Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Drowned in Moonlight
In the opening act of Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope — or just Star Wars as we called it in the late 70s and early 80s —when the Rebel blockade runner is boarded by Imperial troops, after getting the Death Star plans away in Artoo Deetoo, Princess Leia is confronted by a squad of stormtroopers. Does she scream? Beg for mercy? Vainly make a weak, half-hearted slap against the soldiers' chest plates as they drag her way? Collapse in a faint? No. She calmly pulls out her space Magnum, takes careful aim, and blows one of the badguys away before trying to retreat to an escape pod of more defensible position. They have to shoot her with a stun bolt in order to take her. In all the flap a few years ago about George Lucas' retooling of ANH and whether Han should have been left to shoot first in his face off with Greedo, and what this meant to his status as a hero, there was never any question about Leia shooting first at the beginning of the movie. As much as Han shooting first was a fundamental part of his character, Leia shooting first was an inseparable part of hers.
With the passing of actress Carrie Fisher yesterday, that's what sticks out most clearly in my mind: Leia shot first.
I was just three when ANH was released, and my parents, being decidedly not science fiction fans (and, in all fairness, probably concerned that the aliens and badguys might be too scary for a toddler) didn't take me to see it. But there were Star Wars-related toys and other merchandise everywhere back in those days, so I knew what it was, more-or-less what it was about, and who the characters were, and the princess was part of that. And she wasn't like the usual damsels-in-distress that I'd seen on TV and the movies: Leia kicked ass and didn't take shit from anybody. You didn't need to have seen the movie to know that. Her action figure (front and centre in the huge Star Wars display shelf in the upstairs toy section of the Highway Market in Kitchener) came with a gun. When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, my parents did take me to see it in the theatre, and Carrie Fisher made a huge impression on me. Here was a female character who was one of the senior leaders of the Rebellion (at least, at Echo Base on Hoth — it was never clear in the original trilogy where she ranked among the gaggle of Rebel generals, senators, and admirals, but it was up there at any rate), she was calling the shots in the command centre (refusing to leave her post when the Imperials attacked until the place was falling down around her ears and the base had been compromised), giving the tactical briefing for the fighter/transport evacuation, helping to keep the 'Falcon on her feet, refusing to be taken-in by Lando Calrissian's game, and more than willing to tear Cloud City apart to try to save Han and Luke. But while I saw ESB first, the impression of Leia that sticks out the most in my mind was her shooting first aboard Tantive IV in ANH. When I finally saw ANH on my birthday in '81 on a primitive laserdisc machine, my impressions of Leia were confirmed: here was a tough, smart woman who wasn't afraid of facing-down the scariest people in the galaxy, but she could still be tender when her friends were hurting, or frightened when her homeworld was about to get blasted into oblivion. Tough but human.
This was important to my development as a young boy, and as a speculative fiction fan: to see women in this kind of positive, front-and-centre hero's role. To see them as equals of the male characters. It affected how I became a man, and helped ensure I had a broad appreciation of characters and perspectives in speculative fiction — and life in general.
And I give Carrie Fisher a huge amount of credit for that in her portrayal of Leia.
Over the years, I've enjoyed her work in other roles: as Jake's vengeful, jilted fiance in The Blues Brothers; or Paula the crazy adulteress in The Man with One Red Shoe (I'd follow her into a tree any day); or the wagon-wheel-coffee-table-hating friend in When Harry Met Sally; or her hilarious cameos as the nun in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the doctor in Fanboys. Whether she was on screen for just a minute or throughout the whole movie, she brought a real genuineness to her characters (no matter how wacky they were) that made them all the more enjoyable. I'll also give her credit for her script-doctor work on movies like The Wedding Singer and Lethal Weapon 3. As important as the actors are to bringing characters and story to life, none of it would happen without good writers.
But, as good as she was in those roles, to quote Max von Sydow's character in The Force Awakens, she'll always be royalty to me. As much as I respect Carrie Fisher's wish that her obituaries remember her as having "drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra" (and think that's one hell of a funny line), I'll always remember her as Leia, who shot first.