Star Wars is a movie that evokes both the past and the future, but Carrie Fisher made it feel like the present. Although she’d only acted in one previous film, Fisher was Hollywood royalty, the daughter of stars Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, and she infused the character of Princess Leia with a tart-tongued knowingness that lifted the movie above the creaky Flash Gordon serials that inspired George Lucas in the first place. While Mark Hamill and Alec Guinness played it straight, Fisher and Harrison Ford affectionately grinned at the silliness of it all. Ford’s cynical rogue was a stock character even then, but Leia was something new, a princess who could fire back with a blaster or a cutting word, a damsel who could cause distress and not just be rescued from it. Had there been snark in space? It’s hard to imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its genre-tweaking, female-centric descendants without Leia as godmother to the line.
Lucas persuaded Fisher to go braless in the first Star Wars—his explanation, according to her autobiographical one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, was that “there was no underwear in space”—and infamously confined Leia to a metallic bikini in Return of the Jedi, but the films substitute acidic banter for sex, and Fisher was a natural. When Luke first spies Leia in a Death Star cell, she’s stretched out along her bed like an odalisque, but her first words to him are a jibe at his inadequacy: “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” A moment later, as they’re pinned down by enemy fire, she grabs Luke’s blaster and blows a hole in the wall, quipping, “Somebody has to save our skins.”
Leia was constantly being underestimated and turning it to her advantage, whether it was letting the air out of Han Solo’s arrogance or strangling Jabba the Hutt with her own chain. She had a wit as quick as any screwball heroine—a wit that, as her subsequent career as a writer and her endlessly entertaining public appearances made clear, was very much Fisher’s own. Even in a movie about spaceships and aliens, she managed to be herself. Star Wars inaugurated the era of endless franchises, but that sort of winking self-awareness, and the underlying sincerity it provides cover for, may be its most profound legacy, and Carrie Fisher was its standard-bearer.
Leia isn’t the character best served by the original trilogy, but you can watch Fisher grow as an actor throughout the movies. Still, that growth never translated into a full-fledged acting career. “George Lucas ruined my life,” Fisher quipped while presenting him with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, “and I mean that in the nicest possible way.” She joked in the same appearance that signing away the rights to her own likeness meant she had to pay Lucas a few dollars every time she looked in the mirror. (The first part, at least, was true.)
“Me being an actor was an accident and not something I wanted to do, because I knew what happened eventually,” Fisher told me in 2011. “Maybe you’d get famous, but then you wouldn’t be famous anymore. Then you’d have to scramble to get back to where you were, and chances are, you wouldn’t.” Instead, Fisher became a novelist, a screenwriter, a script doctor, and an outspoken advocate on issues of mental health and substance abuse.
Still, Fisher always knew what the first line of her obituary would be, and the revival of the Star Wars franchise gave her a chance to pass that legacy down to a new generation—among them my 7-year-old daughter, who on Friday, before the news of Fisher’s cardiac arrest broke, asked us to give her “Princess Leia hair.” (Fisher completed the filming for Star Wars Episode VIII in July, although Variety reports that Leia had been slated to appear in Episode IX, which isn’t scheduled to start shooting until 2018.) As important as it was to have a female protagonist in a Star Wars movie, the most significant shift in The Force Awakens may have been giving Leia the rank of general—finally putting her in command. She, and Fisher, had earned it.