Cover Story

Working the Edge

Carrie Fisher's roles as actress, writer, and daughter -- The multi-talented star talks about drug use, dysfunctional relationships, and the success of her best-selling novel and film ''Postcards from the Edge''

Carrie Fisher — once Hollywood's heartbreak kid, then Star Wars' caustic Princess Leia, and now an author who has turned her own drug rehab into a best-selling novel and the new hit movie Postcards from the Edge — has just plunked down in a worn leather chair in the living room of her Beverly Hills home. It's a wood-beamed lodge with a cartoonish kitsch decor couched in an American West motif. Vines of Christmas twinkle lights, plastic fish, and corn cobs festoon a stained-glass bar. French doors look out onto a small yard and a pool where the rear end of a blow-up pink Cadillac floats past a pair of life-size plastic cows grazing near a tree house that's reminiscent of F Troop's lookout post. ''It looks like what it is,'' says Fisher drily of the scene she now calls home, ''something that ought to be left to a miniature golf course.''

Although the mercury is licking the high 90s, inside the aerie of Hollywood's newest Queen of Quips it is cool, serene, and potentially Cerebral — seemingly the perfect writer's retreat. But in this instance looks are deceiving. ''Oh I could never write in here,'' Fisher says firmly, shuffling off her sandals and taking a long pull on a take-out Coke, her current elixir of choice. ''It's much too quiet. Maybe if the TV were on and I had to fight something, but I can't work in silence. It's too distracting.''

Judging from the attention whipping around her, Carrie Fisher has successfully avoided any crippling calm spells for some time lately. Having originally been known as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, subsequently as the Star Wars princess with the headmistress-in-headphones hairdo, and finally as Paul Simon's wife for 11 months, she is now in her most successful incarnation.

This month the movie of Fisher's 1987 Postcards, for which she did the screenplay, has opened to raves. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman and Dennis Quaid, it is already being touted as a stocked pond of Academy Award nominations. Surrender the Pink, Fisher's second novel, was published almost simultaneously and is being hailed as an acerbic, insightful takeoff on Hollywood mores. Referring to both her books, The New York Times calls Fisher ''The Master of the Sustained Awkward Moment,'' and Steven Spielberg snapped up the movie rights to Pink for $1 million before it was completed. As a result, Fisher has suddenly established herself as a stellar specimen of a rare breed: The Truly Talented Celebrity Writer.

That is no mean change of pace for a young woman — she is 33 — who never finished high school and spent her adolescence haunted by the conviction that she looked more like a thumb than like her movie-star mom. Yet despite the current adulation, Fisher, a dependably sardonic sort, is somewhat miffed. ''I call myself The Hunted Beast,'' she says. ''Everyone is trying to get me to say something negative, sensational, and awful about a family member or an ex- husband. 'Yes! [She throws her hands up in mock despair] They're all distant and exhausting. They're all awful!' '' She's also getting sick of explaining that Postcards, which has been variously described as partial autobiography, a roman è clef, and a memoir (''a f---ing memoir!'') is not really about her and Debbie Reynolds, even though there are some obvious similarities.

''I wrote about a mother actress and a daughter actress,'' she says. ''I'm not shocked that people think it's about me and my mother. It's easier for them to think I have no imagination for language, just a tape recorder with endless batteries.''

Postcards' heroine Suzanne (Streep) is a wisecracking actress re-entering the Hollywood scene after a drug clinic sabbatical. Her mother, Doris (MacLaine), is a well-meaning but hopelessly egocentric movie star with a glamorous career and white fur stole that utterly eclipse her daughter's grade B comeback and denim jacket. ''Now everyone thinks that my mother and I fight on the stairs,'' Fisher sighs, referring to a pivotal scene in the movie. ''I feel bad that people think that my mother is so self-obsessed that 'how are you' never crosses her lips. She's not like that.''

Although Fisher chose not to appear in the film (''There were too many celebrities. It would have looked like Love Boat''), Streep has helped to blur the line between reality and fiction by incorporating some of the author into her character. ''She picked at her thumb like Carrie,'' says Reynolds. ''And she's got Carrie's vulnerability.'' In fact, says director Nichols, ''in a bizarre way Meryl became Carrie. They became best friends.'' But however much or little they resemble Postcards' characters, Fisher and Reynolds are actually quite close and have formed a mutual admiration society of sorts.

''She's better than the mother I deserve,'' Fisher says.

''Carrie's adorable,'' says Reynolds, adding that both the movie and MacLaine are ''terrific. I can't think of anyone else playing what's supposed to be part of me. But actually I think the character is more Joan Crawford.''

These female family ties extend to Reynolds' mother Maxene, 78, who urged friends at a recent Girl Scout reunion to see the film. ''She told them she couldn't believe they made such a good movie out of such a lousy book,'' Fisher says, deadpan. ''As you can see, there's a lot of support.''

Fisher is renowned not only for being irrepressibly chatty, but for her bottomless quiver of sharp-edged one-liners. ''Carrie's jokes come out so fast and furiously,'' says Nichols, ''you can overlap them and layer them and get a wonderfully rich texture.'' Not surprisingly, her conversational snippets, along with those of her cohorts, tend to show up in her work.

''Some lines I say and save,'' she concedes, ''and some I hear. I pay particular attention to my male characters, which is why I have so many men friends. They love being paid attention to without agenda, and they like to be the characters.'' Her roster of quotemakers includes Don Henley, Albert Brooks, George Lucas, Jay McInerney, Buck Henry, producer Dan Melnick, and songwriter J.D.Souther, but even Maxene gets in on the act. ''My grandmother really says things like, 'colder than a well-digger's butt' and 'higher than a cat's back' and 'we're not rich enough to have your problems,' '' Fisher says. ''It's like she's studying to be a colorful character.''

All this is not to say that Fisher doesn't bring her own flavor to her work. ''Carrie can go over ground we have traveled before and discover it in a completely fresh way,'' Nichols says. ''She's a born screenwriter.''

Fisher writes in a loopy longhand and tends to work on weekends, on planes, and often out of town. Transforming Postcards into a movie script began with ''throwing the book into the backyard and setting fire to it,'' she says. ''For quite a long time we pushed pieces around,'' Nichols recalls, ''but then we went with the central story of a mother passing the baton to her daughter.'' As for real-life resemblances, ''Carrie doesn't draw on her life any more than Flaubert did,'' he says. ''It's just that his life wasn't so well known.''

Fisher and Nichols occasionally collaborated on rewrites in Nichols' New York office, discussing and sometimes acting out scenes. ''Then Carrie would write them up in five minutes on her big yellow pad,'' says Nichols. ''Writing pours out of her so easily and gives her such pleasure.'' It also helps obscure some pain. ''I talk well because I feel bad,'' Fisher says. ''I take things too hard and it's just loony. But one thing I get out of it is that I can describe the way-too-hard in a funny way and it laces the difficulty with a certain pleasure.''

Postcards was just such an antidote. The book, written in five months, was prompted by Fisher's 1985 respite in a drug rehab center, the result of a longstanding fondness for Percodan and acid. ''I knew I was a drug addict long before I did anything about it,'' she says now. ''But insight is one thing. Application of insight is another.'' As an outpatient, she was prescribed lithium to control the mood swings which alternated between a high she named Roy (also the name of the good boyfriend in Pink) and a low she named Pam. After a month on the drug, she found herself ''standing in a store in front of a case of silverware, waiting to develop a taste for it — and I didn't care how long it took. That's how slowed-down I was. I got off lithium and started writing.''

After a 1985 Esquire interview with Paul Slansky, in which Fisher's offbeat intellect was given free rein, publishing types suggested she try her hand at some essays aimed in the literary vicinity of Fran Liebowitz/West. Slansky, initially hired as a scribe, was recast as an editor when it became clear Fisher was her own writer, as well as her own muse. She often acted her characters out in her yard before writing them, with Slansky and a tape recorder in attendance. ''Her rendition of Alex [the book's ranting drugster- in-denial],'' he recalls, ''is the best performance I've ever seen her give.''

Readers were equally taken with her written renditions. Postcards spent three weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Fisher began thinking of herself as a writer, and, ironically, her acting improved. Her part as Meg Ryan's friend Marie in When Harry Met Sally… ''was among her best work because it was no longer the only thing she did,'' says Nichols. ''Writing gave her an authority beyond acting.''

''I'm blessed or burdened with one of those natures for which every tweak of a situation is an enormous world to me,'' Fisher says. Some tweaks become more momentous than others. Surrender the Pink's title was created during the book tour for Postcards when a friend of Fisher's jokingly jumped her in her hotel room, saying, ''OK, baby, spread 'em. Surrender the pink.'' Recalls Fisher, ''I heard it pornographically, but I mean it metaphorically — give up the feminine side.'' Fisher, who claims to have a yin (female) center propelled by a yang (male) engine, spent two years on Pink, although she let it simmer while working on the Postcards movie.

Like Postcards, the new novel's core character, Dinah, has Fisher-like tics: She picks at her thumb and has a personality like a ''pack of wild dogs on a leash dragging her around.'' At the center of the tale is Dinah's renewed interest in her old boyfriend, which deepens in direct proportion to his interest in a new girlfriend. Dinah follows the two to East Hampton and, trapped while trespassing, spends a night eavesdropping from a closet. Of course, this too is fiction, but Reynolds found it so lifelike she put the book down mid-read. ''I thought it was so upsetting she had to go through all these things,'' she says. ''When I told Carrie, she said, 'Mother! I'm a novelist.' ''

''I said, 'You write much too real, dear.' ''

That trait was not music to ex-husband Paul Simon's ears. Rudy, Pink's somewhat bloodless anti-hero, is a prospering playwright who prefers women low on the profile pole. ''It just doesn't work out when two people are ambitiously pursuing their careers,'' he tells Dinah. ''…A woman has to have a less intense job.'' When Fisher, who is friendly with Simon, read him chunks of the book, ''he was dismayed that the Rudy character was so pompous,'' she says. ''He asked that he be given more jokes because people were going to think it was him.'' She did. ''He got off easy,'' says a friend.

''The bad thing about my relationship with Paul was that we were similar animals,'' says Fisher, who met Simon in 1978 and married him in 1983. ''Where there should be a flower and a gardener, we were two flowers. In the bright sun. Wilting.''

Despite her claims that she is ''not the most nurturing little lady to cross the border,'' Fisher's generosity is legendary (she bought her mother a Cadillac after Star Wars). Her house is constantly filled with guests and her annual parties are famous for their fried chicken and highpowered anti-chic company.

As outgoing and funny as Fisher is, she has the capacity for explosive indignation, and one topic that sets it off is sexism, especially in Hollywood: She's incensed by a system that skimps on actresses' pay and considers women over the hill at an age when men are hitting their prime. ''Meryl makes less than Patrick Swayze, okay?'' she fumes. ''Actresses are dispensable. It doesn't matter who the female is!'' But men! ''Jeezus it's so much better being a man than a woman,'' she says. ''Men don't want you to feel bad so they want you to think of all the good things like 'the thrill of childbirth' and multiple orgasm and you live seven extra years. And get to buy purses. Men can have it all so easy! They can have a huge career and a wife who has no career and decorates the house and goes on vacation with him and has children. And then he can turn her in when he doesn't want her anymore and get someone younger and more worshipful.''

Fisher has been through this drill. She was 18 months old when her father, crooner Eddie Fisher, left America's then sweetheart, her mom, for Elizabeth Taylor. ''Carrie kept waiting for him to call and come home,'' says Reynolds. ''He was a big recording star and she'd hear his music on the radio and say 'Daddy? Da-da?' Inside, she never got over it.'' As Pink's Dinah puts it, ''My father loved me and I never saw him. He might as well not have loved me.''

Reynolds' next marriage, to shoe king Harry Karl, brought the family stability, but it proved to be temporary. ''A lot of Carrie's problems started in 1972 when my husband lost all the money and the homes and the cars and the everything and we had to start all over,'' says Reynolds, now married to real estate developer Richard Hamlett. Fisher took refuge in reading Fitzgerald, Bellow, Barth, and Maugham and, Mike Nichols recalls, writing ''startling poems and pieces. She was a hilarious smartass kid.'' At age 13 Carrie began touring with her mother's musical revue, and when Reynolds opened in Irene on Broadway in 1973, Carrie sang in the chorus. The next year she got a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London but didn't want to go.

''It was our only confrontation,'' Reynolds says. ''She wanted to stay home and go shopping with her girlfriends on Rodeo Drive.'' Fisher went to the school and loved it, but left a year later, at 19, to play the intergalactic fugitive Princess Leia.

The ensuing space trilogy earned her more than $1 million, and Fisher later appeared in such hyper-hip fare as The Blues Brothers and Amazon Women on the Moon. But in the early '80s she became friendly with the Saturday Night Live crowd, a cozy crew who shared her skewed humor and taste for drugs. In 1985 she was rushed to a hospital with an overdose of Percodan. ''A by-product of the worst thing,'' says Fisher of that experience, ''is that now I write better.''

Romance has recently skidded in on the heels of Fisher's successes. She and Bryan Lourd, a Creative Artists talent agent, have been seeing each other for several months. ''Neither of us can remember meeting,'' Fisher says. ''We just have to assume we did. It's very beautiful.'' So are her prospects. She is working on the screenplays for both Pink and her short story Christmas in Vegas, and her next novel, Delusions of Grandma, is part of a lucrative three- book deal with Simon & Schuster. ''I'm not being careful anymore,'' she promises of its subject matter. ''It's going to be about a homosexual grandmother who commits incest with most of her family.'' Her acting career is percolating too. ''Acting is a relief now,'' she says. ''As long as I don't have too much dialogue.'' Recently she has played a caustic gynecologist in Carl Reiner's Sibling Rivalry (scheduled for October) and a psychobabbling best friend (again) in Drop Dead Fred with Phoebe Cates, which she just completed shooting. Next, she jokes, she just might do a female version of The Hunt for Red October, ''where there are no men and women go around and blow up people and dive through the sea for two hours.'' She's also entertaining serious offers to direct.

''I'm loud enough and I'm persnickety enough,'' Fisher says, ''but if I do it now it would only be because I've got the opportunity and not because I'd necessarily be good at it.'' On the other hand, as her Postcards alter ego puts it, ''Instant gratification takes too long.''

Originally posted Sep 28, 1990 Published in issue #33 Sep 28, 1990 Order article reprints
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