Performer Spotlight: Sissy Spacek

It is with tremendous excitement that PopMatters shines the first-ever Performer Spotlight onto Sissy Spacek, a true revolutionary, a living legend and a completely cool lady who just so happens to have eyes that are so expressive they rival Bette Davis' legendary gaze in terms of just sheer impact.

Edited by Matt Mazur

If I ever read a critic announcing "it's all in the eyes" as a positive appraisal of a performer's acting, I tend to stop reading right there. It's not that great acting can't be accomplished through just one glance, but I've found that this particularly abundant cliche in critical discourse is a wholly unimaginative, bordering on lazy, way to describe the thought, nuance and time that any competent actor painstakingly pours into each new persona they inhabit. What about the research? What about gesture? What about voice? Costume? All of these elements are hideously overlooked in a simplistic statement like "its all in the eyes".

Now, I find myself in a quandary, looking like a bit of a jerk, because in all of my recent research on Sissy Spacek, the subject of PopMatters' inaugural Performer Spotlight, I keep going back to the same place: the eyes. "The first time I remember seeing Sissy was in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie," said director Todd Field, via email. "That performance scared the living hell out of me." As highlighted by De Palma's camera with a shocking crimson split-screen, who could forget that righteous, terrifying fury behind the eyes of the soaked Carrie after her cruel classmates dump a bucket of pig's blood on her at the prom? Or what about four years later as down-home superstar songbird Loretta Lynn, eyes sparkling as she take the stage of the Grand Ol' Opry for the fist time? Then there is what is arguably her most refined acting achievement in Field's In the Bedroom as the haunted Ruth Fowler – a character who keeps everything in for most of the film and who must convey her serpent-coiled rage, grief and confusion through – you guessed it – her eyes as well as her stillness. It is in the film's many worldess, contemplative moments, where Field presents the spectator with space and time to watch breathlessly as Spacek explores an off-the-beaten-path acting terrain that she had never hiked in her storied career.

Speaking of researching all of these great Spacek moments, I am reminded of perhaps my favorite part of being a film scholar: the homework. Last year, when I helmed the launch of PopMatters Director Spotlight series (featuring Pedro Almodovar), I was able to get lost in some of the greatest films of our time. With Spacek, not only did I get a taste of some of the finest auteurist cinema in modern film history, but it also felt partly like catching up with an old friend, as corny as that sounds. I grew up fascinated by Spacek's ability to, despite a very distinct look (strawberry blonde hair, Texan lilt and, yes, the mercurially expressive blue-green eyes), disappear, against the odds, into a staggering collection of characters that rival those played by Hollywood greats such as Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh, except without the attitude or the neuroses. "Sissy has retained her Texas accent all these years and I find it really fascinating that she has never chosen to change that about herself," said Spacek's Carrie co-star, Tony-winner Betty Buckley. "It is present in all the roles that she plays. I think that's an interesting thing about her as an actress, stylistically. I think there is a bravery [in her work] – Texas women are pretty straightforward individuals, we're raised to be that way, authentic. She's just always so authentic and very much herself in every movie she makes, very down to earth, a very earthy actress, doing very true, simple beautiful work. What you see is what you get."

There is a familiar, endearing quality to her work, which has a warmth that can effortlessly draw viewers in, and though her characters feel somewhat built on the cornerstone of her own star persona, they have never once felt like the same woman. Each new role she assumes is an event because of this commitment to originality and because of Spacek's economical style of performance, which ensures that the details are never repeated. "She's a wonderful actress," adds Buckley. "She has a wonderful combination of innocence and loneliness. She's like an old soul but there's this kind of innocence about her, a real purity." This seems a fitting description for a performer who does not generally trade in superficial mannerisms, half-baked accents or showy physical gimmickry. What Spacek does always feels natural and explorative of the deep interior of the women she plays, even when she's in a red chiffon gown and heels, decked out in a towering brunette wig, singing her heart out in front of thousands, golden starry lights twinkling and throngs of adoring "fans" cheering. "A few years ago Sissy was unable to attend a film festival where they were honoring her career, and asked if I might stand-in for her," said Field. "The tribute began with a screening – a sample of performances spanning three decades. To watch her work in a run like that was powerful – in each scene yet another person appearing who bore no resemblance to Sissy Spacek. From Loretta Lynn in Michael Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter to the late Richard Farnsworth's daughter, Rose, in David Lynch's The Straight Story, you just never, never, catch her. She disappears completely. Just extraordinary."

Like her contemporary Jessica Lange, Spacek's signature style might stem from her escape from the Hollywood machine at just the right moment to focus on family rather than career. In the late 1980s, both trailblazing actresses eschewed a life of constant schmoozing, parties and industry wags, preferring instead to escape to ranches and farm countries far, far away from the conventional systems of movie making. Both women put their young families first, careers second, as women of all vocations can no doubt empathize with . Perhaps in suppressing any urge to become marquee forces, they both inadvertently became not only movie stars; but truly great actresses, aided by the positive familial influences that nurtured their natural artistic abilities. Admirably, Lange with artist Sam Shepard, and Spacek with art director Jack Fisk (most recently Oscar-nominated for There Will be Blood) have both remained highly productive artists and activists, working on their own terms and defining their public and private roles in remarkable ways in the face of rampant ageism and sexism in a traditionally male-dominated and male-friendly industry.

Spacek, whose film and television work now spans four decades, has worked alongside such luminaries as Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Tommy Lee Jones, Diane Keaton, Jack Lemmon, Whoopi Goldberg, Oliver Stone, and David Lynch. In her ground-breaking acting career, she has confronted such thorny cinematic and real life issues such as AIDS, abortion, suicide, teenage alienation, stardom, bullying, civil rights, sibling rivalry, motherhood, feminine identity, murder, and political corruption both stateside and internationally. All of this work has been accomplished while remaining true to her own artistic impulses, successfully juggling a career and family, and constantly, remarkably challenging the public's perception of her as a performer.

It is with tremendous excitement that PopMatters shines the first-ever Performer Spotlight onto Sissy Spacek, a true revolutionary, a living legend and a completely cool lady who just so happens to have eyes that are so expressive they rival Bette Davis' legendary gaze in terms of just sheer impact. It turns out, at least in Spacek's case, sometimes "it" actually can be "all in the eyes."

-- Matt Mazur

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