Carrie Fisher: Actress, Writer, Freedom Fighter

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We all know that the witty, insightful actress and writer Carrie Fisher, who died today at age 60, began her career as an actress in the 1970s. She became a Hollywood star at age 20 when Star Wars was released in 1977. While many know that she went on to write books, screenplays and stage shows, far fewer people know that she was also a sought-after Hollywood script doctor. During the 1990s, she was frequently hired to repair weak screenplays, working on such movies as Hook, Sister Act, Lethal Weapon 3 and The Wedding Singer. The work was lucrative, but she was never credited by name as a writer for any of the films whose scripts she saved. (She is said to have been one of the script doctors who tried but failed to bring life to all three of the Star Wars prequel scripts, too.)
 

Fisher’s writing talents are evident from her memoirs, in her one-woman theatrical show, Wishful Drinking, and in the screenplay based on her autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. In late 2001, when the nation was deeply shaken after the September 11 attacks and frightened lawmakers began urging each other to limit Americans’ freedoms, Carrie Fisher donated an autographed copy of the screenplay for Postcards from the Edge to an auction of celebrity artifacts to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. I was the winner of that auction, and my Carrie Fisher-autographed script is one of my prized possessions.

Fisher grew up as Hollywood royalty, the child of popular singer Eddie Fisher and America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, and was later the stepdaughter of Elizabeth Taylor and wife of musician Paul Simon. Despite such privilege, she also grew up seeing the seedy side of fame: her parents’ scandalous and very public divorce (her father left Debbie for Elizabeth); her father’s addiction to speed; and her mother’s financial catastrophes brought on by marriages to faithless gamblers who stole her money, diverted Debbie’s savings to their mistresses and brought prostitutes into their home.

In Fisher’s first big film role (in Warren Beatty’s film Shampoo,) she  played a jaded teenager who propositions the much older character played by Beatty.  Her character’s world-weary attitude and hard-edged directness in Shampoo show up again in her portrayals of Princess Leia in the first three Star Wars films. By her twenties, she was self-medicating and addicted to drugs. It was only when she learned that she had bipolar disorder that the reasons for her mood swings, depressions and hunger for intoxicants became clear to her. She sought to wean herself from her addictions and began to divert her insecurities and keen observations into her writing.

To the benefit of her readers, she shared her stories of her own depression, self-loathing, addictions and mental disorders, first through her art, then through memoirs and interviews. Fisher fought to destigmatize mental illness and encouraged people to be honest with themselves and others, to get help and to accept themselves as imperfect but worthy of love and understanding. For a woman who had grown up believing that putting on a perfect façade and never letting the world see her sweat was of paramount importance, her journey toward self-acceptance and her willingness to tell the world of her flaws and illness and her ultimate freedom from addiction was a brave one.

From her earliest days, Fisher had a steely confidence on screen and spoke in an authoritative voice that didn’t jibe with her fresh, youthful beauty. Her world-weary delivery and seeming steeliness made her a compelling Leia Organa. On screen she was a princess and the leader of a galactic rebellion, but behind her seeming confidence was enormous self-doubt. While her insecurities led her to dangerously self-defeating impulses in her youth, they also brought her to  deep insights which she used to fuel the raw, honest, hilarious but brutally true stories she wrote of her life. She showed us how smart, beautiful, rich and talented people could be just as fearful, self-defeating and confused as the rest of us.

Carrie Fisher was a woman who spent her life creating fictions through her acting and writing, but she lived her own life as fiercely and honestly as she was able. She laid herself bare in her writings, one-woman shows and interviews, including her recent discussion of her life and work with NPR’s Terry Gross. She laughed at herself before anyone else had a chance to, and let us know that it was okay to fail, to fear, to fall. Even a Hollywood princess is only human.

Just this year, the Harvard Humanist Hub gave Fisher the Outstanding Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, saying that “her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”

In Carrie Fisher’s memory, I’m making a donation to the ACLU today, because the leader of the rebel alliance would want us to keep up the good fight against the demagogues who hope to round us up, wall us off and shut us up. Carrie Fisher was, after all, the woman who embodied Princess Leia Organa, leader of the rebellion against the ruthless Empire. Making a donation to keep civil liberties safe seems like a small but meaningful thing to do to honor someone who spoke her mind, made us laugh and brought us so much joy through her work. Won’t you join me?

Charles Dickens: “Mankind Was My Business”

Christmas Carol Cover

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

—A Christmas Carol

In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story.  Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.

When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.

This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.

In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.

Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published on this day, 143 years ago.