by Carrie Fisher
288 pages, Black Swan
(This review is of the audio version, read by Carrie Fisher and Billie Lourd)
Review by Pat Black
It’s something Carrie Fisher must have dreaded at first - people coming up to her and saying: “You were my first crush…”
Over time this apprehensiveness mutated into many different things – boredom; hilarity; wry acceptance; shock and awe; even love, in return.
In her writing and on talk shows, Fisher made great comic capital out of being Princess Leia, the poster girl and fantasy fixation for millions of adolescent boys (and not a few girls). She was a very funny, talented and creative person.
The Princess Diarist feels like it only came out about five minutes ago, and it sharpens a worldwide sense of grief over the still-stunning fact that the woman who played everyone’s favourite space princess is gone.
It contains Carrie Fisher’s actual diaries from 40 years ago, penned when she made the original Star Wars movie, aged just 19. However, that’s only a portion of the book. For the most part, it’s a memoir, written in the style of the role she played in the last couple of decades of her life: Carrie Fisher, raconteur.
Most of this book deals with the Star Wars shoot in the United Kingdom all those years ago, with a young cast who probably couldn’t have imagined even in their most stoned moments how successful George Lucas’ space opera would become.
Well, I say “young”… are you still young at 34, the age Harrison Ford was when he first played Han Solo? That seems young-ish to me. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The main meat of this book is Fisher’s relationship with Ford. They had an affair during the Star Wars shoot, which for me has become more of an interesting story than anything to do with lightsabers, the Force, spaceships, ray guns, the Skywalker clan or intergalactic asthma.
“Carrison”, as Fisher calls it, is the centrepiece of the book. She admirably, if disappointingly, keeps the juicier details under control. But we can be sure of one thing: she absolutely adored him.
He was married, though. And there is a galaxy’s worth of a difference between the ages of 19 and 34. She defends him, insisting Ford was not a womaniser; that their affair was “something that just happened”. (This is what people who have been caught having affairs usually say. “Oh, alright then,” said no-one in response, ever. I suppose an icepick in the forehead is something that can just happen, too.)
She also insists that she has never gone public before with the affair out of respect for Ford’s wife at the time. But Fisher is being just a teensy bit disingenuous. I remember something from a few years ago, either a talk show or a newspaper interview when one of the prequels came out, where she mentioned “how much fun” Harrison Ford was, and how he used to play pranks on her in her room while they were shooting Star Wars. “In her room” was the part I mentally underlined.
Fisher’s style for the memoir parts is mainly “crazy auntie”. In talking about Ford’s seduction of her, she comes across as a bouncy, but still insecure teenager, trapped in the body of a middle-aged person. The perfect guest on The Graham Norton Show, in other words. You can imagine her wry lines and puns being practised over many years on after-dinner speaking tours.
Part of this actually becomes painful. Funny though it is, Fisher over-thinks things, and her own part in them. I wonder if Harrison Ford – a man who comes across as bored, at best, in interviews – gave a fraction of this consideration to his on-set conquest. But for the most part, the Carrison story is fun, breezy - and absolutely first-class gossip.
Then something happens that slams on the brakes, Warner Bros cartoon-style. Fisher reveals her actual diaries, and her daughter Billie Lourd takes over the narration.
It’s a startling volte-face. Fisher is so serious, so cynical, in her teenage diaries that it’s hard to believe it’s the same person. There’s no doubt that it was written by a fairly young, fairly naive person – but the soul behind the words seems ancient. She is as proficient as she is playful with her pen – a precocious talent, without a doubt (and it’s worth remembering that writing was Fisher’s true vocation). I was listening to this being read aloud so I don’t know what form the lines take, but the young Fisher turns to poetry quite a lot, often catching you unawares. Nothing you’d put in a textbook for bored English students, but certainly startling and spontaneous.
The diary is all about Harrison Ford. I’ll say it again – she absolutely adored him. We could be talking about love; certainly we are talking about infatuation. Fisher later admits she fantasised about marriage (“after a decent period of time following his sad divorce”, she inserts, somewhat hurriedly).
This has become a story on its own. It has textured the whole of the Star Wars saga, for me. What must she have felt when her character had to be “seduced” on screen by the same actor a couple of years later when they shot The Empire Strikes Back? To kiss him again, even on camera? How did Han and Leia’s “thrown-together” romance on-screen reflect the actors’ own lives and feelings at the time?
There are other startling moments, too, such as when the young Fisher says: “I’m sorry it wasn’t you, Mark” - meaning Hamill, surely.
Fisher also discloses that she and other members of the cast and crew were smoking strong waccy baccy (Chewbaccy?) at the time. Sadly, it seems Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing did not partake of a puff, though a fellow can dream.
Later, Fisher and Ford sit beside each other in economy class as their plane crosses the Atlantic, after Star Wars has wrapped. They talk for most of the journey. Fisher’s melancholy is near-palpable. What a sad, poignant moment in life: your first big adult event, your first love affair, and it’s coming to an end.
She remembers something Ford tells her, his exact words (I can almost hear the drawl): “You’ve got balls bigger than a samurai, kid.”
Princess Leia’s famous gold bikini from Return Of The Jedi was something worn under duress, we find out, though it’s also embraced in a curious way. You get the sense that Fisher is kind of embarrassed, though happy to accept she looked terrific in it - and probably wise enough not to complain too much, given that it’s such a fixed part of her on-screen identity. I was about to say, “not to mention its place in the fantasies of millions of boys” - but she does mention that, many times.
More troubling is the idea that the young Fisher was told to lose 10 pounds before shooting began on Star Wars; that she thought she looked fat, and hated her appearance. It’s a sobering reminder that insecurities can seethe behind the prettiest faces. And that unpleasant people can foster them and profit from them.
The rest of the book is taken up with Fisher’s post-Leia life spent on the convention circuit, or “celebrity lapdancing”, to borrow her phrasing. There’s some gentle and not-so-gentle mockery of the things people say to her at these signings and celebrity meet n’ greets. But like many actors who are most commonly associated with one big role, Fisher moved from contempt to acceptance, and finally gratitude that people still love work she did decades ago. She admits that she loves being Princess Leia, although her favourite role will always be Carrie Fisher.
There are some stinging references to mortality. She mentions how much more valuable all those scribbled autographs will be once she dies. It’s difficult to accept that she has died. She is past tense; gone.
It’s a tough one, in so far as you can find it tough to lose a person you never met. Last year accounted for a lot of beloved stars, but the author’s death right at the very end of 2016 was one of the hardest to take. It’s unpleasant to think that Carrie Fisher could actually grow older and die; but you could say the same for anyone who became famous in the colour television age – David Bowie, Lemmy, Alan Rickman, Sir Roger Moore; take yer pick from a rich crop of recent recruits alone.
Thanks to the glowing box in the corner, these people became ghosts while they were still alive - moving pictures, familiar to millions, but stuck in time, even as their real-time forms fell prey to the same forces which will account for us all. I’ve heard it said that the main reason we mourn singers, sports stars and actresses is because their deaths are a glancing blow from our own mortality. It’s not the biggest reason, for me, but it’s definitely part of the mix.
I didn’t know Carrie Fisher. I have no connection whatsoever with her life and her family, aside from a crudely-painted face on an action figure, or a flickering image beamed onto a screen from 40 years ago. (“Who is she? She’s beautiful.”)
And yet we feel so sad. She was my first crush. There’s not much more to it. That’s where I’ll leave this.