One of the better jokes in Wishful Drinking, HBO’s filmed version of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, will inspire sad cringing more than laughter these days. I won’t give it away. But if anyone existed in the zone between laughter and sad cringing, it was Carrie Fisher, who at one point during the show touted herself as “runner-up for bipolar woman of the year.” Fisher, of course, will forever be known for the piece of real estate she held down in the vast suburb that is Star Wars. But her true sardonic self came out in her writing and then in her performance of her writing. Wishful Drinking, which HBO re-ran on January 1 in the wake of Fisher’s death, offers probably the purest essence of Fisher in the visual medium (you can look to her novels and memoirs for more).
Fisher’s subject is how bizarrely magical and magically bizarre it is to be “celebrity royalty” — the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, both of whose later married lives were so thick and confusing a large family-tree diagram is necessary to keep it all straight. The format is mainly anecdotal; wandering around a stage set that resembles a retiree’s cluttered but homey living room, Fisher keeps the show on the level of decent stand-up. She doesn’t go for any pathos — she’s too acerbic for that, and whenever she approaches a cliché, she backs away from it quickly with a jet-blast of snark. She doesn’t want to make the material more meaningful, or enlarge it to fit a theme; she just presents her life as comedy. I imagine the movie gives us what it might have been like to sit in Fisher’s parlor listening to her hold forth.
Fisher visits the old suburb briefly, counting the ways Star Wars has immortalized her (as a Pez dispenser, as a shampoo bottle, as a photo in a book ironically titled — no kidding — New Hope for People with Bipolar Disorder). “George Lucas ruined my life,” she says, adding “and I mean that in the nicest possible way.” I’ve seen Fisher’s Princess Leia described as the most famous female character in history; I balked at that until considering that Star Wars is quite likely the most famous film in history and that there are very few other women in Star Wars. That donut-headed hairstyle is iconic, immediately recognizable, and mortifying to a 19-year-old.
So what happens to the human woman who played the icon and is forever linked to it? Especially a woman whose sanity had already been imperiled by being the daughter of stars? It’s a wonder Fisher never climbed a tower with a rifle, but women of Fisher’s generation didn’t do that; they self-medicated, self-deprecated, self-destructed. Somewhere in the show, Fisher proselytizes for electroshock therapy, which she later expanded on in her second memoir, Shockaholic. Fisher felt it helped with her depression, but there’s a chance it might have done some damage to her heart — along with the other punishment she dealt it over the years.
There’s a certain degree of heartlessness — not soullessness, but an ability to distance oneself — required to make witty one-liners out of the chaos of one’s life. (Fisher was a modern master of the epigram, the baby-boomer Dorothy Parker.) Some detachment is needed in order to shape the material so that it can reach others, rather than being incoherent diary entries. (Sadly, Fisher’s last book, The Princess Diarist, was sometimes that.) What brought Fisher’s later fans closer to her, though, was her vulnerability. What you hear in the audience in Wishful Thinking is laughter given gratefully and also generously. Fisher wasn’t angling for pity. She wanted to hear laughs. So much of her writing earns laughs, but they sound hollow now that she’s not here to hear them.