Carrie Fisher had a long career in Hollywood, playing many roles throughout her career and being one of the best script doctors in the business. Which is all fine and good, but that’s not why these tributes are coming out. They’re remembering Fisher for her role as Princess Leia Organa. It is fitting not just because Star Wars to this day remains the biggest franchise in Hollywood, but because the role on paper is not a very good one. Carrie Fisher took a role, that on paper, comes off as either weak damsel in distress or obnoxious bitch and made it into a strong iconic character.
It has been talked about ad nauseam, but is worth mentioning again that Star Wars, in particular the original film, follows the Heroes Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell. This is relevant because it means that most of the characters in the movie embody certain archetypes. Luke Skywalker is a naïve young hero thrust into greatness. Han Solo is the rogueish pirate with a heart of gold. Obi-wan is the wise old wizard that guides our young hero to his destiny. And then we come to Princess Leia whose role is princess to be rescued. The role by its very nature is limiting. She is meant to be an object for Luke to win over (though to George Lucas’s credit it must be noted at the end Luke gets a medal, not the girl).
Given such a limiting role, she somehow made it work by bring lots and lots of attitude. From the very beginning even though she might be captured she never comes off as weak. It’s not the dialogue either, it’s the performance. It’s worth noting that for all of George Lucas’s strengths, dialogue isn’t one “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought onboard” is objectively, not a good line. In fact, it’s a terrible line. No human being alive actually talks like that, but Carrie Fisher brings such attitude and sarcasm to that line that it becomes a great line. Time and again Fisher’s performance takes mediocre or bad dialogue on paper and makes it great.
The flipside of the attitude that makes Leia such a great character, is that in the wrong hands Princess Leia could easily come off as the most hateable woman alive. Think about it, she gets rescued and when it doesn’t go perfectly her reaction is “Some rescue”. Holy crap in the wrong hands that line could easily come off as a case of “you’re whining about a rescue, jeez man”. It’s the performance that makes it a great line. It’s not the only case throughout the original Star Wars where she takes and makes it into a line indicative of her strength of character. When she starts to take control of the situation shortly after and insults Han Solo, it is again a case where it could have been a complete disaster, but it isn’t. She doesn’t come off as a bitch, instead she comes off as a strong, badass woman (while also being just the right amount of unlikable). Simply said, that wasn’t the material the script gave her. It was her performance that made the line.
It’s also worth the humanity that Carrie Fisher brings to the role. Think back to the exchange with Moff Tarkin. Yes, Leia gets her sick burns on Moff Tarkin, but think about what happens next: The Death Star blows up Alderann. As viewers we have more emotional connection to Tatooine at this point because we’ve actually seen the planet, and had scenes on it. With Alderann though, our emotional connection to the planet is solely about Leia. She needs to be able to sell the tragedy of what just happened for the audience to care, and she does. If she doesn’t, the destruction of the planet becomes much more of a vague, abstract concept that makes it more difficult for the audience to care about what just happened. Since the entire movie is predicated on appreciating what a danger the Death Star is, that would be very bad.
Carrie Fisher will be missed like few others in Hollywood. She was an iconic actress, and not just because of the role she happened to get. She was iconic because she made the role he own. Much of what Leia is is not because the script wrote her that way, rather it’s because Carrie Fisher played he that way. She was beautiful and charming, without falling into the trap of just being a damsel. At the same time she was caustic, and sarcastic without being unlikeable. Few actresses, if any, could have brought what Carrie Fisher did to the table. It’s just one of many reason’s that she’ll be missed.