Friday, June 1, 2018

Wishfully Thinking About Carrie Fisher

I never saw Carrie Fisher’s solo show, Wishful Drinking, when it played on a local stage. Now, it’s too late, given Fisher’s untimely death in 2016.  But a recent JetBlue trip allowed me to view HBO’s filmed version of her show, which was an Emmy nominee in 2011. It proved the perfect thing to watch while suspended in mid-air—much like Fisher herself—between L.A. and New York City,

Not everyone may know that Carrie Fisher was one of Hollywood’s best-regarded script doctors. Her wit and her off-kilter view of the world more than make up for a  life that could come off as soap opera. She begins, inevitably, with the story of her parents’ marriage. (I’m quoting from notes scribbled down during my flight, so the zingers may not be absolutely exact.) Perky Debbie Reynolds and suave crooner Eddie Fisher—both of whom were alive when this show aired—were often called America’s Sweethearts. In 1956, the year Carrie was born, they actually starred together in a musical about a young couple and a baby: Bundle of Joy. Debbie and Eddie had close friends in Hollywood, producer Mike Todd and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. The friendship was so strong that the Fishers’ second child was named Todd, in Mike’s honor. In explaining this, Carrie references the Jewish tradition of her paternal ancestors, who felt that naming a baby after a living person is bad luck. The Fishers may have laughed this off as old-world superstition, but in 1958 Mike Todd died in the crash of a private plane. Eddie quickly took it upon himself to console the beautiful widow. Here’s how Carrie wryly puts it: “He flew to her side. Gradually he made his way to her front.”

The Fisher/Reynolds divorce, which was prime fodder for the movie mags of the day, led to multiple re-marriages on both sides. Fisher’s last of five wives was Asian, and Carrie notes, “My father has had so many facelifts he looks Chinese himself.” (She also theorizes that, as a short, Jewish singer, he inspired her own brief marriage to Paul Simon.) Carrie’s mother gets off no more easily. Noting that Debbie Reynolds’ lineage is Texan, but that celebrity gives her a certain aristocratic sheen, Carrie labels her mom “blue-blooded poor white trash.” Certainly Debbie had some unconventional ideas. When she married her third husband, but realized she herself was too old for child-bearing, she had the bright idea that Carrie (unmarried in her late 20s) should be impregnated with his sperm, so that his genetic material would not go to waste.

Carrie Fisher of course made her own mark on Hollywood by playing Princess Leia (she of the Cinnabon hair-do) in the original Star Wars. She’s hilarious in discussing her first impression of this project: “It sounded like a fight between my original parents.” She also expresses her chagrin that George Lucas owns her likeness, which has even shown up as a Leia-headed Pez dispenser. She has been hailed for her acid-dipped pen (see her skewering of a slightly fictionalized version of her own upbringing in Postcards from the Edge, for which she wrote both the source novel and the screenplay). But, given her medical issues, which included bipolar disorder and an addictive personality, it’s remarkable she lived as long and as well as she did. In Wishful Drinking she explains that survivors like her “have to keep getting into trouble to show off your gifts.”

When I finished watching Wishful Drinking, I turned to Singin’ in the Rain, featuring Carrie’s mom at her most adorable. Who knew what she would spawn?

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