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How Carrie Fisher Helped Create the 'Star Wars' Legend

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia (Photo: Lucasfilm)

“I got in character and I never got out again — and really, I’ve tried everything.” — Carrie Fisher on ‘Good Morning America,’ 2015

In the wake of Carrie Fisher’s passing, many a tribute has reminded us that she was more than just Princess Leia. And it’s true: She was a prodigiously gifted writer and performer, accomplishments that are all the more impressive in light in her tabloid childhood, her addictions, and her bipolar disorder. But Princess Leia was much more than a series of uncomfortable costumes and comical hairdos from Fisher’s youth. The actress went to great (and sometimes futile) lengths to transform Leia from a two-dimensional cartoon into someone sympathetic and heroic. And when Fisher realized that she would always be remembered first and foremost as Princess Leia, she embraced that thorny legacy — and re-shaped it, telling the story of Star Wars in her own inimitable way. Through her hilarious anecdotes and penetrating observations, the making of Star Wars became its own legend — a story that seemed to tell itself, even as Fisher was doctoring the script. 

Related: How the Famous ‘I Love You/I Know’ Scene From ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ Really Came Together

Carrie Fisher was 19 when she was cast in Star Wars, and was so nervous about her first big movie role that she remembered keeping her head down and agreeing to everything. “I kept thinking they were going to realize their big mistake soon about hiring me,” she told J.W. Rinzler in an interview for 2007’s The Making of Star Wars. After the first film opened and Star Wars mania tore through the land, making instant celebrities of Fisher and her co-stars, she became more assertive. In the behind-the-scenes recordings taken by the publicity department during the shooting of the second film (as documented in Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), she expressed her frustration that Leia was not a fully developed character.

“She is more of a caricature and is somewhat one-dimensional,” Fisher said in a videotaped interview from 1979. “It’s not really possible to write out a list of Princess Leia’s likes and dislikes. I do know her favorite color, though — it’s white. She wears white all the time. But that doesn’t help me much.”

Fisher tried to give her character more nuance, but it wasn’t easy, in part because director Irvin Kershner apparently didn’t think Leia was that important. This is abundantly clear from a fly-on-the-wall audiotape, recorded during the shooting of one of the film’s big scenes: the one in which Han Solo is encased in carbonite. Rinzler transcribed the tape, which shows how Kershner rewrote the scene in collaboration with Harrison Ford right before they were scheduled to shoot (resulting in the famous “I love you/I know” exchange). When Ford came to Fisher with the changes, she was incensed — understandably so, because Ford had been given the opportunity to rework Han Solo and Leia’s parts, and Fisher hadn’t been granted the same courtesy.

“You wrote this other part without me… There’s nothing Leia can bargain for. There’s nothing I can do,” Fisher complained. She asked for more agency (“I could slap Lando or something”) but her suggestions weren’t treated with the same seriousness as Ford’s. (Ironically, as alluded to above, Fisher would later become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand script doctors. Ford would not.) The biggest slap in the face came out of earshot; later, as Kershner was describing the situation to first Assistant Director David Tomblin, he said, “Carrie went crazy.”

This is what Fisher was up against, as the only woman with a leading role in the original trilogy (and one of the only women on set, period). She was the first person to take Princess Leia seriously, and managed to convey that in her performance despite being constantly shut down, treated — as she told Kershner — like “the bimbo.”

Related: The ‘Star Wars’ Cantina Scene: The Out-of-This-World Story Behind the Galaxy’s Favorite Dive Bar

When Jedi went into production, she gave it another shot, urging George Lucas to give her “some sort of drinking problem.”

“I said, ‘Leia lost her parents and planet in the first film and in the second a very close friend lost his hand and her first boyfriend was frozen,’” she recalled in The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. “‘By the third movie, I must be totally exhausted. I’ve been chased for who knows how many years.’ I figure I’m ready to go, ‘Hey, guys, I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to get my hair done. You handle it.’ And I book myself into a convent.”

The anecdote is funny, but her intention was sincere: To give Leia some battle scars, to show how the rebellion has changed her. (These issues would be addressed, years later, in The Force Awakens and the accompanying Leia novels and comics.) Compare that to Jedi director Richard Marquand’s intentions for Leia, as quoted in the same book: “In the last movie, the princess became such a bitch, she really was a drag. It became very boring,” Marquand said before filming began. “I’m sure there was a lot more depth that we could use and more comedy, too. Turn her into more of a woman.”

Fisher was miserable with the changes Jedi brought to her character: stripping her down (and worse, rendering her speechless) for the scenes in Jabba’s palace, then turning her into an affectionate Ewok earth-mother for the Endor scenes. “All of a sudden I was someone who loves you and, you know, all that stuff; my hair was down and I’m wearing this hippie dress… I felt like a Barbie doll,” she told Rinzler. “And I got insecure. I felt really uncomfortable.”

Her attempts to rewrite lines, once again, were not taken seriously. So the actress found other ways of battling these changes. One was to make the most of the Jedi scene she did love — “My favorite moment in my own personal film history,” she’d write in 2016’s The Princess Diarist — the one in which Leia strangles Jabba the Hutt with her own slave chains. Fisher insisted on foregoing a stunt double and killing Jabba herself. Another was that she decided to become a writer, to make sure that she was never caught mute in a bikini again.

Fisher’s subsequent accomplishments as a screenwriter, novelist, and memoirist now have been well documented, but what’s more subtle is how she rewrote her own Star Wars role, after it had been filmed. Take the aforementioned scene at Jabba’s palace. In the mid-’90s, pop culture developed an obsession with “slave Leia” — there was that Friends episode, and the fan site Leia’s Metal Bikini, among other examples. The rebel princess was cast as an image of a generation’s sexual awakening.

But rather than accept this reductive view of Princess Leia, Fisher told the story her way. She talked openly about how uncomfortable and awkward that costume was (“what supermodels will wear in the seventh ring of hell,” as she described it in Newsweek) — and not just that costume, but her original white gown, worn with gaffer tape over her nipples because George Lucas insisted there was “no underwear in space.” Then she shifted the focus of the conversation from Leia’s passive, dialogue-free scenes to the moment of her revenge. When a controversy erupted in 2015 over the continued merchandising of “slave Leia” toys, Fisher said she found peoples’ objections “stupid.”

“The father who flipped out about it, ‘What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?’ Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it,” she told the Wall Street Journal (via io9).

At the same time, Fisher — who by this time had shot The Force Awakens — made sure that her Star Wars successor would not be sexualized as she had been. “You should fight for your outfit. Don’t be a slave like I was,” Fisher told Daisy Ridley during an Interview magazine conversation. “You keep fighting against that slave outfit.” Ridley agreed, on the record.

Fisher was constantly doing that: Changing the Star Wars conversation, tilting George Lucas’ universe in a more inclusive direction. Though the Star Wars creator was meticulous about documenting every spaceship and special effect in his original trilogy, Fisher brought humor and a much-needed human touch to Lucas’ legend. Her stories — many of which appear in her memoir Wishful Drinking — are invariably the most entertaining, and the most relatable. She told them over and over, never the same way twice: The reason she briefly had a British accent in A New Hope. The story behind the hairstyle that she’d refer to as “hairy earphones.” The crazy merchandising of her character (as described in Wishful Drinking: “A shampoo bottle where people could twist off my head and pour liquid out of my neck. Paging Dr. Freud!”). Her stunned amusement at learning Leia’s true parentage (she compared it in The Making of Star Wars to somebody saying, “Carrie, your dad isn’t Eddie Fisher. Hitler is.”) Let other people’s nostalgia-drenched, making-of-Star Wars anecdotes make you wish you were there; Fisher was the only one who could make you feel like you actually were there.

One of the joys of seeing The Force Awakens arrive in theaters was watching Carrie Fisher on the press tour, delighting in the opportunity to show an aging-but still in-charge Princess Leia to the world.

At that point, she’d donned the Leia wig for her one-woman show and the cover of two memoirs. She talked candidly about how the role of Leia had defined her, and she had defined it in return, with all the ridiculousness and responsibility that entailed. When a Rolling Stone writer asked her in 2016 if she ever has the urge to tell overzealous fans that “They’re just movies!” she replied, “I don’t. Over the years I’ve considered that they’re not just movies… I’ve totally embraced it.”

Fisher frequently joked about how her obituary would run alongside a photo of Princess Leia’s 20-year-old head sandwiched between two buns. It would be absurd and perfect, the logical end to the story she’d been telling her whole life. “Who do I think I would’ve been if I hadn’t been Princess Leia?” she asked in her introduction to The Princess Diarist. “Am I Princess Leia, or is she me? Split the difference and you’d be closer to the truth.” Carrie Fisher’s version of the truth has always been, and always will be, the one we want to hear.

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