DOWSE guide to the movies                                                                                         

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the net guide for creative minds


DOWSE Guide to the Movies
by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press

Acting From The Inside Outwards:
A Profile Of Sissy Spacek

There are many styles of acting, but perhaps two main tendencies. What I call acting from the outside in is what the late Laurence Olivier was most comfortable doing: putting on a false nose or otherwise disguising himself. Meryl Streep is another example, much of the time, most notoriously in her adoption of foreign accents. One has to admire the brilliant technique, but sometimes (as in Out of Africa) it stands in the way of the character. The accent may be pitch- perfect, but we can't always escape the fact that it is acting. Jeff Bridges is the opposite: barring changes of weight, clothing and hairstyle (and for male actors, the choice of being bearded or clean-shaven) he looks and sounds much the same from film to film. Yet each role is different and distinguishable, subtle riffs on the same basic personality. Sissy Spacek is another.
Born on Christmas Day 1949 in Quitman, Texas, Mary Elizabeth Spacek had six elder brothers. They immediately nicknamed her "Sissy" and the name stuck. Quitman is a small town, and growing up there marked Sissy Spacek with a combination of a rural solidity of values and a political liberalism which has marked many of her roles. In her late teens she stayed in New York with her cousin (Rip Torn) and his wife (Geraldine Page) and tried to break into acting. She did some modelling assignments (though at 5'2" was generally considered too short for this) and even cut a record. (Intended as a cash-in on John Lennon and Yoko Ono's full-frontal cover for their "Two Virgins" album, its title and only lyric was "You've Gone too Far This Time, John". Released under the pseudonym Rainbo, it sank without trace.) She was on the periphery of Andy Warhol's Factory, and can be glimpsed in Trash (walking away from the camera behind Joe Dallesandro in a street scene).
Her film debut was in Prime Cut, a violent melodrama directed by Michael Ritchie, and starring Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman. Critically slated at the time, it has a cult following and has improved with age. Spacek plays one of Hackman's "slaves", a role that required her to be nude for much of the film. Due to her short stature and slight build, she has often been cast as younger than her actual age (first period at age 26 in Carrie, still convincing as a child bride in the early scenes of Coal Miner's Daughter, playing pregnant well into her forties). In her early career she was sometimes typecast as a hippie or other kind of free spirit, especially in Ginger in the Morning (a middling romantic comedy never released in the UK) and on TV in an episode of The Rookies. Another notable TV role was as Sarah Simmonds, John-Boy's girlfriend, in two episodes of The Waltons. Probably her best TV role at this stage of her career was the title role of Katherine, charting a young woman's journey via political activism to terrorism.
Badlands was a breakthrough for Spacek, as it was for her co-star Martin Sheen and writer/director Terrence Malick. The film has an eerie, detached tone (too "arty" for some) as it depicts the killing spree of Kit (Sheen) with girlfriend Holly (Spacek) in tow. Holly's voiceover, made up of clichés derived from the fan magazines she reads, sets the tone for the film: to her this is all one big adventure, but the viewer is led to see Kit and Holly as limited, banal characters, undeserving of any folk-heroism. On the set of Badlands, Spacek met production designer and occasional director Jack Fisk, and they married shortly afterwards. (One of Fisk's longstanding friends from art school was none other than David Lynch. The Fisks put some money into his first feature, Eraserhead, in which Jack Fisk plays "The Man in the Planet". Spacek and Lynch's paths would cross again later.)
Carrie earned Spacek the first of five Oscar nominations to date. It's due to her that the film, a compelling if basically cold and manipulative melodrama, becomes that rare thing: a Brian DePalma film that is genuinely moving. DePalma is an undoubted technical virtuoso, and his films are often enjoyable on a stylistic level. But in Carrie, it's clear that he has little affection for any of his characters, and even seems to be exacting revenge against high-school girls in particular. (Compare John Carpenter's much more sympathetic high-school girls in Halloween.) Spacek's performance ranks amongst the greatest in the horror genre, but it works against the film that contains it. The final shock sequence is brilliantly executed, but it confirms Carrie as the monster that we have spent 90 minutes being persuaded that she isn't.
An interesting aside: the auditions for Carrie were held simultaneously with those of Star Wars. In fact Spacek was cast as Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher as Carrie. However, Fisher had problems with the nudity required and they swapped roles. Every actor has parts that they might have played, but some of Spacek's are fascinating. David Cronenberg wanted her for Rabid, but the producers didn't consider her a big enough star, prior to Carrie, so the role went to Marilyn Chambers. Other 'shadow projects' include Nicolas Roeg's "Illusions", later entitled Bad Timing, in the role played by Theresa Russell. Considering Russell's impact on Roeg's career, both professionally and personally, it's intriguing to know how their careers would have progressed if Spacek had actually played that part. Finally, she was announced in a lead role of "The Plastic Nightmare" opposite William Hurt; that was made by the same director, Wolfgang Petersen, for a different company and with a different cast as Shattered. Welcome To L.A. is the first of Alan Rudolph's "personal" mood-and-character- led pieces, and more interesting as an early example of what be more fully achieved later. It's heavily influenced by Robert Altman (who produced - Rudolph had worked for him in the past) in its story of a singer/songwriter (Keith Carradine) and his complicated love life. Spacek plays Linda, a spaced-out housemaid who thinks nothing of doing the vacuuming topless. 3 Women, on the other hand, is one of Altman's major achievements, an out-and-out art movie that borders on fantasy. Shelley Duvall gives one of her first performances (Altman remains the only director who knew how to get the best out of her) as Millie, the outwardly confident and very talkative woman who works at a geriatric clinic. Spacek plays Pinky Rose, her shy and clumsy colleague, who gradually takes on Millie's personality while Millie becomes drained and finally, metaphorically invisible. The third woman is the almost entirely silent Janice Rule, who paints large, very "feminine" murals, whose atmosphere runs throughout the film. 3 Women is a slow, fascinating, genuinely dreamlike film (in fact Altman dreamed the idea, complete with the cast) that demands but rewards patience.
Coal Miner's Daughter brought Spacek a second Oscar nomination, and this time she won, deservedly. It's a conventional, but very well made, showbiz biopic that follows Loretta Lynn from early teenage years, via marriage to Doolittle (Tommy Lee Jones, who more than holds his own) to country stardom. Spacek lost weight for the early scenes, gained it for the later ones, and sung all her own songs. The success of the film (which remains one of Spacek's biggest box-office hits) led her to release a country album of her own, "Hangin' Up My Heart". Raggedy Man was her husband's directorial debut, and although certainly flawed, it contains one of her finest performances as Nita, a young divorced mother of two during World War II, who starts a tentative romance with soldier Eric Roberts. The ending is melodramatic and disturbs the delicate tone of the earlier two thirds. Spacek later worked for her husband on Violets are Blue, a trite story where she plays Kevin Kline's old flame who re-enters his life and upsets his marriage. The Fisks' first child, Schuyler (now an actress herself), was born in 1982, causing a short hiatus in her career. Missing was at the time politically controversial, in its story of a woman's (Spacek, who received a third Oscar nomination) search for her husband, one of the "disappeared" in a South American country. Also in the search is the man's father (Jack Lemmon), and the film turns on the conflict between his conservatism and his daughter-in-law's activism; Lemmon is very moving in the scene where he learns the truth.
The River was one of three 'farm' movies released at about the same time, each with a strong (and Oscar-nominated) role for its leading actress. (The others were Places In The Heart with Sally Field, and Country with Jessica Lange.) In The River Mae Garvey (Spacek) and husband Tom (Mel Gibson) fight off plans to buy their farm and replace it with a dam. Vilmos Zsigmond's photography is gorgeous, and certainly makes the farm worth fighting for, but the story is weak and Mel Gibson, before Hollywood knew what to do with him, is out-acted and looks more like a film star than a farmer.
Spacek then made four films in the space of eighteen months. Marie is a good 'crusading' role in the true story of a divorced mother who gets a job in Tennessee State Government and uncovers evidence of corruption. It's a solid, well-made, worthwhile film, if a little confusingly plotted. Violets Are Blue has already been mentioned. 'Night Mother, based on a stage play, is a two-hander where a mother (Anne Bancroft) tries to persuade her daughter (Spacek) not to kill herself. On stage this may well have been very powerful, but it's a flat film and as depressing as it sounds. Crimes Of The Heart is also based on a play and stars Spacek, Diane Keaton and Jessica Lange as three dysfunctional sisters reunited after Spacek accidentally shoots her husband. Beth Henley was the writer, in her patented Southern-ditsy style (see also Miss Firecracker), and the film had a capable director in Bruce Beresford. But unfortunately the film doesn't take off, despite good moments. Spacek shows a gift for comedy that had been disguised by a few too many earnest roles; she won a Golden Globe and received her fifth Oscar nomination, her last to date.
A four-year gap followed, during which Spacek had another daughter, Madison. Since then she has continued to work, but has run into a perennial problem for actresses once they pass forty: the interesting roles start to dry up. Much of her best work has been done for TV in the last decade, including reuniting with fellow Texan Tommy Lee Jones in The Good Old Boys, which he directed. Many of these films dramatise social issues (abortion in A Private Matter and If These Walls Could Talk; adoption in A Place For Annie; the death penalty in Beyond The Call). Her cinema films have been mostly minor, but include four roles in the middling comedy Trading Mom and as Piper Laurie's sister in The Grass Harp (they played mother and daughter in Carrie).
Her highest-profile film work was as Kevin Costner's wife in JFK, but for all his technical brilliance Oliver Stone has shown little ability to write roles for women or to direct actresses. (Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers is a partial exception, but she had more input that most into her part.) Spacek is unable to do much with her role, which is a stereotypical nagging wife. However, supporting roles in two high-profile independent movies are much better. She plays Nick Nolte's girlfriend in Paul Schrader's Affliction, and gives a solid performance that's not sidelined by the father-son conflict that's at the heart of the story. As Rose, Alvin Straight's (Richard Farnsworth) daughter, in David Lynch's The Straight Story, she is more 'actorly' than usual - her character is 'backward' and speaks with a stutter. The film is dominated by Farnsworth's beautiful, dignified performance, but Spacek, on screen for about half the time, contributes a lot to the film's air of wounded, but dignified, perseverance. Her character bears some scars: her four children were taken from her due to an accident that wasn't her fault, and there are a couple of scenes where she looks out of a window, thinking of them, that bring a lump to the throat.
Sissy Spacek is now fifty, and as yet too young to play eccentric old-lady parts. Even if she is confined to indies or TV roles in the meantime, her filmography speaks for itself. In her unassuming way, she's one of the finest screen actresses of her generation, and one looks out for many more roles in the years to come.

Filmography (as actress unless specified):
Trash (1970) - uncredited extra
Prime Cut (1972)
Ginger In The Morning (1973) - also wrote/performed songs
Badlands (1973)
The Girls Of Huntingdon House (1974) - TV movie
Phantom Of The Paradise (1974) - set dresser
The Migrants (1974) - TV movie
Katherine [aka The Radical] (1975) - TV Movie
Carrie (1976)
Death Game [aka Mrs Manning's Weekend; The Seducers] (1977) - art director
Welcome To L.A. (1977)
3 Women (1977)
Verna: USO Girl (1978) - TV movie
Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
Heart Beat (1980)
Raggedy Man (1981)
Missing (1982)
The Man With Two Brains (1983) - voice only, uncredited
The River (1984)
Marie (1985)
Violets Are Blue (1986)
'Night Mother (1986)
Crimes Of The Heart (1986)
The Long Walk Home (1990)
Hard Promises (1991)
JFK (1991)
A Private Matter (1992) - TV movie
Trading Mom [UK title: The Mommy Market] (1994)
A Place for Annie (1994) - TV movie
The Good Old Boys (1995) - TV movie
The Grass Harp (1995)
Streets of Laredo (1995) - TV miniseries
Thomas Jefferson: A View from the Mountain (1996) - documentary voiceover
Beyond The Call (1997) - TV movie
If These Walls Could Talk (1997) - TV movie
Affliction (1997)
Blast from the Past (1999)
The Straight Story (1999)

[Filmography compiled with acknowledgements to the Internet Movie Database (
N.B. Omitted from the above are the following:
Lonesome Cowboys (1967) - SS apparently sings on the soundtrack, but I have not been able to confirm this.
The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999) - SS appears in footage from Carrie.
I have also omitted appearances in episodic TV.]

Gary Couzens

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