ORLANDO, FL. — Star Wars Celebration kicked off its first day in Orlando with a very special tribute to George Lucas's galaxy far, far away on Thursday (April 13). But the nostalgia-fueled Star Wars 40th anniversary panel — which featured surprise appearances from Lucas, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford (making his first-ever visit to the annual fan convention), and other familiar faces — quickly turned into a moving homage to the late Carrie Fisher, the fiercely witty and boldly independent actress who made Princess Leia an icon.
"She was a hell of a rebel," Chewbacca actor Peter Mayhew said of his dear late friend. "But she was also a beautiful princess."
Any Star Wars fan knows that Leia was the fearless, unapologetic heart of the Rebellion. She was the shrewd princess who faced Darth Vader and lived to tell the tale. But she was also the princess who didn't need to be saved; she could handle a blaster just fine all by herself.
The weight of Fisher's absence from the "40 Years of Star Wars" panel was palpable by the time Lucas and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy gathered on the stage to honor their princess.
"[Leia] was a princess, she was a senator, she played a part that was very smart, and she had to hold her own with these two goofballs who were screwing everything up," Lucas said. "When Carrie came in, she was that character. She was smart, funny, bold, [and] tough. There are not very many people like her. She was one in a billion."
"She wore a dress through the whole thing, but she was the toughest one of the group," the director concluded. "She'll always be the princess who took command and never backed down ... She was always helping the other guys get out of the messes they created. We'll all love her forever."
Kennedy then introduced Fisher's daughter, actress Billie Lourd, to the stage. This marked the 24-year-old's first public appearance since her mother's death late last year. Lourd, wearing a custom white Tom Ford dress in honor of Fisher's iconic Princess Leia gown and imbued with her mother's own sharp wit, delivered a touching tribute.
"My mom used to say she never knew where Princess Leia ended and Carrie Fisher began," Lourd told the crowd. "She was imperfect in many ways, but her imperfections and willingness to speak about them are what made her more than perfect.
"My mom, like Leia, wasn’t ever afraid to speak her mind and say things that might have made most people uncomfortable — but not me, and not you. That is why she loved you, because you accepted and embraced all of her; the strong soldier of a woman she was, and also the vulnerable side of her, who often openly fought her own dark side, knowing early on that we all have a dark side of our own, whatever it may be. But she knew it wasn’t about the fight you were fighting, but how you fought it; the way you resisted."
Lourd concluded her speech with three important things that her mother taught her, starting with one "all mothers should teach their daughters": Leia's famous "help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi" monologue, a speech that that Fisher herself could recite entirely by memory.
Second, Lourd said her mother taught her that "if life isn't funny, then it’s just true, and that is unacceptable."
And finally, Lourd said she learned from her mother that "the most evolved person is seemingly a contradiction: They’re both the strongest and the most vulnerable person in the room. And that was her. That is Leia."
Following her emotional speech, a tribute video played across the main stage screen, featuring clips of Fisher from the Star Wars films, as well as outtakes, behind-the-scenes production footage, and numerous clips from actress's oft-hilarious interviews over the years. Legendary composer John Williams and the Orlando Philharmonic closed out the tribute with a soaring rendition of Princess Leia's theme for the weepy fans gathered in the room (the sobs were audible).
Earlier in the anniversary panel, Lucas said what fans have always known: Star Wars "is a film for 12-year-olds." It was envisioned as a mythological space opera that would inspire children to make good choices in life.
"You're 12 years old and you're about to go into the real world. You’re probably scared, so here’s what you should pay attention to," Lucas recalled. "Friendship, honesty, trust, living on the light side, and avoiding the dark side."
But Fisher knew that sometimes the dark side was unavoidable. It wasn't about choosing one or the other; it was about learning to live with both. Just as Leia inspired 12-year-old girls to fight back, Fisher encouraged young women to be themselves, brilliantly flawed and perfectly imperfect. She's our princess. Our general. Our icon. Our hope. For that, she'll always be missed.