fully endorse that, to me it’s still a good, and at times very good film.  Love it or hate it, most everyone can agree one of the best portions of the film is first act, in which our heroes infiltrate the palace of grotesque slug gangster Jabba-the-Hut in order to rescue the still-imprisoned Han. Anybody whom was ever a 12 year old boy knows where I’m going with this: Slave Leia. Yes I’m talking about the metal bikini she sports after being taken prisoner and chained to Jabba for his own “amusement”.  In the hands of lesser writers or actresses this could’ve been little more than a blatant eye candy play.  But brush those worries aside as even in her skimpiest outfit, Leia is still just as tough as she ever was. After all, when the full coordinated escape plan is put into to effect, Leia quickly fends for herself by strangling Jabba to death with the very chains he used to imprison her. More significantly, Return Of The Jedi gives Leia further importance of by infamously revealing her to be the sister of Luke Skywalker, altering the dynamic – not to mention making a previously amusing moment in Empire now a tad repulsive – and paving the way for more character development, such as a revelation that Leia also possesses the iconic power known as the force.  

After the conclusion of the original trilogy, the subsequent appearance of the much-maligned prequels (depending on which day you catch me, sometimes bad fast food or even a root canal can be preferable to those contrived “things”) and Lucas’s insistence he would make no more Star Wars films it seemed we’d seen the last of Leia on the silver screen.  However, Disney’s 4 billion dollar purchase of Lucasfilm Ltd. proved otherwise!  Along with Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher agreed to participate in a new sequel trilogy beginning with 2015’s The Force Awakens, and continuing with the currently playing The Last Jedi.  

And while these new chapters are very much torch passing films sporting new fresh-faced heroes, that doesn’t make the roles of the old principals any less paramount.  While her role in The Force Awakens is somewhat minimal, she’s re-introduced in a perfect way.  Crusty, aged Han Solo, Chewbacca, and new hero Finn are cornered by this generation’s Empire aka The First Order after new heroine “Rey” (more on her later) has been abducted.  Just as they’re about to be taken prisoner, the ships of Resistance swoop in to the rescue. And when the door of the group’s leader opens who do you suppose it is : General Leia Organa!  I like the way these writers think!   There’s only one way for a fighting princess to go and that’s up!  I can remember perking up and having a sliver of my five year old self re-ignite whenever one of the original principles appeared.  Furthermore, Han is just as surprised to see her as we are.  Rather than simply continue the romance as it had been left over three decades prior, the filmmakers chose to have Han and Leia no longer a couple and watching the pair reunite is bittersweet.  Thankfully just because she’s no longer the main focus, nor youthful the filmmakers no how to age the character with grace!  

*SPOILERS AHEAD IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN THE LATEST ENTRY THE LAST JEDI, WHICH IS CURRENTLY PLAYING

Speaking of bittersweet, it was simultaneously thrilling and heartbreaking to see Carrie one last time in The Last Jedi.  Mercifully, Fisher completed the film before her passing and is given more to do here than the previous entry.  In full leadership mode, Leia often butts heads throughout the film with Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot “Poe Dameron”.  When he stands his ground, she politely – and sternly sometimes – reminds him who is in charge!  However another truly great moment in the film belongs to Fisher.  As the Resistance’s main command ship endures severe damage from the First Order’s main Star Destroyer, Leia happens to be on the bridge when something that has never been depicted in the series before this happens.  As a child, when Luke had told Leia of her Force Sensitive nature, I’d always wondered what Leia using the force would look like and this film gave me a very satisfying answer!  When the bridge is blown apart, Leia is literally swept into space.  However as a seemingly doomed Leia drifts into the vacuum, something quite unexpected occurs.  Force Sensitive Leia uses her ability to conjure a protective field as she manages to pull herself to safety back through the ship’s airlock.  While I share many fans grief that Leia will not be appearing in the upcoming ninth episode I’m thrilled that we got as much of her in this new trilogy as we did.  I’m eternally grateful to writer/director Rian Johnson for NOT altering Fisher’s role in any capacity whatsoever.

Since its debut the Star Wars Saga has given the world many wonderful things, and Princess Leia Organa is most certainly one of them.  In short she is a powerful woman who can take care of herself. She’s feisty, independent and intelligent. From the time she led her rescuers to a trash compactor to commanding an entire fleet, Leia is truly a force to be reckoned with.  The character arguably paved the way for other strong cinematic female heroes like “Ellen Ripley” or “Sarah Connor”.  Of course this influence came back full circle to Star Wars with Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a character whom for all intents and purposes is the Luke Skywalker of the sequel trilogy.  It’s encouraging to see so many young girls respond positively to Rey, and I cannot help but feel it all started with Carrie Fisher’s turn as Princess Leia some 41 years ago.  May the force be with you Carrie for giving the world such a wonderful character.

THE BLUES BROTHERS  (1980, directed by John Landis)  

The late John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd star as brothers “Jake” and “Elwood” (John Belushi & Dan Aykroyd) in this legendary musical comedy.  The brothers embark on a “Mission from God” to raise $5,000 in order save the orphanage where they grew up.  To accomplish this they get their old band back together and book a venue.  They also manage to make more than a few enemies in the form of bar owners, police officers, and even Illinois Nazis!  Also on their trail is an enigmatic woman whom repeatedly attempts to assassinate them!  Soon it becomes a race against the clock for Jake and Elwood to cash the check before every conceivable form of authority catches up to them.

Having recently revisited The Blues Brothers, it’s even more fun than I remember it being.  The film is jam-packed with both musical numbers and cameos including James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Henry Gibson, Paul Rubens, John Candy, Cab Calloway, John Candy, and Steven Spielberg amongst many others! Amongst the best of these is Carrie Fisher herself.  Like Shampoo, Fisher’s screentime totals about 5 minutes.  Credited merely as “Mystery Woman”, we finally learn her identity when she corners the brothers in a sewage tunnel towards the film’s climix.  It turns out that she’s Jake’s psychotic ex-fiancé whom he’d abandoned at the altar.  Little else is revealed about the character, except she has remarkably easy access to a vast arsenal of weapons (bazooka, explosives flame thrower and a machine gun)!  Impressive.  Most impressive!  With no dialogue until her final confrontation with Jake and Elwood, Fisher very effectively emotes with her eyes, and succeeds in looking the most frightening ever!  And when Fisher finally does speak, she and Belushi also share one of the film’s best laughs!  

No matter how many times I view it, The Blues Brothers never fails to be an eclectic, fun ride.  Whether it’s the musical numbers, the numerous cameos or the crazy gravity defying action sequences, the film is just as amusing as it was in 1980, and Carrie Fisher most certainly contributes to that!  

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989, directed by Rob Reiner)

During car ride from Chicago to New York City, acquainted college graduates “Harry Burns” (Billy Crystal) and “Sally Albright” (Meg Ryan) touch on several interesting subjects, before landing on the topic of attraction.  Harry finds Sally attractive, but she does not reciprocate, instead offering to be just friends, to which Harry replies that Men and Women can never be “just friends”.  The two part ways, only to cross paths multiple times over the next ten years.  Gradually the two grow closer, eventually setting their respective best friends Jess and Marie, whom quickly fall in love.  Soon Harry and Sally both begin to suspect their feelings are beyond platonic.  

Directed by Rob Reiner and written by the late Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally is considered one of the quintessential romantic comedies of all time.  Scene after scene is laced with rich, quotable dialogue about a universal, timeless topic: how men and women think (and it’s more than just the famous orgasm debating scene!).  From the very opening scene Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play off of each other wonderfully, and the two share a very natural chemistry that eventually blossoms into a full on romance.  Ephron’s script does a great job gradually revealing to both the characters and audience that Harry and Sally can indeed be friends, and eventually more; they just needed to find each other at the right time.

The leads are hardly the only engaging, three-dimensional characters in the film.  With Star Wars behind her at this point (obviously discounting the sequel trilogy), Carrie Fisher appears as Sally’s well-intended best friend “Marie”.  Though regulated again to a supporting role, Fisher has a lot of fun with it. Marie is looking for a man, but always seems to be interested in married ones. Like Bruno Kirby to Billy Crystal, Fisher is Meg Ryan’s confidant, and the two share numerous believable scenes, each illustrating how just like men, every woman has a different outlook. And, in one of the film’s best scenes, Marie and Jess meet for the first time as Harry and Sally try to set each other up with Marie & Jess respectively.  As the scene progresses, Marie and Jess immediately hit it off, and both Fisher and Kirby play it wonderfully.  Their chemistry continues in subsequent scenes depicting them as a couple.

A quintessential film, about life, relationships, and what to make of it all, When Harry Met Sally is highly recommendable.  And it's wonderful to find Carrie Fisher shine in a non-Star Wars role that exceeds more a few minutes!

POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990, directed by Mike Nichols)

This comedy-drama film follows the personal journey of Hollywood Actress “Suzanne Vale” (Meryl Streep), as she is forced to cope with change - the hard way.  After a near fatal overdose, Suzanne is forced to move back in with her mother, famed Hollywood actress “Doris Mann” (Shirley MacLaine) in order to secure more acting work.  However the their relationship is to say the least, uneasy.  Eventually simmering tensions between the two boil to the surface.  Meanwhile Suzanne develops a whole new outlook on her life and the industry as she’s forced to confront her personal demons with clean and sober eyes.

Adapted by for the screen by Carrie Fisher and directed by the late great Mike Nichols, Postcards From The Edge is a semi-autobiographical piece.  And unlike any of the other entries here, Fisher herself is nowhere on screen.  Instead we are treated to her talent as a screenwriter.  While I cannot say I have read Fisher’s novel, I’m eager to do so if it’s half as good as her sharp, witty screenplay.  An honest look at life in the industry, substance abuse and a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship Postcards From The Edge is engaging from start to finish.  It seems a fair assessment that both the novel and the film paved the way for Fisher’s subsequent, acclaimed one-woman shows.  Regardless of which parts are fictionalized, Fisher has written a very engaging, character driven film.

A top notch cast helps to bring Fisher’s story to life.  Is there anything Meryl Streep can’t do?  Suzanne Vale goes on the long list of amazing performances Streep has churned out in her impressive career.  This time Streep has the writing talents of Carrie Fisher to work with.  Suzanne has many demons, as we come to learn throughout the film, a troubled but sympathetic figure.  Like Fisher Suzanne is the daughter of Hollywood royalty, never had a normal childhood, and addiction issues.  It is implied before long that her relationship with her mother played a role in that.  Before long we meet that mother in the form of Shirley MacLaine as the Debbie Reynolds avatar Doris Mann.  Having already mastered the “complicated mother-daughter relationship in James L. Brooks’ Terms Of Endearment, MacLaine hits it out of the park again here.  Doris is just as flawed as Suzanne, obsessed with being a “friend” to her daughter, trying to micromanage Suzanne’s career.  She also cannot resist the spotlight, as we see her repeatedly one situation after another about her.   Streep and MacLaine hit every note, and never once does their relationship feel contrived.  Bit by bit their friction becomes evident and both do a wonderful job letting it drip out gradually.  

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

In addition to our two leads, Nichols assembled quite an impressive supporting cast to play Fisher’s equally three dimensional supporting characters. Dennis Quaid, Richard Dreyfuss, Annette Bening, Mary Wickes and CCH Pounder all are wonderful.  One of the best of the supporting bunch is the great Gene Hackman as blunt director“Lowell Kolchek”.   While Lowell initially appears a rather harsh figure, he ultimately proves more of an ally to Suzanne than he first appears.  A very effective balance of comedy and drama, Postcards From the Edge is flawlessly executed, and it all goes back to the writing skills of Carrie Fisher.

MY BOTTOM LINE:

While the screen represents only a fragment of Fisher’s talents, there are many wonderful performances you can find both in and beyond Star Wars!  Not to mention her other talents as a writer.  To quote the Max Von Sydow in the opening moments of The Force Awakens, “She’s royalty to me!”  May the force be with you forever Princess!

© Jarrod Emerson (1/30/18) FF2 Media

Featured photo by Sunset Boulevard © Images courtesy gettyimages.com