More than a Princess: Carrie Fisher and “Postcards from the Edge”

Iconic for her portrayal of the galactic blaster-wielding Princess (and then General) Leia Organa in the Star Wars films, Carrie Fisher is greatly missed. It was not news that Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016, had wit. Nor was it news that Fisher was a sought-after script doctor in her Hollywood days, having done punch-ups for everything from Steven Spielberg‘s Hook, The Wedding Singer, Sister Act, the Star Wars prequels, and even The Last Jedi, but it can’t be denied that her passing brought added (and long overdue) attention to the public about Fisher’s literary and writing talents.

Through all of her warmth and laughter, Fisher was unapologetically frank about her substance abuse and the road to recovery in her memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels. Her 1987 bestseller, Postcards From the Edge, is perhaps her most brutally honest. Fisher would go on to pen the 1990 film adaptation, which considerably lightened the struggles of its heroine into a more consumable narrative. The movie chronicles the highs and lows of Hollywood actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) after leaving a rehab clinic. Upon her release, her recovery from cocaine addiction seems like a joke to her less sympathetic peers in the high-stakes film industry. She navigates a barrage of feedback about her unenthusiastic performances, eavesdrops on a director bad-mouthing her, and wages verbal warfare with a misogynistic date. For insurance purposes, she has to live with her overbearing mother Doris (Shirley MacLaine), as if the system is hell-bent on reminding her that she’ll never be capable of functioning independently again.

As if to rub salt into the wound, her mother often steals the spotlight from her, parading into her support group meeting and attracting onlookers. Slickly translated from its source material, the movie brings more attention to Suzanne and Doris’ tenuous but affectionate relationship. Suzanne can’t help putting her mother on a pedestal, admiring and envying her in equal measure. Doris reminds her daughter, “You come from somewhere and you’re trying to make nothing of yourself.”

Postcards From the Edge may feel fractured at times, but it’s a candid encapsulation of the struggle to regain your highs after your lows, set in the insular world of Hollywood privilege. With tactful direction by Mike Nichols, Fisher’s trademark humor gleams through a flawed heroine who can’t let go of her self-contempt. To distract herself from her self-loathing, Suzanne blames her mother’s past transgressions, leading to rousing and cutting banter loaded with priceless quips. There are moments of somber confession when Suzanne laments to a director, (the same director who gave her a death threat out of a “tough-love” mindset), “Nothing you say to me is as horrible as what I say to myself.” Fisher’s script doesn’t just have a bite; it has compassion for its heroine and her storm of feelings, as well.

The movie ends on Suzanne’s highest note, literally and figuratively, as she sings “I’m Checking Out.” Suzanne comes to accept that she can’t recover alone, and is worthy of positive reinforcement. But whereas the movie ends with a song and the ensuing cheers and applause, Fisher’s novel closes on a more sobering, yet hopeful line: “I distinctly feel as though I’m missing something. But then, I always have.” The Suzanne of the movie may be “checking out” as the lyrics go, but the Suzanne in the novel acknowledges the possibility of relapse and her ongoing fight for survival.

As both a novel and a screenplay, Postcards from the Edge is but one glimpse into Fisher’s soul through her writing. Many felt she knew how to turn the “grime” of her life into glitter, though she never denied that the grime was hard to overcome — and indeed, that some grime can never be washed away. As indicated by the candidness of her hardships, Fisher did not always feel whole. She was blunt about feeling broken. But the pieces she shared with us — actress, princess, general, mother, mental health advocate, novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter — were all worthy of love and admiration.

Can you believe that “Postcards from the Edge” came out almost thirty years ago now? Revisit more great movies from decades past with our videos on “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover,” and “The Big Chill.”
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