No actress better epitomized the ‘70s than Sissy Spacek. Sure, Glenda Jackson and Jane Fonda had the Oscars (two each in the span of three and six years, respectively) and names like Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn and Louise Fletcher commanded newly minted acting royalty respect. But over the course of six films and her own awards recognition, Spacek came to define all that was representative of the era—the leftover ‘60s flower child vibe, the wounded waif mystique, the picked on girl with “something extra”, the pagan personality shapeshifter. She stands as the Me Decade personified, a beautiful if brutal, fragile yet ferocious combination of survivor, savant, and starlight.
At first, she wanted to be a singer. She even moved to New York to try her hand at a music career. Living with her cousin Rip Torn and his wife Geraldine Page, she was bitten by the acting bug, and soon found herself immersed in the “Method” while studying with Lee Strasberg. Running around the West Village looking for work, she ran into the last remnants of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd. She even made an uncredited appearance in one of the pop artist’s best productions, Trash. Two years later, her unfathomably beautiful face lit up an otherwise shocking and scandalous (for its time) little thriller about mobsters, meatpacking, and murder. Prime Cut (1972) may have been Spacek’s first legitimate movie role, but she was never a neophyte, not even among her far more seasoned cast mates.
You can see it from the very first moment she hit the silver screen. As Poppy, the unfortunate young gal who falls under the evil auspices of an unscrupulous slaughterhouse operator named Mary Ann, Spacek was instantly radiant. Sold into white slavery by the corrupt businessman, her haunting image permeates every frame of Michael Ritchie’s outrageous film—even when the story doesn’t involve her character. We instantly identify with Poppy, wanting to protect her as she pours her heart out to gangland enforcer Lee Marvin. We instantly rise to support her attempted escape, shiver as she tries to avoid the murderous blades of a combine harvester, and worry that, even within the framework of a typical Hollywood film, this tiny teardrop of a girl will somehow get wiped away by Gene Hackman’s manipulative despot. Her solid left hook at the end of the film signals the beginning of her rise—both as a character and as a formidable film star.
In fact, one can easily argue that Spacek typifies the ‘feminization’ of the then growing Feminist movement. She personified it, walking the thin line between pre-War domesticity and post-Peace movement liberation. Poppy may look wan and helpless (though Spacek’s penetrating blue eyes do give her strength away), but we sense she will find a way to survive. It’s a pattern that will silk screen every performance she offers up in the decade, from perplexed romantic Holly in Terrance Malick’s brilliant Badlands to the manipulative minx who “steals” Shelley Duval’s entire life in Robert Altman’s masterpiece 3 Women. Each time she arrives in a narrative, she’s complicated. At any moment, she’s weak and worthy of concern. By the end, when school gymnasiums are Hellish infernos and rebellious spree killers are scoring their comeuppance, Spacek stands alone, looking terrified, but actually triumphant.
Prime Cut also highlighted the most important element in many of Spacek’s ‘70s turns—the ability to immediately grab onto and hold our most heartfelt sympathies. From the slight frame and soft strawberry blond hair to the lost look in her eyes that seem to suggest a whole wealth of history not given over to her onscreen persona, her roles redefine the nurturing nature of performance. Few in the collective have such a skill, but Spacek seems to own an entire substrata of it. When she asks Lee Marvin where they are headed, her “Chicago” inspired response is so tender, so telling, that it’s impossible not to feel moved. It’s the same impression you get while hearing her hearts and flowers narration of her love for Badland‘s bad boy Kit. Even when we shake our heads in confused disbelief, her interpretation of the material keeps us locked completely within her perspective.
Badlands (1973) did indeed broaden Spacek’s personal landscape. As the teen queen to the rebel without a cause (or moral compass), Holly is arm candy and companion, a reason to live and a reality of dying. It’s hard not to be intoxicated by this fresh faced nymph, unknowing of the ways of the changing world around her. When Martin Sheen’s Kit comes across Spacek’s Holly enthralled by the simple act of twirling a baton, his stunned reaction mirrors our own—this is a girl worth giving up everything for. This is a girl we want to hold onto and protect. Within Malick’s fractured fairytale designs (as the director considered the violent tale like a standard fantastical adventure yarn) she’s like a damsel in distress—from her blue baby doll dress to her penchant for pigtails, there is a lot of little girl still locked up inside this future fugitive.
If Prime Cut was a childhood denied, then Badlands begins the onset of adolescence. Spacek’s Holly grows exponentially throughout the course of the film, the blood of Kit’s victims and his smoky sexual allure acting like an injecting of hyperactive hormones. While she dreams in Disney dioramas, she exists within the frightened face she wears throughout most of the movie. As she scampers away from her school, a few mementos in hand, as she watches her father die and the family home burned to the ground, we see the aging process—slow, sure, subliminal, suggestive. With every stolen kiss, with every exploratory bedroom exchange, Kit becomes Holly’s window on an way outside of toys and tardy slips. Though hardly an accomplice, she does stand by her man with little reservation over his actions. As she says in one of the film’s most telling bits of voice-over: “It’s better to spend a week with someone who loves me for what I was than a lifetime of loneliness.”
Highly influential (there are many films that have referenced Malick’s fictional take on notorious murderer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate—such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers) and devoid of dated period panache, Badlands would announce that Spacek was indeed part of the acting elite, a formidable young talent with a range wider than her radiant smile. But she wasn’t in it for the fame, as she said in one interview: “When I started out in independent films in the early ‘70s, we did everything for the love of art. It wasn’t about money and stardom. That was what we were reacting against. You’d die before you’d be bought.”
With Holly, she exposed another aspect of her innate abilities—the transmission of sorrow. Instead of playing damaged or acting pained, Spacek simply exudes sadness. It’s like a halo of hurt surrounding her otherwise confident appearance. The coy little character may seem like an uncaring accessory, a part of Kit’s continued war with humanity (and himself), but she does provide the sympathy that such horrible acts mandate. While she often fails to fully show it, it comes across loud and clear on celluloid.
Such a contrast would come to define the actress, an effective yin and yang that would help her land what would become one of her signature roles. At first, director Brian DePalma didn’t want to hire Spacek for his adaptation of Stephen King’s incredible first novel. He had someone else in mind, not the delicate if determined flower from Malick and Ritchie’s sinister Southern Gothics. Desperate for the part, she modified her model visage, turning herself into the put upon geek with the abusive backstory and hidden telekinetic powers. Winning over DePalma and eager to prove her position, Spacek retreated into the wounded world of Carrie White, transforming the bullied high schooler into a untapped source of retribution.