While Dana was rewatching Carrie Fisher and Mike Nichols’ Postcards From the Edge—I think that, in different ways, writer and director both deserve a possessory credit for that movie—I was catching up with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which indeed ends with a simulacrum of Fisher, at 19 and in full Princess Leia Halloween costume, uttering the word hope. (Sorry, but there is no such thing as a spoiler once a movie has passed $400 million at the U.S. box office.) It’s a moment that made me happy and sad—but since it was basically a version of Fisher that was constructed by dudes in a lab, I’m glad that it won’t be her last appearance. This coming year, we will hear her in two episodes of Family Guy and see her not only in the next Star Wars movie but in a reprise of her role in Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s sharp, unsentimental Amazon comedy series Catastrophe and as herself in the HBO documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. That’s an appropriately varied set of gigs—mainstream and niche; big-screen and small; seen and heard; real, scripted, and drawn—for a woman who was one of Hollywood’s most valuable polymaths.
It is especially wrenching to lose Fisher, as actress, writer, and observer, because she always seemed to know exactly what to make of the fact that Hollywood had never known exactly what to make of her. That’s a skill that actresses might still find valuable. In genre films, one could say that part of Fisher’s legacy is that Felicity Jones now gets to carry a blockbuster, but let’s not take that victory lap just yet. For every Arrival, in which Amy Adams is allowed to have a profession, a specific and vital set of skills, and indisputable centrality, there is a (much more expensive) Passengers, which manages the remarkable feat of turning Jennifer Lawrence into someone who watches a guy do stuff. (Lawrence’s character has a profession—writer—which, it is made clear, is utterly useless in any practical crisis whatsoever. Noted.) It’s as if the makers of Passengers watched everything Lawrence had ever done, from Winter’s Bone to the Hunger Games franchise to the trio of David O. Russell films, and thought, “So much autonomy! Let’s dial that back a little.” All of the energy and collective belief that has gone into turning Chris Pratt from a beer-bellied comic sidekick into a leading man has also been poured into reducing Lawrence from an Oscar-winning movie star into a plot device. Those are two sides of the same coin, and a reminder of who’s still in charge. I mourn that we will never get to hear what Carrie Fisher would make of that. We can certainly guess.
As I looked through my Twitter feed the other night, I noticed that someone else was also watching Rogue One—Edgar Wright, the writer-director of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, who tweeted that the movie had inspired him to take his first look since childhood at the 1961 Gregory Peck and David Niven World War II drama The Guns of Navarone. This is the kind of intuitive decade-crossing leap, from one platoon/squadron movie to another, that I wish more people would make. An unfortunate side effect of this time of the movie-going season—and we can’t blame awards alone for this, because it derives at least as much from 10-best lists—is that we become so invested in weighing current movies against one another that we can forget they’re also part of a very long timeline. Moonlight is undeniably its own thing but also the latest milestone in a history of LGBTQ representation that stretches from Brokeback Mountain backward to Dirk Bogarde in Victim and forward to Sean Baker’s Tangerine. Manchester by the Sea is about a specific kind of grief that calls to mind Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment without being remotely imitative of either. Sausage Party and its gloriously cheerful and vulgar opening number simply do not exist without South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, could, without changing a frame, be retitled All About My Mother, and Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 masterwork isn’t a bad place to go after you’ve watched Annette Bening. And while you certainly don’t need to do homework to see La La Land, if you know that it’s an American spin on a French spin on an American form that connects to, among other things, Debbie Reynolds’ breakthrough in Singin’ in the Rain, the movie feels less like a surprising one-off and more like a new chapter of a long, rich story.
The narrative of films in conversation with one another and with history is one of constant re-evaluation, reassessment, and self-checking. I was reminded of that by how many people chose this week to rewatch not only Postcards but When Harry Met Sally …, the movie in which, one year earlier, Fisher had played Rhoda to Meg Ryan’s Mary. (You can watch Fisher steal one scene with a perfectly delivered reading of the word married and an impeccably executed bit of business with a Rolodex card—ah, 1989!—here.) Both of those movies were, in their day, not so much dismissed as gently set aside. An Oscar nomination or two for each, and a critical consensus that they were minor fun but not significant. But more than a quarter of a century later, they have found a place in collective movie consciousness that many more “important” movies have not. (The two Best Picture Oscar winners from their years, Driving Miss Daisy and Dances With Wolves, don’t exactly feel like urgent 2017 rewatches, do they?)
Which makes me think, Bilge, about your question from the previous round: Down the road, what movies will we have turned out to be wrong about? My first instinct was to dodge: After all, there’s no “we” or monolithic agreement about anything. But then I started considering it from two angles:
1) What am I not seeing clearly? Maybe Paul Verhoeven’s Elle; I’ve given it two chances and both times thought Isabelle Huppert was monumental and the story was preposterous and kind of morally indefensible. Also, it’s possible I didn’t give Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk enough of a chance; I was put off by what felt like its failure to capture the tone and POV of a novel I love (never a good way to go into a movie). And Lee’s decision to present his film not only in 3-D but at a high frame rate that gave the whole thing an unnuanced, blinding sharpness in which no piece of visual data meant more or less than any other felt disastrous. If there was a movie under all that, I failed to see it—and I won’t know whether that was my failure or the movie’s for a while.
2) What did I like that’s probably going to stay in my head a lot longer than some of what I “admired”? That one is easier: Anything that made me laugh. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a Spinal Tap for the age of Snapchat that, like Amy, I loved; its take on showbiz narcissism and public preening feels deep, and the Macklemore spoof “Equal Rights (Not Gay)” would tie for me with Sausage Party’s “The Great Beyond” as movie-song of the year. What else made me laugh? Every single one of Woody Harrelson’s bone-dry, bone-weary line readings in The Edge of Seventeen. And Tom Bennett, an actor with whom I was unfamiliar, giving what may be the comic performance of 2016 as a silly ass who doesn’t know when to stop talking or what to say in Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Movies that seem less about a particular directorial vision than about the deep pleasures of writing and performance have a curious way of overshooting what you imagine their shelf life to be. If I’m wrong, feel free to remind me in 25 years.