Millions of voices suddenly cried out in sadness… and were suddenly silent… something terrible has happened.
— Random Facebook comment
Except… we haven’t been silent, have we? The outpouring of condolences, remembrances, and genuinely heartfelt grief at the passing of Carrie Fisher has been truly remarkable, even after a year that claimed such beloved public figures as David Bowie and Prince. Even now, nearly three weeks after the fact, I’m still seeing comments, blog posts, and memes about her death… and her life. People are using her likeness for Facebook profile pics and Tumblr avatars. And speculation about how Disney/Lucasfilm plans to proceed with upcoming Star Wars films without her has grown so intense that Disney actually felt compelled to issue a statement on Friday that they have no intentions to create a digital stand-in for her, as they did for a brief scene in Rogue One.
One of the most surprising aspects of all this, at least to me, has been the little-c catholicism of Carrie’s mourners, who range far beyond the expected legions of Star Wars fans to include a lot of people who couldn’t care less about the galaxy far, far away. But of course there was a lot more to Carrie Fisher than just Star Wars. She appeared in 40-something feature films, some of which are non-Star Wars classics in their own right (The Blues Brothers, When Harry Met Sally… ); she wrote four novels and three works of memoir, all of which were best-sellers, as well as a successful one-woman stage show, Wishful Drinking; she was a respected screenwriter, having adapted one of her own novels — Postcards from the Edge — into a feature film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, as well as doing uncredited “script doctor” rewrites on who-knows-how-many films, including the Star Wars prequels; and she was a vocal advocate for causes relating to mental health and drug addiction, the twin demons she herself battled throughout her life. In recent years, she also had a lot to say about body shaming and how our culture (especially fanboy culture) doesn’t allow women to age with grace, which won her even more admirers. And yet… it was a film role she took on when she was only 19 years old for which she’s ultimately going to be remembered, a surreal and ironic fact that Carrie was well aware of. If you’ve read her memoirs or seen her interviews, it’s plain that she spent a lot of time struggling to figure out where Leia ended and Carrie began, and vice versa. It’s an interesting question for any actor who is so strongly associated with a single role, but it’s also one worth asking of fans: Who exactly are we mourning, Carrie Fisher or Princess Leia Organa?
I fell in love with Princess Leia when I was seven years old. Big deal, right? I think it’s safe to say that most men (and not a few women) in my general age cohort would say the same thing. The character’s prominence in the coming-of-age of Generation X is an utter cliche at this point. (Can you believe it’s been 20 years since that Friends episode about Ross’ gold bikini sex fantasies?) But just because an idea is hackneyed doesn’t make it untrue. Leia was my imaginary girlfriend — well, one of them, anyway — for most of my childhood and adolescence.
That was Leia, though. I met Carrie Fisher in 2012. The occasion was an award presentation for her mental-health advocacy, followed by a book signing. And while she couldn’t avoid discussing her role in Star Wars during the course of the evening — I imagine not a day passed when she didn’t talk about it, in one way or another — that wasn’t the focus of this event, and I was under no illusion that the person up there on that stage was the fictional princess of my youth. Her voice was wrong for one thing; age and cigarettes had changed it, roughened it and given it a phlegmy undercurrent. She was smart, sarcastic, and deadly quick with her wit, just like Leia. But she was also self-deprecating, a bit rambling, a bit vulgar, a bit fragile. Kind of weird, to be honest. Not in an unappealing way, just in a way that was very unlike Leia. I found myself liking her, and wishing I could spend a lot of time hanging out with her and hearing all of her wild stories three or four times each.
Later, when I stood in front of her while she autographed my copy of Postcards from the Edge, I was struck by how tiny she was. In some weird way I still can’t put my finger on, she reminded me of my mom. I don’t remember what I said to her, but I know I was trying not to say the obvious Star Wars fanboy things. I must’ve mentioned my own fiction-writing ambitions, based on the kindly encouraging words she scribbled in my book. But then she looked up at me with those deep brown eyes that were so familiar to me from hundreds of viewings of the Holy Trilogy, and I saw them glittering with the same warm, mischievous energy they displayed in Return of the Jedi when she throws Han Solo’s infamous “I know” back at him… I fell in love all over again.
I’d met quite a few celebrities by that time, and largely gotten over being starstruck. I rarely have a problem talking to actors I’ve admired since I was a kid. But in that moment, I became hopelessly tongue-tied. Because suddenly after an evening of listening to Carrie, I was looking at Leia. She lived inside Carrie after all, just as Carrie lived in her… just as somewhere inside me there’s a seven-year-old boy who dreams of heroically swinging across a chasm with her in my arms, and a ten-year-old boy who wants a girl to look at me the way Leia looked at Han in the carbon-freeze chamber, and a thirteen-year-old boy who… well, I’ll leave that one right there. Ross wasn’t the only one who responded to that damn bikini. (Although, if you want to know the honest truth, I’ve always thought she was at her prettiest in her snow-bunny outfit from Empire. Call me weird.)
The point is, in the end, Carrie and Leia were very hard to parse out from each other. And I can honestly say, sincerely, without intending any sort of stalkerish overtone, that I loved both of them, fiercely.
I finally got around to seeing Rogue One on December 23rd, a week after the movie opened… the day Carrie Fisher had a massive heart attack on an airplane midway between London and LA. Anne and I had both shed a few tears at the movie’s end and were feeling a little raw as the house lights came up. (If you’ve seen it, you’ll understand.) While the closing credits were still rolling, and the familiar Star Wars title music still thundered through the theater, she pulled out her phone and called up Facebook to see what had been going on while we were in the galaxy far, far away. The first thing she ran across was the news about Carrie. It was totally unexpected, and it hit me like hard piledriver punch to the gut.
At that point, details were sketchy and people were trying to be optimistic, but to borrow a certain well-known catchphrase from a certain space-opera franchise, I had a bad feeling about it. Somehow I just knew. Quite literally moments after seeing Carrie’s digitally resurrected youthful self on the movie screen, I was confronted with the certainty that we were going to lose her, if not that day, then very soon. I don’t mind admitting that I went to the theater’s restroom, locked myself into a stall, and had a brief, sobbing breakdown. Because Carrie Fisher wasn’t just some actress to me, not just another celebrity I feel compelled to eulogize on my blog because I liked their work when I was a kid. She wasn’t even merely a childhood crush, although she certainly was that, and a middle-aged crush as well. She was a charming, complicated mess of a human being whom I’d met and spoken with and responded to and felt genuine affection for. She felt as real to me as members of my own family. As my friend Jaren put it, she was like that cool girlfriend your older brother had once, the one you’ve kept tabs on all these years because you just couldn’t help yourself.
And now she’s gone.
I’m sure that someday I’ll be able to watch Star Wars or Rogue One or any of her movies again without thinking that. But for now… my princess, my Carrie, is gone. And I feel a cold twinge inside whenever the thought occurs to me.