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How In the Bedroom helped re-define the career of Sissy Spacek

American actresses of Sissy Spacek’s generation are quite frequently discounted, their gifts set to languish in supporting roles, mother and grandmother roles, distinctly not at the center of the dramatic action or written with the grace or respect that they deserve. My theory is that the public becomes so completely infatuated with their own misconceptions about these women that they will only believe them when they are in the familiar, comfortable roles that people have known them so well in, for so many years (eg. when Diane Keaton does funny, people flock to her movies, but when she goes dark or dramatic, the experiment is usually less successful—with fans at least). I’m not sure that male actors face this same dilemma, but as American actresses age, they are given the same types of roles to play, in vaguely different milieus, over and over. Perhaps this comes from necessity as there are very few substantial, crucial characters being written for veteran female performers in general. Spacek’s full-bodied turn as “Ruth Fowler” in Todd Field’s 2001 directorial debut In the Bedroom is thankfully an exception and challenges this unwritten rule.


After more than a decade of excellent work in key supporting roles for auteurs like Oliver Stone (JFK), Paul Schrader (Affliction) and David Lynch (The Straight Story), in 2001 Spacek was back, full force, in the popular lexicon, sweeping the year-end Best Actress prizes from the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, AFI, the Broadcast Film Critics, and the Independent Spirits. She was nominated for a BAFTA and the Academy Award, which arguably should have been her second, perhaps even third or fourth, Oscar. 


To prepare for writing this piece on Spacek’s performance in this modern classic, I did what any decent method columnist would do and took a road trip to the place the movie was filmed in coastal Maine, to get a sense of the characters’ geography and landscape (OK, my motives were more selfish, but I digress…). As depicted in the film, Camden is a “picturesque wind-burned town [and] as much a character as any individual,” according to Stephen Holden’s 2001 New York Times review. Holden keenly observed a cinematic treatment of small-town life that “takes us aboard a lobster boat, visits the local cannery and stops in at stores and restaurants—almost makes us feel part of the community. It also reveals its pronounced class divisions.” On a glorious beachside summer vacation to Maine, where the film was shot, I definitely noticed these class disparities in a place where you have tourists streaming in and out throwing money around and leaving forever and the locals who either have money or don’t. As my friends and I were walking down the road to the Wormwood restaurant for fresh lobster tails with scallop and seafood stuffing, an old salty fisherman type shouted in a thickly-soaked Northeastern accent from his screened-in porch that he did not want us to do any sort of “wacky shit” out there, expressing his worries about the presence of three strange men in tight pants and designer sunglasses together without any “girls” in sight, with a lit cigarette dangling from weathered lips, no doubt only the latest in a stream of a public banter that likely spanned 70 years and countless trips out to the purplish sea.


Another thing I noticed: precisely how chilly it can get on a rainy summer night, even when the day has enjoyed the warmest, brightest sunlight. The cold can permeate even the heartiest bones. If the locals can get a tad peculiar and eccentric in this part of Maine, the same holds true for the weather. Shimmering rainbows, hail, crashing waves, and floods are not uncommon in the summer, and the winter is another animal altogether, brutally cold,  unrelentingly punishing Noreasters that hit the coast with a ravaging force.This kind of unseasonable cold means only one thing to me: eating. At a place like the Bell Buoy at Old Orchard Beach or the famous, delicious Huot’s in Saco (home of the most magnificent fish sandwich you will ever eat), you will notice how the right combination of ingredients in a chowder, a hearty stuffing or seafood pie of your choosing can almost immediately, deeply warm your frozen body, and how the right, simple seasoning is crucial in this region’s cooking, as is the right temperature. Nothing is overly fussy, and everything in Maine is served very, very hot, from the coffee to the clarified butter that comes with everything to the simmering fried dough at Lisa’s Pizza. I’m always thinking about eating, so to me, food is also a useful lens to look through when thinking about film acting. I get more excited as I watch my favorite performers age, and their initial performances are like the appetizer before the main course for me. That familiarly bittersweet feeling of seeing them more infrequently onscreen as the years go by is somewhat lessened by the fact that when they actually do choose to work, the result is usually pretty damn tasty.


Though a community barbeque, at which the principle characters meet one another, is one of the most important set pieces in the film, In the Bedroom begins and ends with a singularly Northeastern Atlantic chill in the ephemeral, dusty navy and puce first light of morning that resembles a bruise or perhaps even the bruised heart of the Fowler family, Matt, Ruth and Frank. Like this area of Maine, the film feels steeped in tradition both cinematic, historic and familial. Critic Roger Ebert wrote in his 2001 Sun-Times review of “secret events in the hearts of the characters” and Field, in the depiction of such a secret hour,  confronts the sometimes-desperate kinds of activities that tend to take place in this mysterious time when the world is asleep and no one is watching. In this respect, In the Bedroom t is reminiscent in austere, mysterious mood to Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Hour of the Wolf (1968). Translated from Swedish, The vargtimmen  – literally “wolf hour”– is a time of night during which “all birth and death occurs,” at least according to disturbed artist Johan (Max von Sydow). These Bergmanian concepts, the circle of life and death, of natural law and man’s law, of Biblical justice and of eye-for-an-eye revenge, and of innocence lost, all play out symmetrically across in Field’s narrative and similarly in the cold, controlled fury of Spacek’s elegant performance as “Ruth.” Ebert wondered “Is Ruth a snob? She wouldn’t think so. We sense that their household accommodates enormous silences, that the parents and their son have each retreated to a personal corner to nurse wounds.”


“We began talking about Ruth early on, months before shooting,” said Field when I asked him about his initial approach to working with Spacek on developing the character. “She was interested in who this woman was, her strengths and weaknesses, the peculiarities of her persona. Andre Dubus’ story Killings gives you a finite amount of information about Ruth Fowler, and so there was a lot of room to imagine.” And indeed, while there are many details provided by Field and Spacek, Ruth remains a mysterious, enigmatic woman who take on many forms throughout her arc, from a furiously smoking, postmodern Lady MacBeth to a distaff Mary Tyrone navigating years of failed communication and hurt, minus the morphine. “As far as prototypes, there was one woman in my life who immediately came to mind,” said Field of additional inspiration for the character he and Spacek used while filming. “Sissy asked a lot of questions about her, and had me make audio recordings of the voice. She also requested some of this woman’s clothing, and then used it as Ruth’s wardrobe in the film.”


Spacek, I believe, is frequently, erroneously labeled simply as being a naturalistic actor, someone who is not formally trained, necessarily and someone who is always playing a version of themselves.  Field’s statement above indicates the quite opposite, that there is indeed a strong penchant for Method acting and total immersion into character on Spacek’s part. She brings in a subtle technicality to each role she plays that is so unobtrusive, so invisible that her talent is often conflated with being simply natural abiltity by the critical consensus. Holden’s perceptive review, however, noticed the kinds of specific details that were integrated into Ruth.“Ms. Spacek’s performance is as devastating as it is unflashy. With the slight tightening of her neck muscles and a downward twitch of her mouth, she conveys her character’s relentlessness, then balances it with enough sweetness to make Ruth seem entirely human. It is one of Ms. Spacek’s greatest performances.”


The actresses’ commitment to the work shows through explicitly, which makes Ruth perhaps the strongest challenger to the public perception of who Spacek is as a performer and what kind of range she is capable of playing (why Spacek is not being considered for the same roles as Meryl Streep when her instrument is just as strong remains an infuriating mystery). The dedication is shown as clearly, and with equal measure in both the bold gestures—such as Ruth getting lost in conducting the choir, the plate smash and confrontation with Matt, and the infamous slapping of Marisa Tomei’s Natalie Strout— and the worldless minutiae of her grief. “Sissy brought all of herself, and her skill as a performer to work each day both of which are formidable and rare.” said Field. The success of Spacek in the role is perhaps most synergistically manifested in the superlative chemistry between the actress and her leading man Tom Wilkinson as Matt.


Though the veteran actors share both the most devastating dramatic scenes in the film as well as it’s heartbreaking denouement, Field said he was most surprised with Spacek’s “sense of restraint. The way she danced, as a performer, with Tom – an actor with a very different background, who at that time had never played an American lead in a film. She had no interest in looking for the ‘big’ moment.” It is precisely because of this attention to detail and subtlty that Ruth is a performance that reveals another layer of grace and gravitas with each viewing, annoucing itself in whispered codes and new colors every time and it is, without a doubt, my favorite performance in a mysterious, prestigious canon. Spacek as “Ruth Fowler” is, like the favored soda pop of Maine, both full of “Moxie,” like the people totally unfussy, and like the cuisine, seasoned perfectly and served piping hot by the woman playing her.


Matt Mazur is a Brooklyn-based film publicist who works on campaigns for documentaries, independent and foreign language films. A die-hard cinephile and lover of pop culture, he spends his free time writing about what he is not working on. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Mazur


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