Film

"Good Country People": Mid-Period Sissy Spacek and Middle America

Hugh Burkhart

In her second decade in the film business, Sissy Spacek could be found in mile-high brunette wigs singing at the Grand Ole Opry, working opposite some of the most celebrated men and women in film history, and of course, front and center at the Academy Awards.

“It takes all kinds to make the world.”

“I always said it did myself.”

-- Flannery O’Connor, Good Country People

Sissy Spacek’s transition from the '70s to the '80s is much like the change from post-Watergate malaise America to the back-to-the-heartland values nostalgia of the Reagan era. By the end of the '70s, Sissy Spacek had built a reputation putting in intriguing performances in films by some of the decade’s finest directors – Terrence Malick (Badlands), Robert Altman (3 Women) and Brian DePalma (Carrie). These diverse works share the broad theme of ‘women in trouble,’ featuring characters at once vulnerable and menacing. In an era which saw a strong feminist movement and the imprisonment of the largely female members of the Manson family, guileless and lovestruck Holly in Badlands, childlike yet devious Pinky Rose in 3 Women, and the abused, psychically gifted Carrie each serve as disturbing studies in femininity.

Like characters from Flannery O’Connor stories, they ride a line between the commonplace and the grotesque. Much of the success of these films owes to the unique style of their directors – Malick’s use of ponderous narration over lengthy shots of the Midwestern landscape, Altman’s cinematic dreamscape, DePalma’s manipulative splitscreen horror. Spacek’s eighties output, however, saw her give outstanding performances not outshined by cinematic mastery, but rather standing out in the work of competent craftsmen. Many of the roles themselves also express a quieter kind of grace that seems more indicative of the people from the mid-American states Spacek portrays. Yet as the early '80s optimism gave way to economic recession and tough times for family farms, her roles again reflected turbulent social undercurrents.

With 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, Spacek earned her second Oscar nomination and, eventually, the award for that year. Unlike Altman’s Nashville, which critiques American nationalism and populist culture head on – albeit with bravura musical performances by Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson, and Ronnee Blakley – Coal Miner’s Daughter is a standard rags to riches biopic set apart largely by the lead actress’ transformative performance. Spacek is as convincing as the naïve teenage bride Loretta Webb as she is the young harried mother of Doolittle Lynn’s children and the darling of Nashville. She asked to perform all the musical numbers herself, garnering a Grammy nomination for her contributions to the film’s soundtrack. The film was directed by Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist and The World is Not Enough). It tracks the arc from Doolittle giving Loretta a guitar as an anniversary present to her first Grand Ole Opry appearance rather briefly, but Spacek is captivating as a housewife plucking out her first awkward chords. Although arguably conventional in cinematic approach, with a tendency towards the melodrama so common to country songs, the movie is grounded by Spacek’s uncannily naturalistic portrayal of Lynn as she conveys everything from the raw emotion of a child bride losing her virginity on her wedding night to a stalwart musical industry veteran performing country tunes and struggling with the demands of fame.

Raggedy Man

Spacek followed up Coal Miner’s Daughter with Heart Beat, a now little-mentioned film about the Beat generation based on the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady. With everybody watching for her post-Oscar move, the actress then chose to star in Raggedy Man, a film set in small town Texas that can be grouped alongside a series of films taking place in rural America and starring some of the most prominent actresses from the 1980s, such as Jessica Lange in Country and Sally Field in Places in the Heart. Spacek would star in a number of such films herself, but in the eloquent Raggedy Man, she plays a divorcee trying to earn a living and raise two sons during World War II while under the watchful and prying eyes of judgmental townsfolk. This beautifully photographed, elegiac film, directed by Spacek’s husband, Jack Fisk, successfully captures wartime America and rural life. Spacek’s acting is noteworthy, especially in scenes with Eric Roberts as the young sailor who briefly becomes her lover. She earned a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress (Drama) for her performance.

Missing

The next year she played the wife of American journalist Charles Horman, one of the victims of the US-backed Chilean coup of 1973, in Missing. She received her third Oscar nomination for the movie, in which she starred alongside Jack Lemmon, who played Horman’s father. Tautly directed by Costa-Gavras, no stranger to political thrillers (Z and Music Box), the Cannes-sanctioned, Palme d’Or winning Missing is perhaps best known for its controversial, hotly charged political subject matter. Indeed, with its depiction of moral outrage over American involvement in the coup by Augusto Pinochet, the film is somewhat anomalous amongst Spacek’s films of this period, set as it is during a time particularly marked by unscrupulous American diplomatic adventures. Regardless, Spacek once again displayed her versatility playing the idealistic liberal to her more conservative father-in-law. After this film, Spacek and Fisk began spending more time at the Virginia farm they had purchased in the late '70s.

Director Mark Rydell has stated that he cast Sissy Spacek in 1984’s The River both because of her portrayal of Loretta Lynn and her actual life in rural Virginia. Unfortunately, this film is often unfavorably compared to the previously-mentioned films starring Jessica Lange and Sally Field. All three actresses received Oscar nominations for their roles, but The River suffered by the comparisons, because it was the last of three “‘save the farm’ movies” (as dubbed by Roger Ebert) released that year. The River is about a Tennessee farm family struggling with the threat of foreclosure. The husband, played by Mel Gibson, works in Alabama as a strike-breaking steelworker to make ends meet while fighting to keep the farm from purchase and redevelopment as a dam. Rydell (best known for The Rose and On Golden Pond), directs capably, and even though Spacek is as credible in the film as in her previous efforts that decade, the Oscar still went to Field. The film itself, an argument against US agricultural policies of the 1970s and '80s, is simply not as convincing as the other two. So, despite another strong performance by Sissy Spacek, it is rarely held up alongside her other work. Nevertheless, as if heeding the dictum of her onscreen husband played by Tommy Lee Jones in Coal Miner’s Daughter – “Successful people don’t quit, baby” – she starred in a rapid succession of movies, four in total released in 1985 and 1986.

The two most prominent of her mid-'80s films are each adaptations of Pulitzer Prize winning plays. In ‘night, Mother, slated for long overdue DVD release the summer of 2010, she plays Jessie Cates, a middle-aged woman living with her mother (played by Oscar-winning legend Anne Bancroft) who decides she is going to commit suicide. Though the film did not receive the same praise as the stage production, Spacek is captivating in dark contact lenses and greased back ponytail as the woman who coolly decides she will barricade herself in her room in the evening and shoot herself, even as she goes about doing the day’s household chores.

Crimes of the Heart

That same year, Spacek received Golden Globe, Kansas City Film Critics Circle, and New York Film Critics Circle Awards, as well as a fifth Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a woman who shoots her abusive husband in Crimes of the Heart. Again, this film was made by a director of solid reputation, Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy). Unlike Raggedy Man and The River, Crimes of the Heart is tempered by humor and manages to inject some raucous comedy into a story of Southern sisters dealing with abuse, infidelity, and suicide. If the comedy is not entirely successful, the Southern Gothic interplay between comedy and tragedy is elevated by the interaction between Spacek and the other two lead actresses, Diane Keaton and Lange. It turned out to be a strong final note for the decade and Spacek "retired" to her farm that year to raise her two daughters, Madison and Schuyler, with Fisk. She would not return to making movies until 1990, by which time she would have another challenge to contend with: navigating a career after 40, after choosing to walk away at the very height of her powers.

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