Why we loved Carrie Fisher

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Gene Seymour: Carrie Fisher's life could be viewed as a mini-cavalcade of movie history

Fisher retained enough of the Old-Hollywood graces to be considerate and solicitous towards the waves of fans, he says

CNN  — 

Most of you probably remember seeing her first as a hologram. I remember seeing her first in tennis whites coming on to Warren Beatty.

That latter movie was 1975’s “Shampoo”, a sexual roundelay of a Hollywood tragicomedy about how life went south on Election Day 1968 for a hairdresser (Beatty) juggling several affairs at once — including with Carrie Fisher’s character, a teenager whose mother (Lee Grant) was one of Beatty’s many regular assignations.

Gene Seymour

Even as a teen nymphet, Fisher projected a wry, wary humor unusual, if not distinctive, for that character type. She wasn’t on-screen for very long, but just long enough to indicate that she could build a whole career out of that raw, tricky calibration of sexiness and cynicism.

But Shampoo was an ornament of a hip and insurgent approach to American filmmaking that was just about to reach its peak. What came in its wake? Why, that 1977 movie most of you remember seeing her in; the one that’s now called, “A New Hope,” but which you knew and loved as, simply, “Star Wars”.

Carrie Fisher’s life could be viewed as a mini-cavalcade of movie history, having been born to Hollywood royalty as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, one of the last of the MGM musical-comedy ingénues who became a show-biz legend on her own. On the ground floor of her movie-acting career, she was also on the ground floor of the great 1970s wave of creative, go-for-broke American cinema.

Star Wars, though it’s hard to imagine now, was part of that wave. George Lucas was associated with the generation of directors that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Hal Ashby (who directed Shampoo). They were steeped in movie tradition enough that they wanted to challenge it with their independent vision. And Lucas, who was struggling to find financing for his projects in the mid-1970s, believed a slam-bang retro space opera with quasi-philosophical undertones was just as cheeky a dare as anything else his peers were putting in the multiplexes.

Now it’s clear that Star Wars and its phenomenal success signaled a return to those old-fashioned Hollywood production values and Fisher, as dauntless, swaggering Princess Leia was in the forefront of that phenomenon.

But it was a long way from the naughtier quirks of Shampoo. Leia was funny and at times sexy. But as Fisher would recall decades later with that wryness that was even more prominent in her off-screen persona, Lucas wanted to play down the sexual stuff to the point of wrapping Fisher’s breasts with gaffer’s tape during the filming. “No breasts bouncing in space,” she said. “There’s no jiggling in the Empire.”

That was the great thing about Fisher and her relationship with the Star Wars franchise. She never took herself seriously in the movies and, to her eternal credit, it shows throughout, even in last year’s “The Force Awakens”, when she played an older, rueful version of the spunky princess-turned-rebel-general.

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    Still, Fisher retained enough of the Old-Hollywood graces associated with her mother’s generation of movie stars to be considerate and solicitous towards the waves of fans and followers of the Skywalker Chronicles over the decades. Not even the travails she faced in her own life (chronicled in her semi-autobiographical novel, “Postcards From The Edge,” which became a 1990 movie with Meryl Streep as a fictionalized version of Fisher) would make her forget her obligations to the millions around the world for whom Princess Leia was – and is – a permanent fixture of their dream lives.

    One guesses she knew how they felt. One wonders if she ever knew how much of a heroine that made her in real life.