Book Review — “Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge”

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Is there anything we don’t know about Carrie Fisher’s life, thanks to her own decades of “over-sharing,” in print, in interviews and on stage?

Sure there is. And Sheila Weller’s all-forgiving portrait of the screen icon, daughter of Hollywood royalty, actress turned American wit is here to both dish and reveal — sometimes unintentionally, the “real” Carrie, the one her family, legions of friends colleagues got to see when the spotlight was off.

The overall impression of this, one of America’s most beloved celebrities, celebrated for her openness about her mental illness (manic depressive/bipolar) and her addictions, the traumas and tragedies of her upbringing and adult life, is exhaustion.

It must have been exhausting being her, this wound-up (when she wasn’t crashing), impulsive, mercurial motor-mouth. And it had to be exhausting to the friends she was so fiercely loyal to, people the born narcissist turned into “instant sidekicks” throughout her life.

Keeping up with her antic over-thinking, her whims, coping with her all-night talking jags on the phone, her extravagant and singular genius for gift giving, and her gift for making just about everything about herself had to wear on a body — hers and anyone within her orbit. But few bailed out.

Weller’s peek behind the curtain reveals Carrie in all her glory, and her depressions, minor, major and manic.

She recounts the way Fisher transitioned from “Star Wars,” which she joked off with a shrug for decades, to making people with the franchise that made mom Debbie Reynolds “Carrie Fisher’s mother” to recent generations.’

Weller defends Fisher’s literary rep at every turn, but reveals that her letters and journals were the only writing she ever did on her own. Others came and sat with her, guiding, editing, outlining every memoir-disguised-as-novel (“Postcards from the Edge,” etc.), screenplay (she was more famous as a “script doctor,” joking up/smartening up others work) or one-woman show (“Wishful Drinking”) she ever did.

“High maintenance?” Put her photo next to the phrase in the next edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka “DSM”). She was hand-held into publishing and hand-held through every book she produced, many of them critically acclaimed, if aging poorly.

I think of her writing as very much “of its time,” with her autobiography and “history” instantly overwhelming the thinly disguised roman a clefs that “Postcards,” “Surrender the Pink,” “The Best Awful There Is” and “Delusions of Grandma” were.

Weller quotes extensively from Fisher’s books and stage show, “Wishful Drinking,” and the inadvertent result is to diminish our memories of the wit and the work. Fisher was great in interviews (I interviewed her once, and covered a few public Q & A’s). But the endless quotations show a needy, grasping vaudevillian rim-shot quality.

“They say religion is the opiate of the masses. Well, I’ve taken masses of opiates!”

And the crowd goes wild with giggles, because they/we, like Weller, are very indulgent of the poster-girl princess turned gossipy sage.

It’s fun to remember the teen brassiness that she brought to the meeting that led to her “big break,” cast as Lee Grant’s daughter opposite Warren Beatty in “Shampoo.” But Fisher herself had already related everything to do with “Star Wars,” how she got the gig, the British acting school she’d just dropped out of to take the part (explaining Princess Leia’s posh-ish accent, the deep-voiced chutzpah with Fisher’s own) in her memoirs.

We knew Paul Simon, her long-term love, was and is insufferable and could have guessed he made her feel uneducated (a 15 year-old drop-out who toured and sang with her mother’s post-Hollywood nightclub act). We’ve heard about her connection to her fellow coke-head John Belushi, if not of her affair with “Asperger’s” comic actor Dan Aykroyd.

You can find Youtube samples of her singing with Debbie’s act, an unpolished low alto tackling standards, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” years before she and Simon became a thing. She eschewed a singing career because “That’s Debbie’s thing” and “I don’t want to end up like Liza.” She didn’t. Well, aside from marrying a gay man who fathered her child and left her for a man. Kinda Liza. Ish.

I had no idea how big a role she played in the Oscars, so beloved she was used as a talent wrangler, talking stars into making appearances when all other pleading failed. Yes, she helped Bruce Vilanch with jokes, here and there.

Fisher’s problems became public in the nether years between her pal and fellow addict John Belushi’s death and the infamous “Hollywood Vice Squad,” a Penelope Spheeris bomb where Fisher looked a wreck, and had to be desperate to take on. I remember reviewing that one in the form of an open letter to Debbie Reynolds, saying — without being privy to Hollywood gossip about Fisher’s abuse and mental illness issues — that something was wrong and she needed guidance.

Fisher’s then-unemployability, her reaching “bottom” (a near death overdose), all triggered her (partial) recovery and that film changed titles in “Postcards from the Edge,” a self-help novel written as self-help for Carrie that saved her life, her career and her reputation, even if she never really stopped using illegal drugs.

Despite its constant harping on a “not her fault because she was sick” theme, “A Life on the Edge” is a good book, a quick read and a most sympathetic portrait of a very complicated woman who surmounted serious illnesses and exaggerated “Mommy” issues, someone who gets the benefit of the doubt in ways daddy Eddie Fisher (An addict, narcissistic and impulsive.) never did or for that matter, deserved.

Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge, by Sheila Weller. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 402 pages, with index and notes. $28.00

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