Carrie Fisher, dead at the age of 60, of a heart attack. Of all the notable deaths this year — Prince, David Bowie, Justice Antonin Scalia, former first lady Nancy Reagan — hers has affected me the most. For with her goes Princess Leia, a character I glommed on to like a drowning swimmer seizes a life preserver.
I was 14 when “Star Wars” came out in 1977. I will always know it and call it “Star Wars”; I leave the “Episode IV: A New Hope” references for the Gen X, Y and Z-ster fans of the franchise. It wasn’t a franchise when I saw it. It was a surprisingly straightforward retelling of the classic hero’s journey. In a distraught decade that gave us “The Exorcist,” “Taxi Driver,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Godfather” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” it was a welcome fantastical diversion.
It broke box office records at the time, surpassing “Jaws,” which was released two years earlier. The lines for screenings at the Parmatown Mall snaked through the mall’s indoor concourse, past the black light posters at Spencer’s Gifts and the bell-bottomed jeans at Merry-Go-Round. I saw “Star Wars” 14 times that summer. I sneaked a tape recorder in and taped the soundtrack, memorizing the dialogue and John Williams’ Academy Award-winning score.
“This is some rescue! When you came in here, did you have a plan for getting out?” I whispered, along with Leia, as she scolded Han and Luke for their botched rescue of her from her cell in the Death Star. I grinned as she grabbed a blaster from Luke and shot her way into the garbage shoot, thrilled at the fact that she called Han Solo a “flyboy.” She didn’t stand back and wait for them to figure it out. She acted as an equal of the men around her, firing a weapon, thinking up a plan under pressure, never wincing at the idea of diving into an oozing pile of intergalactic garbage.
I wished I had those retorts for my older brothers, who relentlessly teased me about my zits, my breath, my hair, my friends, my lack.
“They wouldn’t tease you so much if you didn’t react,” my mom advised me. “Just ignore them.”
I wanted Princess Leia cool, never revealing weakness, not even under Darth Vader’s enhanced interrogation techniques. Not even when Han mocks her by calling her “Your Worshipfulness.”
Cool? More like fire. More like anger.
“She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds — along with her hairdresser — so all she has is a cause,” Fisher said of Princess Leia in a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone magazine on the release of “Return of the Jedi.” “From the first film, she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry.”
I didn’t know, until I read this quotation this week in the flurry of stories about Fisher since her death, that that’s what I learned from Princess Leia. Strength is anger.
I learned it, and practiced it, and it got me through a lot of Death Star cellblock moments. I powered through losses and setbacks with sarcasm and a see-if-I-care bravado. I yelled a lot, especially when frustrated and vulnerable, like when something would go wrong while I was live, on the air, at my radio job in New York City.
It worked, until it didn’t work. Years later, damage done but behavior softened and changed with insight, colleague after colleague stood up at my going-away party to say how scared they used to be of me. I’m glad to report that their recollections made me wince, not smile.
And Princess Leia has changed, too. Older, wiser, a bit more sentimental in her scenes with a creased and gray-haired Harrison Ford as Han in 2015’s “The Force Awakens.” In a pinch, a blaster will get you out of a jam. But friends will get you a lot farther. Even into the next sequel.
Goodbye, Carrie Fisher. Goodbye, Princess Leia, armed and dangerous. May a gentler Force be with you. And me.
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or on Twitter, @lima_eddings.