Carrie Fisher's solo tell-all, Wishful Drinking, opening at Studio 54 this fall, finds laughs amid the lurid details of her life.
Carrie Fisher’s one-woman play Wishful Drinking is a raw, dishy, caustic memoir. She got the inspiration to write it after seeing the solo comic monologues of such actors as John Leguizamo, Julia Sweeney, and Spalding Gray. Fisher realized she had plenty of material to work with because she’d had to write some witty patter and perky anecdotes when asked (endlessly!) at award ceremonies to introduce Star Wars creator George Lucas, who directed her as Princess Leia, or actress Meryl Streep, who played her semi-autobiographical self in the film version of her novel, Postcards from the Edge
“I was already speaking out a lot,” she says. “I was getting awards myself—for being mentally ill. Over time, I evolved these speeches into these little monologues, covering different areas.” So Fisher figured, why not mine her tipsy-turvy life as a Hollywood survivor, a drug addict, and a poster child for bipolar disorder?
She’d already written four best-selling novels (Postcards..., Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, and The Best Awful), and knew how to cast a jaundiced, hyper-analytical, and amused eye on the exceptional circumstances of her life. “You know, as Woody Allen says, ‘Tragedy plus time equals comedy,’” she notes.
But this time, for a stage show, Fisher would not disguise her life under the veneer of fiction. “In fiction you can write anything you want. You can make up stuff. You don’t have to modify it in any way or buff it up. In nonfiction you’re staying close to the truth—and onstage you’re actually doing the truth. The audiences are different every night, so they become my scene partners in a way.” Recently, Simon & Schuster published her expanded tell-all based on Wishful Drinking’s material.
No Little Princess
Fisher would like to inform those who know her only from her performance in the first Star Wars trilogy that Wishful Drinking will be more of an interactive experience. It will certainly be a more lively experience than visiting Madame Tussaud’s Museum on Times Square where she’s hideously immortalized as a life-sized wax-figure Princess Leia doll. Had Fisher known that Star Wars would become the monster pop-cultural phenom that is it today, she never would have signed on to do the film at age 19. Fisher identifies herself more as a writer from the Dorothy Parker school than as a mega-watt celebrity icon who, as she notes, has been turned into a Pez dispenser.
Before she got hooked on marijuana, acid, cocaine, and various pharmaceuticals, Fisher says, “Reading was my first drug. I would just go into these books and never surface until it was over.” Her family called her a “bookworm.” As she recalls, “They didn’t say it in a nice way.”
Wishful Drinking premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in November 2006 and completed successful runs over the last two years at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, and Seattle Repertory Theatre. “I do like going on the road,” Fisher says. “Seattle was probably the most conservative place I went. The response depends on whether subscribers are going to go anyway or if audiences choose to go to this show. In that case, we get Star Wars fans, people who are mentally ill, people that are alcoholic, people that are science-fiction buffs, and gay people.” She likes it when audiences engage in some call-and-response. “The most moving encounters I had were basically when somebody from the audience tells me to ‘go f*** myself,’” she remarks with a laugh. “It is inspiring, because it is in the show now.”
Fisher proudly sings in Wishful Drinking, too. “I have never done anything like this before,” she says. Fisher made her Broadway debut in Irene at age 15 just so she could be close to her mom, the actress Debbie Reynolds. “When I was a teenager I was in my mother’s musical. I went on the road with her a little bit.” So the courage to sing onstage in Wishful Drinking is a kind of personal triumph if you consider that as the product of “Hollywood inbreeding” she was raised by her mother “to be in a nightclub.”
Plus, she has been surrounded by performers and wackadoo celebrities all her life. She watched her father, the 1950s crooner Eddie Fisher, run off with the actress Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher and Reynolds were the “Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston of their day” and Taylor was “the Angelina Jolie of her day,” Fisher quips. Her father was mostly absent from her childhood. Today he is in his 80s and smokes four joints a day—“not for medicinal reasons, so we call him ‘Puff Daddy’”—and she is alarmed to realize that her father is an undiagnosed manic-depressive. She says, “He bought 200 suits in Hong Kong, was married six times, and bankrupt four times. It’s crazy.”
To ‘get’ Wishful Drinking it is necessary to understand the fragile act of sanity on which it is built. On the surface level, Fisher calls the play an “unauthorized autobiography”—an antic somersault through the misadventures of the kind of celebrity that leads to sex, drug, and late-night partying. She lets it all hang out, opening a small artery in her cool-funny-scrambled dissections of what happened.
“They are not just stories but my reactions to them, how they impacted me and any of the knowledge I have gained from going through all this,” she says. There’s the anecdote, for example, about her grandmother Maxine’s refusal to use a vibrator because it might affect her pacemaker. Another story concerns her 11-month marriage to Paul Simon, who divorced her and left her with an acoustic guitar “and nine songs” written about her. Fisher calls Simon “the greatest love of my life.” “I don’t think I’m his,” she says. “No, he hasn’t seen the show.”
Wishful Drinking is, moreover, a kind of dance of unhappiness in which she trounces and stomps on the circumstances of her life while dragging the skeletons from the closet. She could have been a corpse by now, had she not done something to take care of herself. This is why the play begins with the image of a friend of hers, a gay Republican drug addict, dead on her bed from an overdose in her Beverly Hills mansion. “The one great thing I did, in terms of living out here, is that I never found a heroin dealer,” Fisher says sardonically.
Another conceit in Fisher’s play, at once ironic and distressing, gives this solo show its most lacerating edge. Thanks to her recent bouts of electroconvulsive treatment (as a relief from crippling depression and bipolar disorder), she’s been having trouble remembering stuff. All of a sudden she finds that she’s forgotten entire parts about who she was before. “I’ve lost so many words I don’t even have the language to look for them,” she relates. Her visual memory has been impaired, too. So Wishful Drinking assumes a deeply critical distance: imagine Carrie Fisher’s diaries as told by an alien or a bystander in her own life. The show allows this stranger to get reacquainted with intimate parts of the original person. “A lot of people that are sober or have been in mental hospitals take some comfort in knowing that I made it through. Pretty much that means we can all make it through it. The afterlife of sanity is a kind of heaven—after the long march of hell.”
Fisher’s dream of happiness is “to be able to accept things as they are.” Asked if she’s ever known any spiritual bliss, she’s dismissive: “Do I seem like the type of person who would know what that is?” her voice rising, tinged with anger. “I’m a drug addict. If I knew spiritual bliss, I probably would not have been a drug addict.”
Has she been too hard on herself in Wishful Drinking? Fisher replies: “Yes. It’s just that I’ve always been that way.” But her script makes fun of a lot of people. Could her barbed humor be her way of getting revenge? "No, I don't want revenge on anybody. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. Honesty is probably not the best policy in every situation. Laughter is more healing."
2009-2010 Season, Front & Center, Wishful Drinking