This holiday season, many people are preparing for the inevitable: that they will burst into tears the moment Carrie Fisher appears on screen in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
But it isn’t the first sign of her on screen that’s likely to punch you right in the heart. Instead, it’s something quite a bit further into the proceedings. Intentional or not, it was one perfect line to encapsulate how many people feel Carrie Fisher’s impact — not as an actress, but as a recovering addict and a mental health advocate.
[Warning: This article contains minor spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.]
The Last Princess
Nearly a year ago, The Last Jedi received a burden it should never have had to bear. On Dec. 27th, 2016, Carrie Fisher’s family announced her untimely death following a heart attack.
By that point, the film was five months into post-production, not the time to change its story to set up for her absence in Star Wars: Episode IX. LucasFilm higherups met in January to discuss their options going forward — Fisher’s role in in IX was planned to be significant. Days after the meeting, Lucasfilm addressed rumors that the company might digitally create Fisher’s likeness for Episode IX, and said that it wouldn’t.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi would be the last onscreen appearance of Carrie Fisher, and her last in her most iconic role, as Leia Organa. And just as the folks involved in The Last Jedi couldn’t change the fact of her death, there was also probably not much they could do to change the content of their movie.
The Last Jedi would have to stand as a farewell to Fisher, even though it had never indeed to be. Blessedly, it does.
Last Jedi contains a handful of newly iconic moments for Leia Organa — long-awaited reunions with iconic characters, the reveal of unexpected new capacities for an already commanding revolutionary leader and slapping Poe Dameron across the face.
This one is much smaller.
It happens when General Leia Organa and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) must bid a fraught farewell. (And if I’ve got the words slightly wrong, you’ll have to forgive me.)
“So many losses,” Organa tells her childhood friend, mere days from the death of her estranged husband, an event that wiped out any hope she had for her son’s redemption. “I can’t take another.”
“Sure you can,” Holdo responds, gently, “You taught me how.”
‘You taught me how’
The most obvious parallel here is that of loss — Carrie Fisher was just one more loss in a year that’s notorious (or at least felt notorious) for the devastatingly frequent and unexpected deaths of inspirational figures.
But what most endeared Fisher to many people was that she had persevered over great troubles, and that she passed on advice and encouragement to those who were struggling to do the same. Outside of her career as an actress, Fisher was a writer and public figure who took every opportunity to be candid about addiction and mental health, and to do so with a humor and self-deprecation not often seen from celebrities, much less female celebrities.
“Fisher’s public commitment to understanding the uphill battle with her mental health was inspiring to those who faced similar issues and had not yet found the confidence to speak up about them,” our Allegra Frank wrote last year. “With an estimated 43.6 million adults suffering from mental illness in the U.S. — and millions more Star Wars fans — that one of film’s most memorable stars had no regrets about sharing her struggles with the world is, by far, one of her most enduring legacies.”
It wasn’t just her struggles, but her commitment to mentoring others through them, as she did with the young cast of the new trilogy. John Boyega recalled her advice, shortly after the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit and racist elements fixated on the idea of a black Stormtrooper.
“I remember — and forgive me, I’m going to drop the f-bomb, but that’s just Carrie — she said, ‘Ah, boohoo, who fuckin’ cares? You just do you,’” he told Vanity Fair. “Words like that give you strength. I bore witness in a million ways to her sharing her wisdom with Daisy [Ridley] too.”
It’s was that part of Carrie Fisher that the exchange between Leia and Holdo calls most powerfully to, not her film ones. She was an actress who endured much, playing a character who endured much, who had the empathy to reach back to those still enduring and drag them with her. It might not have been intended as an epitaph for the actress — but it certainly works.