Entertainment » Theatre

Princess Leia Takes Charge

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Thursday Jul 2, 2009

It’s not surprising to learn that Carrie Fisher calls her Hollywood home "Kennecuntport." It’s just another example of her caustic sense of humor, something that she has shown in her talk show appearances over the years, in her feature roles in films, such as her acerbic take on herself in the recent remake of "The Women;" and, most notably, in her series of best-selling, semi-autobiographical novels.

Trumping the Tabloids

Two years ago she attempted something completely different -- a solo show she describes as "an embarrassing intimate account of my all too eventful life." Called Wishful Drinking, Fisher premiered it in the belly of the beast -- in Hollywood’s Geffen Theatre, where it was received with glowing notices and audience response. So much so that the actress has recently embarked on a national tour that brings her back to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre July 9 -23 after her sold out run at the theater last summer.

From the buzz, if there’s one show to see this fall, this is it, especially since it is in all likelihood headed to New York next year.

Mixing dish with personal revelations, insights about Hollywood, and a few Stephen Sondheim songs, the show pretty much picks up where the tabloids left off. Indeed, it was her feeling that she needed to take back her celebrity from the rags that led her to write it.

"It came to the point where I realized it’s my version or somebody else’s version," she explained on the phone from "Kennecuntport" where she had gone for some r&r between engagements of the show. (She shares the compound, which was built for Bette Davis in the 1930s, with her teenage daughter Billie and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who lives in an adjacent bungalow.)

"At a certain point I had certain things written about me in the rags, such as ’Carrie Fisher goes to Rehab’ or ’Carrie Fisher goes to Mental Hospital.’ So I could hear that version that was out there that they wrote or do my own version. So it became a control thing."

For Fisher gaining control has been a lifetime goal, and it may have its roots in the fact she’s lived in the celebrity fishbowl her entire life. Her parents were 1950s dream couple: actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher. But not long after her birth in 1956, her parents were engaged in a headline-grabbing scandal that involved actress Elizabeth Taylor stealing Fisher away from Reynolds. She was two-years old when her parents divorced. Much of this is covered, hilariously, in the show in a section called "Hollywood 101" where she traces the personal relationships of her mother, father and Taylor from the time of the scandal to the present in a very complicated flowchart.

From an early age, she was expected to go into the family business, which was show business. She appeared with her mother in Vegas as a young teen, then had a small role in Reynolds’ 1973 revival of the musical "Irene." Her 1975 Hollywood debut -- as a nymphet who has sex with Warren Beatty in "Shampoo" -- turned heads, but it was the role of Princess Leia two years later in "Star Wars" that made her one of the most recognizable film actresses of the 1970s, though Fisher was said to have hated her double-bunned hairdo. (She has called them "hairy doughnuts" and was said to have lied about liking them to distract the filmmakers from the fact that she hadn’t lost a required ten pounds before shooting.)

No one knew that "Star Wars" would become an entertainment juggernaut, least of all Fisher. But once it did, she was immediately pegged as Leia, even to this day. Did she have any regrets about taking the role?

"No. I could never say that. I think that regret is like self-pity. I never regretted doing ’Star Wars.’ It’s been positive for me in more ways than negative, certainly. If I complained about it, how much respect would you have for me?’

Perhaps a mitigating factor in all of this is that she kept diaries while making the film and, according to Entertainment Weekly, she’ll mine them for another one of her semi-autobiographical novels, which include "Postcards from The Edge" and "Remember the Pink." No doubt the book will cover such incidents as a near-naked Harrison Ford hiding in a closet to surprise her and her supposed openly smoking grass on the set. 

Though only 20 when she made the film, she was already a serious drug user. Eight years later she was rushed to a hospital where she was treated for an overdose of cocaine and painkillers. She entered rehab, and wrote a novel about the experiences -- "Postcards from the Edge," which she adapted into a very successful film starring Meryl Streep as her fictional stand-in and Shirley MacLaine as a thinly-veiled Debbie Reynolds.

Self-Involved, Who Isn’t?

Writing became her refuge, though there were further difficulties along the way. Relapses, two failed marriages: one to singer Paul Simon and the second to a Hollywood agent named Bryan Lourd, with whom she had her daughter. This marriage turned especially sour when Lourd left her for another man, which plunged Fisher into a serious depression. At the time a friend told her that she shouldn’t take it so personally because he wasn’t rejecting her specifically, but all women; to which Fisher wryly responded that she wished she could see it from that perspective.

More recently she was deeply affected by an unexpected tragedy that unfolded in her home: the death of Republican operative R. Gregory Stevens after a pre-Oscar party four years ago. He had fallen asleep in her bed, and died overnight. The cause was a drug overdose. Fisher didn’t even know he was taking any drugs. ("And from the first moment I blamed myself," she told Vanity Fair two years ago. "I thought I’d put the pillow on his face. I was in shock for months.") Her hair turned white and she became morose. It was only at the insistence of her mother that she pursue a new project -- in this case "Wishful Drinking" -- that she regained her confidence and sense of humor.

Still dealing with depression and issues of bipolar disorder have plagued Fisher her entire life. She started seeing psychiatrists (at her own insistence) at the age of 15 and hasn’t stopped since. She once told her daughter that her emotional issues were like having a broken faucet in her brain and that it needed to be fixed.

"As soon as you realize something is wrong you want it fixed pronto; but it doesn’t mean it gets fixed that fast. I knew something was the matter when I was 15 and I asked to go to a psychiatrist. I had some understanding. My mother was going through a very hard time in her life, so I knew there would be no way I would get any assistance from her because she needed to deal with her own problems. And she wouldn’t have known how to do this -- no one would know. What I was experiencing was very intense. So I went to a doctor and have never stopped seeing them since."

Fisher recalls starting writing at the age of 14, but it wasn’t until she was much older that she was able to turn her experiences into sharply observed fiction and magazine pieces. Like everything in her complicated life, she finds writing both easy and difficult, and closely related to her emotional issues. "The stuff you are obliged to write is obviously more difficult than the stuff you feel like writing. And being manic-depressive is a very intense state. It’s very vivid and sort-of easy to take dictation from. Well, not so much easy, just essential, because you get it out of your head in one big mess and onto paper. From there it can be organized, so it’s a form of control. But it’s not as if I have ever been able to sort-it-all-out, but it brings a rhythm to it. There’s a percussiveness to writing -- a kind-of rhythm that calms it down. Otherwise it’s just this kind-of cluster-fuck in your head."

One thing that became immediately apparent with her writing was just she was able to find humor in the bleakest and most humiliating of situations. "You know I say if it wasn’t funny, it would just be true. And I guess it’s been funny for a long time. ’Star Wars’ came out when I was 20, so I have been doing publicity and talking about myself -- annoyingly -- for 30 years. So between talking to myself to the press and talking to myself to shrinks. I also needed it to be more entertaining for me, so I became more confident about talking about myself. That’s a lot of talking about yourself. But I don’t see myself as narcissistic -- certainly I’m self-involved, but who isn’t?"

About That Bikini...

At first when she started doing "Wishful Drinking," Fisher did not think it would be therapeutic, though it did help cure of her long-standing stage fright. But as she continued performing the piece, it has been a liberating experience.

"Initially I would say no, but I now I say yeah, it is. Because you get confident about things talking about things that caused you a lot of insecurity or pain, so to reach a point where you can declare them or claim them is enormously liberating, so you have zero shame about it. I’m proud of my dysfunctions as things that I have gone through. I would never -- I know that some people who are ashamed of admitting that they’re mentally ill, whatever that is. But I think it takes a lot of balls to be mentally ill and function. While you’re doing it it’s like doing a tour of duty in Afghanistan, yet the bombs and bullets are inside."

Has she ever found being a celebrity difficult?

"You would laugh at me if I said it was difficult. No. It hasn’t been difficult. There are different kinds of famous people. There are people who are gifted and talented, then there are people -- that thing that they say -- are famous for being well-known. Some people just seem to -- in comparison -- are just arbitrary famous. Some people are just destined to be famous. There are some who are going to make spectacles of themselves... in a good way." (Fisher, one can suspect, is in that category.)

Ironically, though, she would have preferred not having gone into show business. " I would have killed to have not gone into it. I watched my mother’s career and my father’s career diminish, so that I knew there was no place where I’d get to where I could say, ’Now I can relax and be famous.’ Or ’All those people like me so know I can like myself.’ I knew all those things were lies, so I didn’t want to go into show business." Pause. "Look how good I am at getting what I want?"

Though her celebrity has not been without its compensations, such as the life-size Princess Leia doll she uses as a prop in "Wishful Drinking," and an experience she had with another life-size doll she saw at a "Star Wars" convention a few years ago.

"It was the metal bikini doll (referring to the iconic costume she wore in "The Empire Strikes Back.") "It was this doll on a turntable and you could see up her dress. I was looking at it as it came around and there was what I call my Galaxy snatch. I went to get my daughter to see it, but by the time I got back, they had stopped the turntable thing. So I said, ’you fuckin’ put that on again. I’m showing my Galaxy snatch to my kid.’"

Inevitably the topic turned to politics and Fisher’s feelings about Sarah Palin the day after the Vice Presidential debate.

"Are you a Republican?" she asked waringly. Told I wasn’t, she proceeded. "I knew that no matter how she did, she would be perceived as being better than expected? I am a Democrat and thought Biden did very well. But I knew she was effective. But I don’t like politicians. Palin, I couldn’t believe at one point she almost said, ’some of my best friends are gay.’ I couldn’t believe she said that! That’s just beyond belief. My mother was going to vote for John McCain. He’s always talking about what great judgement he has, and this judgement is this woman. My mother is not voting for him now."

Finally when asked of her gay appeal (every gay man I’ve mentioned the show to has asked how they could get tickets), Fisher paused a moment.

"Well, I think part of it is my mother, and perhaps a good many gay men dressed like Princess Leia at some point in their life. I think that I am something of a gay man myself."

For more information on Wishful Thinking visit the Berkeley Rep website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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