Carrie Fisher’s death yesterday, a few days after she suffered a heart attack on a trans-Atlantic flight, came as a terrible shock. Fisher was only 60, and she had so much to offer to the world as a writer, actor, and advocate on mental health issues.
Fisher was great in The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally, and she wrote a number of funny best-selling books, but of course she will always be remembered by many — including me — as Princess Leia of the original Star Wars films. I’m sure that Fisher often bridled at her association with that gun-toting resistance leader with the fantastic and iconic hairstyle, but I’ll always believe that her depiction of Leia Organa was one of the things that fundamentally and forever shifted the kinds of roles that women played in Hollywood films.
Of course, women had always had some meaty roles, but in action films or sci-fi films women typically were the objects around which the action revolved, rather than the proponents of the action. Not so with Leia Organa! From the first moments of Star Wars she was the key driver of the plot, setting R2D2 off with the plans for the Death Star, standing toe to toe with Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, recruiting Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo to the cause of the resistance, getting tortured and firing blasters and trading insults with the best of them. (“Could somebody get this walking carpet out of my way?”) Princess Leia was as far from the damsel in distress as you could get. Sure, she ultimately fell for Han Solo — who wouldn’t? — but she was always ready to strangle Jabba the Hut or blast a squadron of imperial storm troopers on a moment’s notice. Not every actor could pull off such a role, but Carrie Fisher did it flawlessly and convincingly.
Lots of people make movies that achieve enormous popularity, but then fade over time to the point where their roles are only dimly recalled and people wonder what all the fuss was about. Not so with Carrie Fisher. She was a true trailblazer, in her acting, in her writing, and in her frank and always humorous discussions about her struggles with her condition, her addictions, and her weight. She touched more people than she perhaps ever realized.