Since early November, my husband and I no longer watch television news which means a much quicker turnaround on “hot topic” stories. When my husband heard my strangled, “Oh, no. She died,” he knew I was talking about actress, Carrie Fisher. Of course, we knew that she had had a heart attack and we heard that she was on a ventilator because she had stopped breathing. I guess the issue for the family was whether to disconnect her life support before or after Christmas with all the ramifications it would have for putting a damper on a holiday which, I’ve heard, was her favorite.
When she had the heart attack, I immediately said to my husband, “All they’re going to remember her for is Princess Leia.” I found this disheartening because, as a fan, I was more interested in her broader body of work; her writing, her frequent gigs as a script doctor, her character parts in many movies, her stage performances, and her advocacy for the mental health community. I did not like the idea that Fisher would only be remembered as Leia, the slave of Jaba the Hutt, dressed in the unforgettable metal bikini with the cinnamon buns on her head.
The mental health community has lost two incredible advocates, this year, advocating for people with mental illness to come out of the closet. First, Patty Duke who, like Fisher, had Bipolar Disorder, left us and now Fisher is gone.
As people, have been saying, 2016 has been the worst possible year, especially if you’re a celebrity.
One of the things that I have been thinking about is that, as Baby Boomers, we always thought we were immortal. Yes, many of our icons were lost to sex, drugs and rock and roll. As Carrie Fisher admitted, there was more than one time when she came close to making an early exit because of her involvement with alcohol, cocaine, and prescription drugs. However, as a group, we are living past our parents’ and grandparents’ expiration dates. Therefore, it is twice as shocking when someone who is sixty – only sixty – dies of a massive heart attack.
I remember when Carrie Francis Fisher was born because her father, the late Eddie Fisher or, as she referred to him because of his marijuana habit, “Puff Daddy,” was a favorite of my parents. In those days, Philadelphia was a series of small towns called “sections.” My mother was from South Philadelphia. Eddie Fisher was from South Philadelphia. Therefore, we “knew” Eddie Fisher. My mother remembered, or said she remembered, Eddie Fisher’s grandfather peddling fruit from a cart in the neighborhood. It’s probably true. That’s how many immigrants made a living.
In 1956, when I was six years old, there were two celebrity stories in Philadelphia: one was the marriage of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainer and the other was the birth of Carrie Francis Fisher. Of the two fairy tale marriages, Princess Grace’s and Eddie and Debbie’s, only one made it for the long hall.
If you have read her book, Wishful Drinking, or seen her one-woman stage show by the same title, you know that Fisher was related by marriage to half of Hollywood because her parents and step-parents got married and married and married and married. In one of my favorite pieces from the show, titled Inbreeding 101, she stands in front of a chalkboard and explains the genealogical connection between her daughter, Billie, and Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson who Billie was thinking of dating. Here’s the clip. Prepare to laugh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BBAQVNpvFM
In the show, she also talks about her short-term marriage and long term relationship with singer/poet for our generation, Paul Simon. She says, and I’m paraphrasing here, that their
marriage didn’t work but if you are going to be divorced from someone, you should be divorced from Paul Simon because he will write a brilliant song about you. Simon wrote two beautiful songs about Carrie Fisher. The first was called Hearts and Bones from the self-titled album, and the second from the phenomenal Graceland album. The lyric to She Moves On includes the phrase the following phrase:
Then I fall to my knees
Shake a rattle at the skies
And I’m afraid that I’ll be taken
In her cold coffee eyes.
You know, if I was married to someone who could write that beautifully about me, even about my bad qualities, I might stay married longer just to see what other songs he might produce about me.
The thing about dying in the mid-2010s, is that mourning is observed in the Twitterverse and on Facebook and other social media platforms. I will admit that I spent way too much time yesterday searching out tweets by famous people and mere fans like me who praised her talent, her-no-holds-bar sarcasm and honesty, and her advocacy for people with mental illness. The mental health community has taken two terrible hits, this year, losing both Fisher and Patty Duke earlier in the year. Here were two women who the public claimed as their own, women that we thought we knew, but who lived with Bipolar Disorder and finally opened the closet on their own darkness and mania.
One thing that has been said, repeatedly, is that 2016 has been a horrible year, especially if you are a celebrity or a fan of celebrities. We have lost so many, this year: Patty Duke, Alan Rickman, beloved Gene Wilder, Gary Marshall, Leonard Cohen, Harper Lee, and that’s just scratching the surface. Now 2016 has taken Carrie Fisher with just days to spare. It’s too cruel. I also feel an urgent need to check on Betty White, immediately.
The thing about these disparate stars is that, for us Boomers, they shaped our perceptions of the world and because of the immediacy of film, television, and new media, they felt like friends. We have lost a lot of friends, this year.
Today, I intend to continue the Carrie Fisher retrospective that I started on Friday when I heard about her illness. I found a personal favorite of mine on cable. The movie, Garbo Talks, is from 1984 and stars Anne Bancroft, as a woman dying of cancer and, perhaps, an overdose of idealism. Fisher has a small role as Bancroft’s spoiled daughter-in-law, Lisa, who doesn’t understand why her husband (Ron Silver) is not more ambitious and is tied too closely to his mother. Their marriage is clearly doomed and Fisher packs her bag to go home to her parents in Beverly Hills. The part could have been played as pure stereotype, but Fisher gives it more dimension and actual empathy when she agrees to stay until after her mother-in-law’s death. “I do try to be considerate,” she says, and she is trying.
I will also find an all-time favorite of mine, the late Nora Ephron’s directorial debut called This is My Life. Based on a teenage novel, it is the story of a one-last-shot comedian (Julie Kavner of The Simpsons) who finally hits it big with the help of her friend and agent, Carrie Fisher. It’s not a memorable part, but the measure of a great character actress is if you remember even the small, supportive roles. I remember this one.
Finally, I will revisit When Harry Met Sally in which Fisher is Meg Ryan’s best friend, Marie. Anxious to make a romantic connection, she runs off with Sally’s blind date (the late Bruno Kirby). The two have a memorable argument over whether a wagon wheel coffee table fits their shared décor.
It is sad, so sad, that Carrie Fisher left us before her time. Apparently, final shooting on Star Wars XIII finished shooting in July, so there is one more big film to look forward to. There is also a British TV series streaming on Amazon, called Catastrophe, which I’ve just started binge watching.
It is necessary to finish this piece with one funny story. It seems that in 2008, Fisher wrote her own eulogy. She told a story about George Lucas telling her that the white robe she wore as Princess Leia could not be worn with a bra. “How come,” she asked. Lucas assured her that there was no underwear in space because it would ride up and kill the wearer in the absence of gravity. So, Fisher said, “I think that this would make for a fantastic obituary — so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”
Leave it to Fisher to write her own final words and make them funny.