Carrie Fisher had at least one thing in common with Princess Leia, the character that defined her career — a dry wit. “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable” was Fisher’s “main maxim,” Sheila Weller notes in a new biography, “Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge.”
This engrossing, gracefully written, occasionally hagiographic book doesn’t just repeat the motto, it illustrates it, recounting numerous tales about how Fisher, who struggled with mental illness and addiction, managed to find the funny in it all — and share that with audiences, both as an actress and a writer.
Weller never met Fisher, who died in 2016 at age 60 after going into cardiac arrest on an airplane. Members of the actress’ family have reportedly disavowed this book as unauthorized. But “Carrie Fisher” reads as definitive, drawing on myriad interviews, media analysis, close readings of Fisher’s writing and at least one chat with a “Star Wars” groupie.
Do you want to know what science-fiction illustrator inspired the metal bikini Fisher wore in “Return of the Jedi”? Or how her first date with Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) went in the mid-’80s? (Hint: not well.) The book is full of such tidbits, while also delivering a somber look at Fisher’s final days.
Fisher’s difficulties began early on in a life marked by extraordinary privilege, achievement and trouble. Among the early traumas was the breakup of her parents’ marriage. Her father, singer Eddie Fisher, deserted her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, for Elizabeth Taylor when Carrie was a toddler, sparking a scandal. It was an experience, Fisher told a friend, that showed her “how to pine for men, but not how to love them.”
After catapulting to her own fame as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” franchise, Carrie Fisher coped with substance abuse and bipolar disorder; a romance with (and brief marriage to) singer-songwriter Paul Simon; a relationship with agent Bryan Lourd, who left her for a man after fathering her daughter, Billie; and the judgmentalism of a public that sneered at her for becoming older and stouter than the svelte royal who sent a hologram to Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Fisher mined her potboiler life for fiction and nonfiction, most notably in the novel “Postcards From the Edge.” Her autobiographical one-woman show “Wishful Drinking” became a book and HBO special. Along the way, Fisher gained a reputation as a latter-day Dorothy Parker. “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die” is one of many Fisher zingers quoted in this book.
While illuminating how Fisher’s personal trauma catalyzed her wit, Weller shows that the life of this Tinseltown scion touched on major issues of our day. Fisher’s honesty about her bipolar diagnosis, and her accounts of electroshock therapy, drew needed attention to mental-health issues. The tale of her battle with addiction reverberates as America grapples with an opioid epidemic.
Perhaps most notably, the take-charge spunkiness of her Leia made the character a feminist icon: The princess turned general appeared on signs at women’s marches in 2017. Adding to Fisher’s power as a symbol for the #NastyWoman era were her ripostes to the body-image shaming she endured after “The Force Awakens” opened in 2015. “Men don’t age better than women; they’re just allowed to age,” she observed.
Fisher was born into, suffered from and fueled celebrity mania. She hobnobbed with so many boldface names that Weller’s book sometimes reads like a parody of a TMZ post. Fisher’s enduring friendship with Salman Rushdie! The time she exchanged phone numbers with Stephen Hawking! The night Dan Aykroyd saved her from choking on a Brussels sprout!
Weller posits that Fisher’s glittery friendships and acquaintanceships were symptoms of her needy craving for love but were also a reflection of her immense warmth, generosity and personal magnetism. In describing these qualities, Weller — author of “Girls Like Us,” a group biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon — sometimes creeps up to the edge of gushiness.
Fisher’s “honesty about her problems gave her a strength — empathy toward and relief for others with problems; a unique, wise humor that would grow over the years,” the book notes at one point. “Few women, or men, seemed to possess the charisma of Carrie Fisher,” it marvels at another.
But for the most part, the book doesn’t rave as much as it quotes others raving: Penny Marshall calling Fisher “brilliant,” Albert Brooks calling her “irresistible,” Richard Dreyfuss appreciating the way “she made everyone feel at home.” Weller’s biography seems to still shiver with the pain so many people expressed upon learning of Fisher’s death.
That pain may point not only to love of “Star Wars” but to the way Fisher’s story affirms our (sometimes) suppressed misgivings about our culture’s deference to fame and commercial entertainment. The emotion also echoes the poignant evidence laid out in this book, bearing witness to Fisher’s strength, compassion, talent and ability to alchemize pain into art.
“Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge”
By Sheila Weller
Sarah Crichton/FSG. 402 pages. $28.