3 May 2017

Book Review: The Princess Diarist

Title: The Princess Diarist
Author: Carrie Fisher
Year of Publishing: 2016
Published by: Blue Rider Press
Source: I bought it

The Princess Diarist is Carrie Fisher’s intimate, hilarious and revealing recollection of what happened behind the scenes on one of the most famous film sets of all time, the first Star Wars movie.

When Carrie Fisher recently discovered the journals she kept during the filming of the first Star Wars movie, she was astonished to see what they had preserved—plaintive love poems, unbridled musings with youthful naiveté, and a vulnerability that she barely recognized. Today, her fame as an author, actress, and pop-culture icon is indisputable, but in 1977, Carrie Fisher was just a (sort-of) regular teenager.

With these excerpts from her handwritten notebooks, The Princess Diarist is Fisher’s intimate and revealing recollection of what happened on one of the most famous film sets of all time—and what developed behind the scenes. And today, as she reprises her most iconic role for the latest Star Wars trilogy, Fisher also ponders the joys and insanity of celebrity, and the absurdity of a life spawned by Hollywood royalty, only to be surpassed by her own outer-space royalty. Laugh-out-loud hilarious and endlessly quotable, The Princess Diarist brims with the candor and introspection of a diary while offering shrewd insight into the type of stardom that few will ever experience.

Happy May the 4th! It's Star Wars day and to celebrate it, I read Carrie Fisher's memoir, The Princess Diarist. Prepare for a review full of nothing but wild guesses and assumptions.

The Princess Diarist is an interesting book as it sheds light on Fisher's relationship with the character that came to play such a big part in her life, as well with the entire institution that is Star Wars. I'm not the one to comment on how Fisher felt about "being" Princess Leia or about having her whole life defined by that one character, but that this relationship was a complicated one is an understatement. Take, for example, her feelings about appearing at sci-fi conventions. 

According to the author herself, she liked spending money when there was money to be spent and when the finances became a problem, she reluctantly agreed to attending conventions.  She states plainly that it wasn't her desire to connect with her fans that drove her to being a recurring star at fan-fests. In her own honest and unapologetic way, Fisher states that she always considered her participation in sci-fi conventions as "celebrity lap dancing": 

"... the exchange of a signature for money, as opposed to a dance or a grind. Instead of stripping off clothes, the celebrity removes the distance created by film or stage. Both traffic in intimacy." 

Wow, that's one helluva way of describing something that may be one of the most exhilarating experiences in a fan's life! But the lap dance analogy is Fisher's own. Some fans may disagree with her on that, but we must respect that this was how she felt. Also, consider the lap dance analogy from her own perspective. She recalls being accosted by the adoring fans of her mother - Debbie Reynolds - at a young age: 

"In a way, she belonged to the world, and while most of the portion of it that appreciated her was content to do so at a distance, the true fans seemed to want to assert a kind of ownership by coyly requesting, pitifully pleading, or aggressively demanding, that she provide them with their coveted token, proof to all and for all time, in the pre-selfie era, of an encounter!" 

My take away from it is not that Fisher disliked her fans. In fact, she states quite the opposite more than once throughout the book, and recalls some of these meetings with appreciative fondness. But there was a clear line between her public life and her personal life, and she seemed keen on keeping that line clear. Socialising with fans forced her to let the public life into her personal. To me, this would qualify as having my Instagram account open for public, thus letting anyone on Earth take part in my personal everyday life. And, yes, my Instagram account is closed, and it mostly consists of selfies in scrubs. 

The chapters where she talks about meeting her fans also made me think about the fan culture itself, and how it often isn't enough for us to just like a movie and to appreciate it for what it is - a work of fiction. For some of us it becomes a matter of possession. Luke, Leia and the gang - these characters are dear to us, and their stories become meaningful to us. They become more than just good fiction. They help us deal with hardships, and they inspire us in everyday life. We feel connected to these characters; we feel protective of them. 

The flip side of the coin is that we oftentimes feel like we "own" these stories, and these characters. A feeling of possession that is somewhat self-delusional. When we don't like the changes the creators introduce to the established movie world, we take it personally; we feel betrayed ("I hate George Lucas for ruining Star Wars!"). Movies like Star Wars provide us with means to escape our reality; they are beautiful illusions, and we become very keen on keeping our illusions intact. We don't want our heroes to change, and since ageing is the most inevitable form of change, it is something that we fans have a hard time accepting. How dare Carrie Fisher not look like a nineteen-year-old at fifty-eight? Why can't Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny look like they did in 1993? Change is hard to accept, because it cuts through that perfect illusion like a double-bladed lightsaber. 

There is a lot more to be said about the fan culture and the complicated relationship between the creators and the fans, and that is a conversation for another time. Here, I will simply say that Fisher's book gives us a unique and even sobering look at this relationship. 

The behind-the-scenes look at the filming of Star Wars shows how little we actually know about the movie we love so much. We can only enjoy the finished product, but it is very rarely that a fan gets to be a part of the creative process. This realisation dawned on me when I was reading the chapters about the time Fisher spent on the set of Star Wars. There are no spectacular moments here, no movie magic, no fairy dust sprinkled over the cast and the crew. Turns out, filming Star Wars was a day job. The set was a workplace, and like in any workplace, there were conflicts brewing, tensions rising, and new relationships taking shape. 

This is where we come to the "pièce de résistance" of this book, that is, Fisher's affair with Harrison Ford. An account that some critics have labelled "cringe-worthy". Personally, I don't see anything here that can be considered cringe-worthy, except for the simple fact that Ford was married at the time of their affair. Hence the ever-present feeling of awkwardness and unease that comes with the instances of tenderness and make out sessions.  

Again, I'm not the one to comment on the nature of their relationship, other than, "OMG, Han Solo and Princess Leia had sex in real life!". What I can comment on is the way Fisher writes about it, and make my own wild assumptions as to how their relationship made her feel. Fisher talks about their affair with incredible honesty, and the whole thing just drips with angst, unaddressed emotions, and unrequited affections. It seems like in that brief affair with her co-star, all her insecurities and ghosts of previous relationships manifested themselves, making her question her worth and doubt herself.

If you hunger for the juicy details about the more physical aspects of Fisher and Ford's time together you will be vastly disappointed. This isn't a tell-all. This is a reflection, a contemplative look back on what must have been an important moment in a young woman's life.  

The reflections of the more mature Carrie Fisher, told from the perspective only four decades can give you are juxtaposed nicely with the excerpts from the diary that Fisher was writing at that time of her clandestine relationship with Ford. There is a lot to be said about this diary. Firstly, I was genuinely surprised by the maturity and depth the nineteen-year-old Princess Leia showcased in that diary. I was fascinated by her prose and her poetry alike. Secondly, these writings reveal so much about the inner workings of the young actress. Perhaps they reveal too much. 

The Princess Diarist is a great book. It's beautiful in its honesty, and charming in its naiveté. It's funny and self-aware. The language is crisp, sharp, and witty. Fisher isn't afraid to laugh at herself, and this self-awareness gives the narrative an edge. This is one of the books that invite you to read it again. 

My rating: 4 stars 

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