Sissy Spacek in the ’70s: The Brilliant Light at the End of the Time Tunnel

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

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.

Badlands

‘Carrie’ is a benchmark for many reasons

Carrie (1976) is a benchmark for many reasons — it introduced King to a more mainstream audience, turning him into the most successful horror author of all time. It announced DePalma as something more than a Hitchcock copycat, advocating his unusual stylistic choices (slow motion, split screen, revolving cameras) as pure postmodern magic. Most importantly, it delivered Spacek the kind of role which skyrocketed her right to the top of the A-list of up and comers. It was not a glamorous part: the first scene saw a gaunt, horrified Carrie coming to terms with womanhood (read — her first period) — and not responding well at all. With a reaction straight out of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (only scarier) and a handful of menstrual blood, she was the end of youth unhinged. The sordid reaction from her cruel classmates was more than a taunt. For Carrie, it would become a call to arms.

Struggle is a strong theme in DePalma’s version of King. Carrie wants to fit in, but her fundamentalist mother is too caught up in Jesus to provide anything other than punishment. Like a terrified tabula rosa, this teen is ready to be filled up with whatever helps her cop. Enter the supernatural. While it represents many things within the dominion of this darkly direct film — feminine power, sexual awakening, social status, reproductive rights — it’s really just the source of potential authority for a young girl who need something, anything, in order to survive. At first, Carrie only uses the newly discovered “curse” to experiment and quiet detractors. But at that fateful prom, when a bucket of pig’s blood destroys an equally unsettling showing of acceptance, Spacek unleashes the very vengeance of Satan himself — and it’s not a pretty sight.

Carrie

Forget the rest of the movie — though our star shines so brightly most of the time that we easily recognize that Carrie is a beauty buried inside a sack cloth dress and dour self-image — the real standout moment is the instant Spacek turns on the splatter spook show. Head doused in the arterial spray of a dead animal and her mouth mounting a grimace that could corrupt a demon’s very soul, Carrie delivers the kind of payback most of her classmates deserve. As firehouses douse the victims with electricity conducive water and basketball backboards cut “concerned” teachers in half, Spacek stands almost motionless, her eyes locked in a psychotic frenzy of abject hate. Her plaque of destruction is focused and dispassionate. It leaves few in its wake, and even those not directly affected feel the repercussions in their uneasy sleep.

With her newfound profile came an equal level of professional recognition. Betty Buckley, her costar in the film, described the travails of this particular shoot and its effect on Spacek in a recent exclusive interview for this series: “For Sissy, of course, it was the whole prom sequence, being covered in that blood day in and day out. It was a combination of molasses and syrup and was just a real sticky concoction. That could not have been comfortable, it was really uncomfortable as a matter of fact. She was a little warrior. She never complained. I didn’t envy her having to endure that, all those weeks.” DePalma himself would describe Spacek as “a phantom” with a “mysterious way of slipping into a part, letting it take over her.” Such a peculiar talent paid off when she earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. For someone supposedly “slumming” in a genre film, the recognition was more than satisfactory.

Carrie

Of course, she wasn’t content to simply set back and collect praise. “There’s a real danger in trying to stay king of the mountain. You stop taking risks, you stop being as creative, because you’re trying to maintain a position,” she once said. “Apart from anything else that really takes the fun out of it.” The final movie for the ’70s Spacek would come to epitomize and encapsulate everything she had accomplished previously. After a one-off stint with his protege, Alan Rudolph, as a topless housekeeper in Welcome to L.A. (1976), motion picture maverick Robert Altman tapped the star for his ambiguous, ambivalent classic 3 Women. Set in a small desert community outside of Los Angeles, it featured Spacek as Pinky Rose, a remote runaway who accidentally storms into the ordered existence of confident single gal Millie Lammoreaux. As essayed by Shelley Duvall, this Mary Tyler Moore of the fringes fancies herself a thoroughly modern gal — gourmet cook (though she mostly modifies store bought foodstuffs), a magnet for men (though most pity rather than proposition her), and a viable cog in her employer’s rehab facility machinery.

Pinky uproots and then usurps all of this, at first becoming Millie’s roommate, then her double, then her doppelganger, and then her deranged “other”. Spacek sinks her mighty teeth into the turn, offering up a portrait of possible malevolence veiled in wide-eyed naiveté unseen before — or since. As usual, we feel bad for Pinky… at least, at first. She seems completely directionless and frighteningly unschooled in the ways of the world. Millie’s maternal instincts trick her into letting this pathetic poltergeist into her poolside apartment lifestyle. Before long, Pinky is stealing her ideas, mining her diary for decisions, and corrupting the proposed order her weekly ingestion of Better Homes and Gardens authorizes.

In 3 Women (1976), Millie may be the dreamer, but Pinky rapidly becomes her worst nightmare. Unapologetic in her theft, the outrageousness of her acts is countermanded perfectly by how Spacek crafts them. Her character is such a cipher, such an unknown quantity, that the inherent skills that the actress brings to every role begin our process of identification. When Pinky starts acting odd, when it looks like she’s more serial killer than silly little girl, we still can’t buy the belief. This is not the Spacek we know, not even the murderous prom queen with her hair matted in hog grue. This is a more calculated and cold persona, one more closely resembling the death denying wistfulness of Badland‘s Holly. As she flirts and propositions, angers and insults, Pinky straddles the border between likable and loathsome. Thanks to Altman, and his choice of star, we never quite learn to hate her. We want to, but somehow just can’t.

3 Women

As an overview of the feminine/feminist aura, as a quantified statement of women’s liberation, rights, and equality, 3 Women is a marvel. It’s a manifestation of Altman’s undying love for his subject, supplanted by performances that argue for something much deeper, something more deceptive. Spacek in particular is so clever in her wide-eyed wickedness, so brazen in her no holds barred appropriation of Duvall’s inner fantasy that the resulting implosion is practically nuclear in its fallout. By the end, when the title characters have come together to form the parts of a whole person, we understand Altman’s overall approach. His argument is simple — no one individual can represent an entire population. It takes many pieces to perfect the puzzle that is a woman, and in the image of Spacek’s scared, stealthy usurper, we get insecurity explored and freshly found confidence exploited.

In a time of EST, of self help and “needing space”, the work that this actress accomplished in the ’70s remains a true testament to where gender was, went, and would be. From Poppy’s helplessness to Carrie’s craven payback, Holly’s overtly romantic notions of the world to Pinky’s sense of entitlement, Spacek spanned the entire psycho-social-sexual experience of the decade, filtering it through her slight frame and fascinating open facade. It would be these and other inherent traits (like her marvelous singing voice) she’d trade on during the latter part of her career, finally earning an Oscar for her work in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). But they would also limit her choices, relegating her to an inappropriate symbol. When Peace and Love gave way to cynicism and selfishness, Sissy Spacek was there to put things in perspective. Though the time would change again, she always remained the same — survivor, savant, and starlight.

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