I wanted to start this season on a personal note. As a screenwriter and director, I’ve been inspired by many of the women we’re going to feature this year. But our first episode focuses on someone who was a role model for me and many others on so many levels. I was born while the world was falling in love with Star Wars, before the original trilogy was finished. To me, there has never been a world without Princess Leia. The character’s influence on my life was real, but it wasn’t nearly as strong as the influence of the actress who brought her to life. This week, I want to honor Carrie Fisher for her work as a screenwriter who used her gift for comedy and witty dialogue to flavor her sharp observations of the world around her.
A lot of time has been spent talking about Fisher’s family and her childhood, though no one tells those stories as well as Fisher herself in her novels and memoirs. She was always willing to be open and honest about the trials of growing up in Hollywood, but also quick to point out that it was the only life she’d known and so to her, it was normal.
Instead of focusing on those early years, our part of the story picks up when Fisher was in her early 20’s. She gave one of her trademark funny and insightful interviews to Esquire magazine in 1985, and publishers came calling to ask that she write something of her own. The first idea was a book of essays, but instead Fisher ended up writing a novel.
That novel was Postcards from the Edge, an acclaimed best seller that in turn led to Fisher’s first screenwriting credit when she was hired to adapt the book. Director Mike Nichols said, “Carrie can go over ground we have traveled before and discover it in a completely fresh way…she’s a born screenwriter.”
The film was released in 1990, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. Streep was nominated for an Oscar for her role, and Carrie Fisher was nominated for a BAFTA for the screenplay. While Fisher often acknowledged the similarities between the character Suzanne Vale and herself, she also told Entertainment Weekly that while she understands people who think the book is about her relationship with her own mother, Debbie Reynolds, but it isn’t. “I’m not shocked that people think it’s about me and my mother. It’s easier for them to think that I have no imagination for language, just a tape recorder with endless batteries.”
Fisher clearly did have an imagination for language, because during the 90’s and early 2000’s she was well known behind the scenes as one of Hollywood’s best script doctors.
The average Hollywood screenplay has gone through a lot of hands, and the names that get attached to the credits are determined by rules set mostly by the Writer’s Guild of America. But behind the scenes, its common practice for a film’s directors or producers to bring in someone to help an “ailing” script. Usually a script doctor is brought in because the script has a problem within their realm of expertise, like structure, pacing, or theme.
Fisher’s specialty was dialogue, and she worked on many successful comedies from Sister Act to The Wedding Singer. She worked on Rene Russo’s dialogue in Lethal Weapon 3 and Outbreak. She partnered with George Lucas again when she polished scripts for the Young Indian Jones Chronicles, and she wrote her brief appearance in Scream 3. Director Joe Dante remembers that many of her best scenes in his film The ‘Burbs were improvised by Fisher and co-star Tom Hanks.
In the documentary Dreams on Spec , Fisher says she got started as a script doctor when Steven Spielberg asked her for help rewriting Tinkerbell’s dialogue for the film Hook. Fisher says “that makes no sense because you can’t just write one character. There is another character that they speak to.” And so she also rewrote lines for Robin Williams as Peter Pan. Not long after, Whoopi Goldberg recommended her for Sister Act, and Fisher was already being called “one of the most sought after doctors in town.”
As always, Fisher spoke openly and honestly about the work saying that it was a “very lucrative episode of my life.” In the end, she says, she left that behind because changes in the industry meant that executives often would ask writers to present their ideas before committing to a contract, then not hire the writer. That way, the writer ends up doing the work for free and the producers can use the ideas anyway. Not happy to work at what she called “life-wasting events,” Fisher moved on.
Fisher also wrote the novel Surrender the Pink, and a draft of a screenplay after the rights were bought by Stephen Spielberg, but the film was never produced. Over the years she helped write for Oscar ceremonies, and was well known for comedic speeches for award presentations and roasts of other celebrities.
She worked as a producer only once, on the film These Old Broads which starred her mother Debbie Reynolds. She also co-wrote the script after a discussion at a party about the lack of parts for older actresses. The 2001 television movie also starred Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins, and was Elizabeth Taylor’s final film role.
An outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, Fisher was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 24. In 1990, she said that she turned to writing to work out her emotions, saying, “I talk well because I feel bad…I take things too hard and it’s just loony. But one thing I get out of it is that I can describe the way-too-hard in a funny way and it laces the difficulty with a certain pleasure.” She recently told Fresh Air, “I think I do overshare, it’s my way of trying to understand myself…it creates community when you talk about private things.”
In 2006, Fisher stopped writing fiction and wrote directly about her life in the autobiographical one-woman play Wishful Drinking. The show was a hit, which was then turned into a book and a live performance of the play aired on HBO in 2010.
In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney said, “Fisher’s life was always her richest material, not in the way a stand-up comic draws on personal experience for laughs, but in the manner of a survivor who, by hanging out the good and the bad of her existence for public inspection with a sardonic spin, succeeded in neutralizing the hurt. Or at the very least, in masking the vulnerability.”
The Princess Diarist was released in November 2016, and the memoir of her time filming Star Wars would be her last book. Fisher passed away on December 27th, 2016. Fans paid tribute to her as Princess Leia, but also spoke about the great impact she had on their lives through her sometimes brutal, often hilarious honesty about her life. She spoke about the difficulties of addiction and mental illness often, encouraging others by reminding them that they aren’t alone in their struggles. She was vocal about sexism in Hollywood, including wage discrimination and ageism.
As a writer, she spoke with a voice that in turn spoke to many and touched lives around the world.
Because of Postcards from the Edge, many people believed Fisher and Reynolds had a strained relationship. Fisher instead said that Reynolds was “a better mother than I deserved,” and the two lived next door to each other. Reynolds passed away on December 28th, the day after her daughter.
The documentary Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher will air on HBO January 7th, 2017, giving the world one more view into the fascinating and funny life of a wonderful and inspiring woman.
Written by Mary Ratliff