Donald Clarke: Touch of Hollywood macabre to death of Carrie Fisher

‘Star Wars’ franchise turned actor into reluctant star who struggled with success

A touch of Hollywood macabre accompanies the sad death of Carrie Fisher at the age of 60. Over the Christmas period, cinemas have, once again, given over their screens to the franchise that turned Fisher from a daughter of legends to a star in her own right.

In the last scenes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which acts as a prequel to Star Wars, we see a digitally engineered version of the young Fisher preparing for coming action in that 1977 sensation. She passed away three days after suffering a heart attack on a flight from London to Los Angeles.

Fisher was famous from the day she entered the world. Born in 1956, she was the child of Debbie Reynolds, one of the industry's great entertainers, and the suave singer Eddie Fisher. When she was just two years old, her father ran off with Elizabeth Taylor.

Reynolds was the ultimate romantic victim. Carrie and her brother provided the media with poignant subplots. The aftermath forever coloured Fisher’s attitude to fame.


In a TV interview with Al Roker nine years ago, she admitted that she would not have accepted the role in Star Wars if she knew it would bring similar levels of celebrity to that endured (and enjoyed) by her mother.

"It doesn't look that good, show business, when you're around it," she said. She addressed that ambivalence with savage wit in her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. The film version starring Meryl Streep as a version of the author and Shirley MacLaine as a variation on Reynolds was only marginally less savage.

Space opera

Reynolds persuaded Carrie to appear in a Broadway musical when the younger actor was just 15. She never graduated from high school, but she still managed to spend time at Central School of Speech and Drama in London and at the prestigious liberal arts college

Sarah Lawrence

. Then

Star Wars

intervened. Almost nobody (bar a canny Steven Spielberg) expected George Lucas’s space opera to be a hit. These things hadn’t made any money since the days of

Flash Gordon


Star Wars went on to become the most successful film ever at the US box office. Mark Hamill was adequate as Luke Skywalker. But the chemistry that mattered was that between Fisher as the plucky Princess Leia and Harrison Ford as the laconic, accidentally charming Han Solo.

There was something of Spencer Tracy versus Katharine Hepburn in the verbal sparring that preceded their inevitable romantic entanglement. She recently admitted that she had an onset affair with Ford, who was then married. "Yes, I love him. I'll always feel something for him," she told the Guardian. "You can't pretend something for so long without some of it coming true."

Ford went on to become a signature star of the 1980s. Fisher had to settle for a career in agreeable supporting roles. When she did appear, her smart, sharp delivery lit up the outer corners.

She was long-suffering for Woody Allen in Hannah and her Sisters. She played a good friend in Rob Reiner's indestructible When Harry Met Sally. Few actors have been better at playing the smart companion to the less stable lead.

Perhaps life got in the way of art. Fisher began a long, eventful relationship with Paul Simon in 1977. In 1980 she became engaged to Dan Aykroyd, but she returned to Simon and they were married in 1983. Even after their divorce a year later, Simon and Fisher still enjoyed the odd date.

Drug abuse

Fisher has been frank about the drug abuse that coloured those times. She eventually realised that she was turning to cocaine as self-medication for what we would now call a bipolar disorder. She was dependent on the painkiller Percodan and, as discussed in her one-woman show

Wishful Drinking

, she became a little too fond of alcohol.

“In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls,” she said in that show. “Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside).”

Long before she returned to Star Wars for last year's The Force Awakens, Fisher had become a much-loved raconteur on the chat-show circuit.

Fans adored her honesty, her screwball wit and the sense that she didn’t give a hoot what others thought of her. They also admired her capacity for survival.

She had much in common with Liza Minnelli, the daughter of Judy Garland, but she seemed the more robust personality and that makes her premature death all the more infuriating. Debbie Reynolds, now 84, survives her.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist