A less distinctive and eccentric performer than Carrie Fisher, who has died after a heart attack aged 60, might well have had an entire career eclipsed after playing one of the leads in the most successful movie franchise of all time.
Fisher’s portrayal of the intergalactic rebel leader Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars series certainly made her a household name: “In the street, they call out, ‘Hey, Princess!’, which makes me feel like a poodle.” But the films never defined her as they did some of her co-stars.
If anything, her bristling humour and intellect made it seem in retrospect as though she had been rather slumming it in those trumped-up B-movies. Certainly the snappy writing in her autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge (1987) was light years ahead of anything she ever had to say on screen as Leia. She was unimpressed about her role in the first Star Wars (1977): “A lot of it was just running down corridors.”
It came as no surprise, then, that she enjoyed a successful writing career alongside her increasingly intermittent acting appearances, with other novels including Surrender the Pink (1990) and Delusions of Grandma (1993). Her most recent book, The Princess Diarist (2016), drew on diaries she wrote while shooting the first Star Wars film in 1976 and included the revelation that she and her married co-star Harrison Ford had been romantically involved.
Anyone lacking Fisher’s tenacity would surely have been capsized by a Hollywood childhood marked by turbulence and scandal. Her parents, the actors Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, divorced when she was 18 months old; her father ran off with Elizabeth Taylor while her mother turned to drink. Fisher grew up to have difficult relationships with each parent. As a child, she rarely saw her father; as an adult, they took cocaine together. Her arguments with her mother could be cataclysmic. As a teenager, Fisher once threw milk in Reynolds’s lap; Reynolds responded by putting baked beans in Fisher’s hair.
If anything, Fisher’s difficult background made her seem impossibly savvy and whip-smart. “I was going to be this nonchalant, seemingly tough kid,” she wrote in 1991. “I was going to handle it. I was going to put my head down and get through it as quickly as possible and get out.”
She gave off the impression of having no illusions about love, family or fame, and yet she would always be charmingly frank and self-deprecating about why another of her relationships or marriages had run aground – her marriages to the singer Paul Simon and the agent Bryan Lourd each ended in divorce – or why she had fallen prey to extended bouts of drug addiction.
She spoke widely of her bipolar disorder, declared herself “Joan of Narc, patron saint of addicts”, claimed that therapy had been “my only serious relationship” and said of relationships: “Sex is out of my element. I’m much more successful during the cigarette.”
It was this mix of candour, sweetness and wit that prevented her from appearing bitter. No matter how hard her life was, or how poor some of her personal choices had been, her wry observations always seemed suffused with hope. She was no cynic.
Fisher was born and raised in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, and lived in the media glare from an early age. The first published photograph of her, in Life magazine, was taken when she was just two hours old. She was educated at Beverly Hills high school and began putting on razzle-dazzle performances at friends’ barmitzvahs at the age of 13. By 15, her mother had roped her into performing alongside her, first in her nightclub act and then in 1973 on Broadway in the musical Irene. Fisher then enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London.
“She never played a grand game or pulled rank,” her classmate, the actor and director Selina Cadell, told the Guardian in 2015. “She was just a lovely person with this amazing sense of humour. We think of sharp, witty people as being very resilient but she had a striking softness and vulnerability.”
In 1975, Fisher made a brief but memorable film debut propositioning Warren Beatty in the satire Shampoo, before landing her big break on Star Wars, where she sported a hairstyle she described as “hairy earphones”. She was already drinking heavily and taking drugs (cocaine, LSD, Percodan) and her addiction only intensified, along with her fame, following the colossal success of the movie and its immediate sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), in which there was less running along corridors and more sparkling banter, particularly between her and Ford.
She later explained that drugs “managed something in me that I was too lazy to manage on my own, this thundering emotion and verbal excitement that would roar out of me. It still can: I can still take a dinner party hostage but I try not to.”
She had her stomach pumped after overdosing on Percodan in 1985. “I’m glad they did it,” she said, “because that was a very powerful piece of evidence that drugs and I had to part ways.” That incident, and a subsequent month-long spell in rehab, formed the basis for Postcards from the Edge. The novel was filmed by Mike Nichols in 1990 from Fisher’s own screenplay, with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine playing characters based on the author and her mother respectively. She was also a highly paid Hollywood script doctor; films that benefited from her uncredited polishes or rewrites including Sister Act (1992), The Last Action Hero (1993), The River Wild (1994) and The Wedding Singer (1998).
Her non-Star Wars film appearances were sporadic and not especially notable, with the exception of parts in The Blues Brothers (1980), Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), When Harry Met Sally (1989) and David Cronenberg’s Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars (2014). In the last of these, in which she played herself, her face seemed oddly immobile, though rumours that she had undergone plastic surgery were never confirmed.
She was, however, an outspoken critic of Hollywood’s treatment of women, and revealed that she had been asked to lose weight to play Leia both in the original Star Wars and the seventh instalment, The Force Awakens (2015), nearly 40 years later. “They don’t want to hire all of me – only about three-quarters! Nothing changes, it’s an appearance-driven thing. I’m in a business where the only thing that matters is weight and appearance. That is so messed up. They might as well say get younger, because that’s how easy it is.”
Latterly she had become a much-loved figure on social media along with her French bulldog Gary, whose Twitter account had around 16,000 followers to her 1.13m. She also had an acerbic cameo in the acclaimed Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe. Although Fisher did not shoot any new footage for the Star Wars prequel-cum-spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), she made a surprise appearance at the end of the movie in digitally manipulated footage drawn from her 1977 performance, and had recently finished production on Star Wars Episode VIII, to be released in December 2017.
She is survived by her daughter, Billie, from her marriage to Bryan Lourd, by her mother and by her brother, Todd.
• Carrie Frances Fisher, actor and writer, born 21 October 1956; died 27 December 2016
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010