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Carrie Fisher was the real star of Star Wars Celebration

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For fans and filmmakers, her name was the one that mattered

Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

The focal point of this year’s Star Wars Celebration was ostensibly the future of the franchise, but one name stood out above all the trailers, video game reveals, and theme-park news: Carrie Fisher. The event was the first Star Wars convention since she died last year at age 60, and day after day, collaborators and castmates took the opportunity to pay tribute to her. And somehow, somewhere in the process, an event dedicated to promoting one of the most valuable entertainment properties in the world became something different — an opportunity for fans to say goodbye.

I recognize that’s a suspect statement. Emotion is a tricky thing at events like these; whether it’s the Hall H madness of Comic-Con, or the built-in love at something like Celebration, we’re talking about an audience of people who are already primed to be affected by every single moment that comes their way. Presenting at Celebration isn’t just preaching to the converted; it’s preaching to an audience that’s actually incentivized to be moved, particularly after they’ve shelled out hundreds of dollars, or traveled thousands of miles, to attend.

Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

But participants at Celebration struck an earnest tone early on, during an opening day panel dedicated to the franchise’s 40-year history. George Lucas, who joined producer Kathleen Kennedy onstage as a surprise guest, took a moment to introduce a tribute reel dedicated to Fisher. Voice cracking with emotion as he began, the usually stoic filmmaker could only seem to refer to Fisher in the present tense, describing her as a fierce, funny force that could “hold her own against anything.”

Kennedy followed suit. And then Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, came out to thunderous applause. After delivering a pitch-perfect reading of her mother’s famous hologram message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original 1977 film — one of the three essential things she said her mother taught her — Lourd thanked the audience, reassuring them that Fisher loved both the character she played in the films, and the fans for their support over the years.

It was all wonderful and touching, and it felt utterly appropriate for the kind of fan-friendly event that Celebration is. But throughout her adult life, Carrie Fisher almost always seemed to opt for fearless honesty, and her daughter struck a similar note. “I learned by knowing her that the most evolved person is seemingly a contradiction,” she said. “They are both the strongest and the most vulnerable person in the room. And that was her. That is Leia.”

Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

Most of the mentions of Fisher throughout Celebration hinged on that latter idea — that Fisher essentially was the character she portrayed, that their innate qualities were inextricably linked. That knowing the Princess’ take-no-prisoners spunkiness, or General Leia’s take-no-shit pragmatism, was akin to knowing the actress herself. For fans, it’s often tempting to conflate a performer with a role, but Fisher herself mused over the idea repeatedly when she was alive. “I think I am Princess Leia, and Princess Leia is me,” she said in the tribute reel. “It’s a Moebius striptease.” But Lourd’s comments dug beneath the easy comparisons. She talked about Fisher’s combination of strength and vulnerability, something Lucasfilm’s creators never truly explored in Leia’s character. And her thoughts seemed to honestly speak to the truth about Fisher as a person.

In his own tribute panel the following day, a brutally honest Mark Hamill built upon the idea. Eyes swimming with tears, he choked his way through the statement he’d written immediately following Fisher’s death, speaking of that same vulnerability. “That’s what I thought was so incredible about her,” he said, seemingly going totally off-script. “For all the bravado, it was almost a defense mechanism. That she wore this toughness like armor.”

The moments stood out not because Lourd and Hamill were simply speaking about Fisher, but because they were embodying the fearless honesty that became Fisher’s trademark. They were emulating her own frankness of spirit at a time when they could have just as easily used convenient platitudes. But watching the fans in those rooms clap, cry, or proudly cosplay as whatever version of Leia Organa they chose (and there were incarnations from all four films), those moments of honesty rang true.

Photo by Bryan Bishop / The Verge

If 2016’s avalanche of celebrity deaths taught us anything, it’s that the loss of artists or performers that we hold dear can affect us just as much as the death of friends and loved ones. But fans at Star Wars Celebration weren’t mourning Carrie Fisher the person, because most of them didn’t actually know her, no matter how revealing she was in books and interviews. They were mourning what she meant to them. The ferocity and humor; the cavalier attitude and enduring strength; the refusal to back down, no matter what life sent her. Those are the qualities Fisher came to represent through her work and her public persona, and over the years, that’s what Leia came to represent, too. She’s experienced a kind of character retcon, with the force of Fisher’s real-world personality imbuing her older performances with added depth and strength.

In that sense, perhaps Carrie Fisher was right — she and the character she played became permanently intertwined. Not because a 19-year-old actress played a role in a space movie that sold a lot of tickets, but because in her life and through her work, she became a lasting symbol that has inspired, encouraged, and transcended. And for four days here in Orlando, that was the biggest reason for celebration of all.

“As long as we live, so too she shall live,” Hamill said at the close of his tribute. “Because she has become part of us all. And we’ll never stop missing her.”