CARRIE FISHER: A LIFE ON THE EDGE by Sheila Weller (Sarah Crichton Books, 416 pp., $28)
Midway through Sheila Weller’s adulatory biography “Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge,” Fisher complains to a friend that her parents, film star Debbie Reynolds and crooner Eddie Fisher, caused the “Star Wars” legend’s problems with drug addiction. “ ’You don’t know what it was like to grow up with Debbie and Eddie,’ ” Fisher pleads. The friend shoots back, “’Get over it! We’re sick of it.’”
By this point in the biography, readers may empathize with the friend. As an actress and writer, Fisher was enormously talented, witty and exuberant. She was also self-indulgent and self-destructive. Her life story in this telling is often a wearing tale.
There was, to start, a childhood that plays out like a version of “Gypsy.” During the first seven months of Fisher’s life, mom and dad carted her along on club dates they played in Vegas, turning hotel rooms into makeshift nurseries. A few years later, when Reynolds would come home from a tough day at the studio to find her daughter couldn’t sleep, Reynolds gave her sleeping pills and tranquilizers. This medicating may have kicked off Fisher’s lifelong dependency on drugs — cocaine, handfuls of Percodan, tranquilizers, etc. Years after Reynolds and Eddie Fisher divorced, father and daughter often got together and snorted cocaine.
Reynolds’ attempts at a normal upbringing involved inviting Fisher’s Girl Scout friends in for hymn sing-a-longs. At a scout awards ceremony, Reynolds rushed in wearing her costume from “The Singing Nun.”
When Fisher was 15 (and seeing a psychiatrist, at her own insistence), Reynolds pulled her out of school in Beverly Hills to join the company of “Irene,” a musical Reynolds was to star in on Broadway.
Fisher soon turned to acting. Toying with the idea of taking a role in Warren Beatty’s “Shampoo,” she told the Lothario she was a virgin. Beatty offered to alter this aspect of the 16-year-old’s status. She refused, but still got the part. She played it brilliantly, setting her up for the role of Princess Leia in “Star Wars.” “It’s a stupid movie,” she told a friend. One wonders if ecstatic reviews, millions in royalties, several sequels and an affair with co-star Harrison Ford eventually tempered this take.
Eager to establish herself as a serious actress, Fisher went after a major role in the play “Agnes of God,” a hit on Broadway. Reynolds pulled strings to get her daughter an audition and Fisher was cast, a break hundreds of actors would die for. Fisher proceeded to miss 14 performances in less than two months and then left the show.
Her film career nevertheless soared, especially after a striking performance in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Fisher’s personal life, meanwhile, remained troubled. At 24, she was diagnosed as being bipolar. She rejected the diagnosis and the prescription of lithium to treat it. Marriage to singer-songwriter Paul Simon lasted less than nine months. A later relationship with talent agent Bryan Lourd was happier for Fisher — she bore him a daughter, actress Billie Lourd — but he decamped to live with a man.
Weller emphasizes that amid all the turbulence in Fisher’s life, Fisher ultimately found great reward and an identity apart from her entertainer parents as a writer. Fisher’s novel about Hollywood, “Postcards From the Edge,” garnered raves and became a successful film. More acclaimed novels followed. Fisher also became a sharp-eyed script doctor, her wit punching up films such as “Sister Act.”
Fisher had many devoted friends and Weller quotes their encomiums to the point that the biography reads like an extended tribute. Weller adds her own gushy note in an afterword, writing that if she had ever met Fisher, she would have thought, “’My God, was she ever cool! And funny! And real!’ ”
Adding to the biography’s less than objective tone is Weller’s claim in the preface that Fisher “was a survivor of drug addiction and a major bipolar disorder.” The coroner’s report issued at Fisher’s death, in December 2016, noted that while the presence of substances in the deceased’s blood and tissue could not be established as the cause of death, Fisher nevertheless tested positive for cocaine, methadone, ethanol and opiates, as well as exposure to heroin and ecstasy.
Weller’s account of Fisher’s life is gossipy, leaning on unidentified sources; and her style is breezy. At her death, Fisher’s friends on social media, Weller writes, had “virtual tears in their tweets.” “Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge” mostly reads like a fan magazine biography.