Sissy Spacek in the '70s: The Brilliant Light at the End of the Time Tunnel
No actress better epitomized the '70s than Sissy Spacek. She stands as the Me Decade personified, a beautiful if brutal, fragile yet ferocious combination of survivor, savant, and starlight.
'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.
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.
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.
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.