“Princess Leia” and Star Wars were always going to be bold-faced, must-mention terms in the headline and lead sentence of Carrie Fisher’s obituary, versions of which news outlets are now rushing to roll out in response to the 60-year-old actress’s death on Tuesday. That tends to happen when you inhabit one of the most memorable roles of the 20th century. But to me, Carrie Fisher has never been synonymous with Princess Leia. See, those of us who are just about the furthest thing from sci-fi fanboys and fangirls—that is, romantic comedy devotees—also have deep reserves of love for Fisher. And this is due in no small part to her role in what might well be considered the Star Wars of rom-coms: When Harry Met Sally ….
Of course, Fisher’s body of work went well beyond both Star Wars and When Harry Met Sally…—she was an accomplished novelist, memoirist, script doctor, and actress in other films. But her depiction of Sally’s friend Marie was one for the ages, a perfect performance that set a standard most romantic-comedy best friend parts and B-plot romances won’t ever come close to topping.
When we meet Marie, she’s fixated on a married man who’s “never going to leave [his wife].” (“Nobody thinks he’s never going to leave her,” Meg Ryan’s Sally says. “You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right,” Marie answers. The way she says it, it’s clear they’ve had this conversation many times.) She carries a Rolodex around with her and, over a boathouse lunch, tries to fix Sally up with some of the men within it. When Sally protests one—“He’s been married for over a year!”—Marie shakes her head and dog-ears the corner of the card. It’s such a great little bit, telegraphed expertly by Fisher: Hey, married men date, too, so she’ll keep him on file, just in case.
That’s just one of her tiny gems in this movie. She’s a total quote machine throughout it—“Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” “Someone’s staring at you in personal growth.” “Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.” It’s not just that the lines are well-written (though they are) but that Fisher is able to sell each one as the cynical friend who doesn’t have Meg Ryan’s cute-as-a-button veneer to do the work for her. Fisher’s eyebrows in this movie, frequently raised in skepticism, knowingness, or contentedness, contain more truth than most entire scripts. The Toast once ran a whole piece praising the many slam-dunk line readings in this movie, and Fisher shines right alongside the rest of the excellent cast.
To coincide with the movie’s 25th anniversary in 2014, the Atlantic Wire argued that Marie and Bruno Kirby’s Jess were actually a better couple than the movie’s ostensible heroes, Harry and Sally. It’s a fair point! The night the two meet in the movie is supposed to be a double-setup for Harry and Marie and, separately, Sally and Jess. But Fisher and Kirby turn out to have a chemistry that will not be denied. Watch how her face, bored but trying to be polite when Sally mentions she and Harry are both from New Jersey (insert unspellable murmur, an ah fading into an oh, of feigned interest), comes alive when she starts talking to Jess. After dinner on the sidewalk: “Oh, I’ve been looking for a red suede pump,” Marie says, very obviously pulling Sally aside to sneak in some one-on-one girl talk. “What do you think of Jess?” she asks, “ ‘Cause I feel really comfortable with him.” Sally says it’s fine if they go out; she just doesn’t want to hurt Harry’s feelings. A few feet away, Jess and Harry are having a similar conversation about Sally. Both agree not to make any sudden movements, to wait a few days, to spare each other’s feelings … making it all the more funny when Jess decides to call it a night and hail a cab and Marie oh-so-nonchalantly hops in with him.
While Harry and Sally continue to struggle to get out of their own ways for the entirety of the film, Marie and Jess’ love story offers a vision of romance free of sweeping, grand-crescendo gestures, the kind of stable partnership where they could coach their single friends through their various crises before sighing, “Tell me I’ll never have to be out there again.” Jess’ response: “You’ll never have to be out there again.” The dream, basically.
So while I’m sure she was great as Princess Leia, I’ll always prefer to think of Carrie Fisher as Marie, and Star Wars as that movie where Marie wears the weird hair buns.