A Spy In Her Own House

  • Recently, a young actor at a party complimented actress turned novelist- screenwriter Carrie Fisher on her career transition, saying, "Gee, it must be great now that you are a writer. Now you get to call the shots."

    "Not really," she replied, "but at least I get to fill some of the syringes."

    These days Ms. Fisher is needling the world with several potent concoctions. A movie adaptation of her best-selling snort-and-chortle novel, Postcards from the Edge, has opened big. It features Fisher's screenplay directed by Mike Nichols, with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine as the star-worn daughter and mother. There is also a new paperback edition of her novel to add to the media jet stream. And Fisher's lovelorn modern romance, Surrender the Pink, has just been published.

    All that has created a high-angle trajectory of fame that has given her a cultural hat trick: both books are on the best-seller list, and the movie has grossed more than $23 million in its first three weeks.

    Whether in a book, in cinematic ventriloquism or in the dangling conversations of her radio and television interviews, Fisher's words work like a Rorschach test. What she says is often what you feel. She feels it too. "I am a spy in the house of me. I report back from the front lines of the battle that is me," she explains. "I am somewhat nonplussed by the event that is my life."

    The grist for her artistic mill is the jagged facts of her life. To sort these out you have to suspend normal conventions of reality and place yourself in her screenplay childhood. "Other people's fantasy was my reality," she says.

    Her mother was known on marquees around the world as Debbie Reynolds, the queen of spunky beauty from the '50s. Dad was Cool Daddy-o singer Eddie Fisher. "I was born of a golden womb," says Carrie. People like Lucille Ball and Jimmy Stewart used to come for dinner. Candice Bergen was always at their house because her best friend was the family baby-sitter. Unfortunately, father Eddie just barely had time to bequeath his eyes and voice to Carrie and sire her brother Todd before he gallivanted off with famous film fatale Elizabeth Taylor. The whole affair ended badly and publicly. As her legacy from the broken fairy-tale family, Carrie got a wounded heart and an emotional predilection for "short Jewish men -- preferably musicians." Eddie's parental abdication left the kids to be raised by their extraordinary mother.

    Even at an early age, Carrie was thoughtful and inquisitive. "She was always asking questions," recalls Debbie. "She was always searching for answers. A seeker." To cope with her mother's klieg-illuminated life, Carrie repaired to a world of private musings in journals and diaries. "I always wrote," she says, "even when it was just bad poetry like 'My nose runs/ my mind follows.' "

    She attended the Professional Children's School in Los Angeles with the offspring of other famous people. "My life was like this kind of enviable weird thing that I spent my life apologizing for." Mother Debbie rebounded, marrying retail footwear magnate Harry Karl, who eventually drank and gambled his way through his millions and into debts large enough to swallow her fortune too. The bright starry life-style collapsed by 1972 into a Saturnian world with concentric rings of emotional pain, financial instability and psychological drama. "My mom had the breakdown for the family, and I went into therapy for all of us," says Carrie. To dig their way out of the financial hole, Debbie went back to Broadway, starring in the musical Irene. Carrie played in the chorus behind Mom. By 16 Carrie struck out on her own and went to London to attend the Central School of Speech and Drama for 1 1/2 years. "It was the only unobserved time in my life," she recalls.

    At 18 she suffered a serious success as the central dramatic character, Princess Leia Organa, in the great modern movie myth Star Wars. Fisher then moved to New York City, determined to seek her fortune without the Reynolds wrap. She became a regular homegirl of the Samurai Night Live gang. She was good friends with the late John Belushi and seriously dated Dan Aykroyd. She casually nurtured an acting career with two more Star Wars films, had a role in Under the Rainbow and a part in The Blues Brothers.

    In 1983, at 27, she married singer Paul Simon. They had been friends for seven years, but the stormy marriage lasted only 11 months. Or so. Winds of the tempest that was their love affair blow through both her novels and through Paul's passionately painful songs like Hearts and Bones and Crazy Love Part II. The names have been changed, but the feelings haven't. "We are built more for public than private," says a Postcards character.

    Somewhere along the line, drugs became a convenient escape route. She took the prescription drug Percodan for the ongoing heartbreak and pain, and she dropped LSD ritually for transcendent illumination. "Drugs became a way of blunting the sharpness of the juts. Juts-tapositioning oneself," she says. "I always wanted to blunt and blur what was painful. My idea was pain reduction and mind expansion, but I ended up with mind reduction and pain expansion." Her excesses eventually landed her in a hospital emergency ward, having her stomach pumped.

    Writing rushed in to fill the void that had been occupied by drugs. Her first sprawling demi-autobiographical outpourings were bound and ungagged between the covers of Postcards in 1987. The gist of the haywire parable is that fame and fortune are no shield; things can go very wrong in rich families with smart, talented people too. The book is less about the outlaw romance of drug abuse than about the process of picking up the pieces. She explains, "The facts don't change, just the fiction that you make up about them."

    While Fisher admits that she draws on her personal experiences for her work, her characters have facets borrowed from several people. Surrender the Pink takes her thematically out of drug rehab and into romance rehab. It is hard not to read it as a roman a clef about the flopped relationship with Simon. It is the tale of a soap-opera scribe who goes to the Hamptons and finds herself stalking her playwright ex and his new girlfriend. In a frenzy of neurotic obsession, she steals into their house to eavesdrop. "I didn't really do any of that," she says, adding, "but I might." Just to make the flame of intrigue burn brighter, Simon has a new album with a song called She Moves On that might be mistaken for the wistful lament of an ex. She says, he says. A kind of call-and-response in the modern media garden.

    While Fisher seems glib on the outside, her witticisms are emotional bandages in disguise. She's been seeing a psychiatrist regularly for 18 years, has been through 13 est workshops, and has sampled just about all 57 varieties of excess and illumination available in Western civilization.

    She is an admitted Twelve Step-following, A.A.-attending, God-grant-me-the- se renity, flat-out, media-flaunting drug addict. But she is such a fetching one, not menacing or dangerous. Everyone's doing fine now. Fisher has remained "clean and legal" for nearly five years. And thanks for asking.

    Director Nichols has been a witness to Mondo Carrie for most of her life and says, "There is a thing in her voice that is tuned so that in our ears there is something that says, 'This one is for me. This experience, this line, this job, this truth, this woman is especially for me.' That's the secret of her enormous charm, and she is so utterly and completely charming that she captivates people left and right. There is a kind of path of smitten people in her wake."

    Fisher, now 33, takes her wacky, wise sensibility into her daily life. She says, "My personality has an emergency to it like a bad dress." At the drop of a premise, she can talk about Albert Camus's "amusing broodings" or the probity of Madonna's grabbing her crotch on TV. She proclaims a new movie idea, the story of Hitler's illegitimate son. She calls it The Doug Hitler Story. It is the tale of a young man who finds out at age 30 that he is the blood progeny of the Fuhrer. One night his mother gets drunk and screams at him, "You're just like your father! What are you going to do -- roll over me like the tanks going into Poland?" A little social criticism? "Show me a child with a simple, happy uncomplicated childhood, and I'll show you Dan Quayle," she says with a slightly snarlish smile. Like Woody Allen's Whore of Mensa, she is a high-I.Q., postmodern premillennial uberchick.

    As an actress, in recent years she has broadened her casting range from just Princess to Princess Pal. In When Harry Met Sally . . . and in Hannah and Her Sisters she played the Friend much like herself: chatty, astute, troubled, warm, engaging, empathic and wry.

    She is at the center of a circle of bright, successful friends -- a post- Beatles hipster Algonquin Table that cellularly convenes to muse and amuse. She survives the mottled curse of fame by fostering deep, intimate friendships. Her coterie ranges from her ex's 18-year-old son to a 71-year-old psychiatrist and includes director Penny Marshall, comic philosopher Albert Brooks, actor Richard Dreyfuss, musicians Don Henley and J.D. Souther, and many more.

    For her side, Fisher is still always stalking and recording the wild anecdote:

    I once went to South America and took a drug there called ayahuasco. I was actually there with my ex-husband. He had laid down his head on my lap, and I put my hand on his forehead and it felt like it was pulsing and growing and WARRRrrhh. Every once in a while they would shine a flashlight. Every time they did, bugs would scurry on the walls. And that was no hallucination. They brought this woman in who had to be carried in. And the shaman sang over her. La-la-la-la-la-la-la. Jamorino heh-heh-heh. The Indian thing, right. La-la-la- la-la-la-luh. It was a healing song -- though I am sure that the woman is no longer with us. Then the guy explained to us that we might see snakes -- the anacondas -- coming toward us. That was fantastic. I went to South America a bunch of times. But no snakes ever came. So I didn't get anything from it, but I like those drugs.

    Fisher comes by her boldness genetically. Her grandmother is a marvelously blunt character who, after seeing the movie of Postcards, said loudly, "I don't know how they made such a great movie out of such a lousy book." And her legendary mother is feisty, circumspect, keen and nurturing. "It is always an interesting fight," says Fisher, "for the remaining chair in the musical chairs of who is going to get the focus in the room. But she always gets the chair because she is the mother." Fisher tilts toward her grandmother's wise grandeur and is currently at work on her third novel called -- what else? -- Delusions of Grandma.

    Even before her current burst of renown, Fisher had become a sought-after scriptwriter. Film rights to Surrender have been sold to Paramount with Steven Spielberg producing and Fisher supplying the dialogue. She's also finishing a film script called Christmas in Las Vegas, a recast, modern Hansel and Gretel tale based on one of her short stories.

    Through the therapy of writing about her woes and heartache, Fisher is finding perhaps not happiness but at least satisfaction, day by day. And she is in love. His name is Bryan Lourd. He is a talent agent and four years younger than she. She'd like to have a baby. She lives in a colorful, comfortable cabin in Beverly Hills that is filled with knickknacks like miniature cities in bottles, cutouts of the Seven Dwarfs and a large cow decoy. Jack Nicholson's comment upon visiting the abode was: "Just exactly how old are the children?" While she sorts that out, she'd still like a good gander at a giant anaconda.