Of all the dramatic introductions in the Star Wars series, few are as mysterious, or as crucial, as the very first scenes of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in 1977’s A New Hope. Standing amid a fog of smoke, she deposits a mysterious object into R2-D2 before retreating back into the dark, only to emerge later to fearlessly blast a stormtrooper—all moments that set the original trilogy into motion, and which helped make the then-21-year-old actress one of the most recognizable faces in the world.
And while Carrie Fisher, who died Tuesday at the age of 60, would spend the next few decades very publicly wrestling with her Star Wars celebrity, her work in the sci-fi series gave the films not only some much-needed levity—did anyone in the Star Wars universe seem so perpetually, justifiably over-this-shit as Princess Leia?—they also provided the audience (which included millions of Organa-adoring young girls) a tough, smart female leader who could always be relied upon to provide guidance, a sarcastic one-liner or two,and a variety of vexing hairdos. Han had the cool; Luke had the courage; but Leia, as played by Fisher, had the smarts. Compared to her, the rest of us were mere scruffy-looking nerf herders.
That’s not to say that Fisher’s career should be judged solely on events that took place in a galaxy far, far away. For starters, she was an accomplished writer and performer, etching memorable supporting roles in films like The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally (not to mention her turn as a wine-loving retro-radical on 30 Rock, and her recent stint as a happily self-absorbed—and even more happily dismissive—mom on Catastrophe). Her comedic voice (dry and wry, and knowingly neurotic) was perhaps best represented by her in-print and on-stage work: Fisher’s 1987 quasi-memoir Postcards from the Edge was an unflinching tale of Hollywood excess (and, later, a hit movie starring Meryl Streep and directed by Mike Nichols). She was a solid for-hire journalist, as well, as evidenced by her 1991 Rolling Stone interview with Madonna, a hilarious and sometimes startling give-and-take that was part juicy Q&A, part mutual confessional. And the 2009 Broadway show Wishful Drinking—a hilarious bit of performance-as-therapy—found Fisher reconciling not only her time as Princess Leia, but also with her depression, as well as her astonishingly kudzu family life (her parents were singer-actor Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds). In that show, as with much of her writing, Fisher could punctuate even the darkest memory with a blunt-force one-liner from out of nowhere.
Fisher would end her Wishful Drinking show by donning that infamous double-bun Leia wig; she was pop-culturally aware enough to understand that people would always see her as Leia, whom she played in the original trilogy, as well as in last year’s The Force Awakens. The Star Wars films have never been particularly actor-friendly—you try saying a line like “The heavy transport ships will leave as soon as they’re loaded” with a straight face—but Fisher managed to locate the humor and longing beneath Leia, while never sacrificing her resolve.
In A New Hope, she starts out as an insult-tossing bon mot-bot (she smile-face sneers at Grand Moff Tarkin, and rightfully calls out Han and Luke for being the piss-poor planners that they are) before turning into a unflappable take-charger; the film’s final minutes, in which she coolly stares down the Death Star death-clock, cemented Leia’s rep as a fearless frontwoman for the Rebellion. In Empire, she had a lot more fun; Fisher clearly took great joy in exploring character’s vulnerabilities, especially during Leia’s space-noir back-and-forths with Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Return of the Jedi didn’t give the actress a whole lot to work with—strangling a space-worm while wearing a bikini was probably not the most exciting moment of Fisher’s career, though she did ultimately find it somewhat cathartic— while her Force Awakens role was mostly a nostalgia-stoking, connect-the-plots cameo. Still, just watching a now-older Fisher give the side-eye to Ford, or oversee an attack on a planet-killing superweapon, was a reminder of just how deeply the actress could inhabit Leia.
“I carry her around, and I know her better than anybody else and we wear the same clothes a lot of times,” Fisher said last year. “She’s mine. She’s mine!” But Leia was ours, too—a fighter who loved her work, her causes, and her friends, and who lived one of the most extraordinary lives imaginable. The same could be said about Fisher, a rare-breed raconteur who was Hollywood royalty in her own right, and whose sense of humor—whether it was about addiction, depression, or long-running space-operas—was more powerful than we could possibly imagine. One of the biggest moments of Rogue One is its final scene, in which A New Hope-era Leia is brought back via CGI, giving the movie a proper pre-credits send-off. I can’t imagine what Fisher thought of seeing her circa-1977 self resurrected on the big screen (I’m guessing she had more than a few notes). But I’m sure she loved the fact that, finally, Leia got the last word.