On some level, I would like to believe Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia of Star Wars. But of course she wasn’t. Like many others of the first Star Wars generation, I find it hard to grasp that Carrie Fisher is dead. Surely Princess Leia lives! It was challenging enough to see the late-fiftysomething Fisher, along with the seventysomething Harrison Ford (Han Solo) in Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. But to learn Fisher died of a heart attack? Disconcerting.
There’s a lesson here about mortality. But there’s also a lesson about the illusion of the entertainment world.
Carrie Fisher was an actress with lots of serious personal problems. Very human problems. That may be hard for some people to accept, especially if they liked her so much because of Star Wars. When we like an actress, we tend to overlook her shortcomings. But we shouldn’t allow our affection to blind us to the star’s faults or to tempt us not to call evil by its name. For example, I find it deplorable that during the original Star Wars filming the 19-year-old Fisher had an affair with her 33-year-old co-star, Harrison Ford, a married man with two children. That was wrong and Fisher, in her own way, later acknowledged it. Of course more blame ought to land at the feet of Ford, the “grown up” of the two at the time. And some blame rests with the Hollywood culture that sometimes fosters an “anything goes” atmosphere, as Fisher herself noted.
Yet what to make now of interviewers “gushing,” to use Patrick Coffin’s word, over Fisher’s revelatory account of the affair in her recent memoir? One interviewer declared, “I’m so glad it happened.”
Glad that the married, much-older man with a wife and two children committed adultery with a 19-year-old? Probably not. Glad that Princess Leia and Han Solo “got together”? More likely. But of course they didn’t. Two people pretending to be those characters did. For a few months. That’s the power of Hollywood illusion. The reality, however, is summed up by the word adultery.
The fact is, we don’t really know these screen idols. We may think we do because we watch them in movies or on TV. We may read their books and peruse articles about them or watch their interviews. But do such things really mean we know the celebrities in question? Not likely. People who get paid to convince us they’re other people on screen can make us think they’re other than who they are in real life. Indeed, they can be so effective they can persuade even themselves.
We should be able to appreciate actors for the entertainment they provide, without confusing that entertainment with heroic virtue or even ordinary human greatness. I can appreciate the plumber’s skill in fixing my plumbing without canonizing him. It’s not fair to expect greatness from actors just because they depict extraordinary people on screen. Nor is it reasonable for us to despair when we learn our media idols are flawed people, struggling like the rest of us to live well, or perhaps not struggling much at all.
We should pray for Carrie Fisher. She suffered a great deal during her 60 years. She had great fame—iconic fame—but also great misfortune. Her character inspired millions and will continue to do so. For that we should be grateful. Princess Leia lives, in that sense; may Carrie Fisher rest in peace.
We should pray for celebrities and we should pray for ourselves—that we don’t let our affection for them lead us to confuse fantasy with fact. That shouldn’t mean we must enjoy the entertaining good celebrities offer us any less, or that we don’t appreciate them for their talent. But it should mean we recognize the profound difference between the actors and their roles, between reality and illusion.