1 Year After Carrie Fisher's Death, the Bittersweetness of Star Wars: The Last Jedi's Success

As the franchise expands its universe to include more powerful women, we remember the woman who started it all

By Natalie Finn Dec 27, 2017 1:00 PMTags
Carrie Fisher, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Last Jedi, Star Wars, Princess LeaLucas Films

There was no doubt that Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi was going to be one of the biggest, most talked-about movies of 2017.

There was also no doubt that it would stir up some deep sorrow along with the thrills, joy and unparalleled sense of pop-culture community that joins Star Wars fans around the globe.

Excitement for the film, which upon arrival prompted deep-dive analysis and sent everyone scurrying to Twitter to give their 2 cents, couldn't help but be tempered by the bitter reality that The Last Jedi marks Carrie Fisher's final appearance in the franchise (flashbacks or any potential CGI trickery going forward notwithstanding).

"It's very emotional," Daisy Ridley acknowledged, talking to E! News before the film's premiere this month. "I think her performance is beautiful, regardless of anything else...but obviously there's more poignancy now because of what happened."

(Mild movie spoilers ahead...)

Carrie Fisher: A Life in Pictures

While Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens and, even more so, The Last Jedi have won kudos for opening the story up for more powerful, prominent female characters—first Ridley's Rey and, among others in this film, Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico and Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holo—there will always be the fact that Fisher's Princess (as well as Senator and General) Leia Organa is one of the all-time iconic female characters, dating to when she first appeared onscreen in 1977. 

Courtesy of LucasFilms

A lack of sexism was never Star Wars' (or most other films', to be honest) strong suit, but Princess Leia dug her heels into the cultural firmament at a time when lady heroes were hopelessly few and far between on any screen. She was brave, resilient, funny and magnetic, with a face that launched millions of crushes and a gold bikini so memorable it was re-enshrined in the lexicon via a classic Friends episode 13 years later.

Fisher's return as the founding general of The Resistance in The Force Awakens was one of the most anticipated parts of the whole they're-getting-the-band-back-together venture, and there were many sighs of relief when the plan encompassed the next episode as well.

As expected, The Force Awakens was a box office force to be reckoned with when it opened in December 2015, and with it millions of fans came home to roost and a new generation of enthusiasts was born. 

Courtesy of LucasFilms

Asked what it was like to revisit her classic role after so many years, Fisher told JoBlo Movie Trailers at the time, "I didn't stop being Leia. I mean, it doesn't go away. It's like a persistent rash. No," she assured the interviewer, "but I am...I stayed in character for the last 35 years." 

She had her gripes about being forever associated with Star Wars but had come to terms with it (and so much more in her life) with the help of her self-deprecating, usually scathing humor.

"People identify me with her so much, and I am the custodian of Princess Leia," she acknowledged, "so I try and keep her fit and ready for action."

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Celebrity Cameo Guide

Fisher was in fine form in The Force Awakens, which saw her reunited with Harrison Ford's Han Solo (and she loved having daughter Billie Lourd on set in a small role as well), and the film itself ended in epic cliff-hanger fashion. Dec. 15, 2017, when The Last Jedi was due, felt ever so far away.

With Rian Johnson taking the directing reins from J.J. Abrams, production got underway in early 2016 under a similar veil of spoiler-averse secrecy, with zero official plot points making it out of the hermetically sealed set.

Behind the Scenes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Fisher, in addition to reprising the role of Leia, went to the Cannes Film Festival in May 2016 for the premiere of the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, about the famously close and just as famously fraught relationship between the actress and her screen-legend mother.

She was also working on a new memoir, The Princess Diarist, for which she mined the actual journals she kept while making the Star Wars trilogy. That certainly took people's minds off The Last Jedi for a hot second with its revelation that she and Ford had an affair in the 1970s, which obviously became the focal point when she embarked on her press tour in November 2016.

Lucasfilm / Walt Disney Pictures

"I am surprised at the reaction," she admitted to Savannah Guthrie on Today. "I don't think it's that surprising."

Regarding the diary entries about Ford, "I had forgotten that I'd written them. I write when I'm upset. So, I was upset—it is about two months or three months of upset."

She also never planned on telling all, Fisher added. "I feel really bad about doing that to him," she said. "I told him I found the journals and that I was going to publish them. He sort of went, [apparently jokingly] 'Lawyer!'"

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The 60-year-old actress and author was traveling back to Los Angeles from London on Dec. 23 when she suffered a heart attack aboard the plane. She was in cardiac arrest when she was rushed to the hospital and she never regained consciousness.

Just days removed from a whirlwind tour lighting up talk shows with her deadpan banter and characteristic larger-than-life presence, Carrie Fisher died on Dec. 27, 2016.

The following day, Debbie Reynolds suffered a stroke and she died at the age of 84, having told her son, Todd Fisher, that she was going to be with Carrie—a heartbreaking ending to a truly Hollywood story.

Carrie Fisher & Debbie Reynolds' Singular Bond: Inside Their Complicated But Fiercely Close Relationship

The outpouring of grief was immediate, in the Star Wars universe and beyond, and the appreciations poured in for everything that Carrie Fisher was—entertainer, actress, icon, shrewd self-critic, survivor. In various book, including 2008's Wishful Drinking and 2011's Shockaholic, she wrote candidly—and both hilariously and humanly—about her nearly lifelong struggles with substance abuse and mental illness.

It turned out that there were traces of drugs in her system, which helped bring about the cardiac event that killed her. Some demons win in the end, but Fisher will forever be remembered as someone who fought them honestly and openly, over the years becoming a major force in combating the stigmas attached to those issues.

And then there were the inevitable questions about Star Wars. How would her death change the fate of the entire franchise, let alone the journey that Leia should have been destined to finish?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Global Press Tour

Almost miraculously, Fisher had shot all of her scenes for The Last Jedi, leaving less of a conundrum for Johnson and the overall production than some filmmakers have faced in the past when they suddenly lose one of their stars.

David James/Lucasfilm Ltd.

With The Last Jedi bidding no discernible farewell to Leia, who at film's end is mourning more deaths of people close to her but is still leading the Resistance after her own (seemingly inescapable) close call, it's the next installment—the as-yet untitled Episode IX, due Dec. 20, 2019, which Abrams will return to direct—that will have to deal convincingly with Fisher's physical absence.

In the meantime, she remains ubiquitous in spirit.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Movie Pics
Walt Disney Studios / Lucasfilm

"Obviously it wasn't engineered to be a farewell performance, but it now is, and so it's got that extra layer on it," Johnson told E! News while doing press for The Last Jedi. "It's so complicated watching it, you know. 'Cause on one level, again, it' s just a beautiful performance; on the other level you're watching your friend who you're not going to see again—and for audiences it's going to be probably similar."

"Beautiful" was how numerous members of the cast described what turned out to be Carrie Fisher's final onscreen performance in what many critics have described as the best addition to the canon since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, which is usually one of the examples people offer when asked which sequels best their precursors. (The reactions from Star Wars super-fans and pop culture analysts have been far more mixed, but it's not as if they're not going to be showing up in 2019.)

Gwendoline Christie said that, watching the film and knowing Carrie was gone in the real world, "you could feel all of us, the second she appeared on the screen, everyone took a breath."

Whatever your stance on the movie itself, it invariably succeeds at making us feel, at least for 2 1/2 hours—until the tribute in the credits reading "In Loving Memory of Our Princess, Carrie Fisher" flashes by—that the most beloved star of the show is still among us. 

"She's wonderful in the movie," Mark Hamill told us at the film's London premiere, adding, "I always think of her in the present, not the past."

That's certainly an approach that the Forceas illustrated by The Last Jedi—would approve of.

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