Transforming Herself

Sissy Spacek's Most Memorable Movies

Spacek won an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in <i>Coal Miner's Daughter.</i>
Spacek won an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter.


D: Terrence Malick (1973); with Sissy Spacek, Martin Sheen, Warren Oates.

Perhaps the most naive Sissy ever -- her character, Holly, is a blank slate with no past and no future. Like Bonnie Parker waiting for her Clyde, Holly is swept away by the expansive charms of Kit Carruthers (Sheen), but she could have just as easily been swept away by a toy or a new dress. Like a talking parrot regurgitating the Tao of Kit, Holly is deeply impressed by the attention her new boyfriend is giving her. Sissy adds a plaintive quality to Holly that creates sympathy for her -- and she needs all the sympathy she can get. She is a disassociated and disturbed young woman who virtually stands around while Kit murders her father (Oates) in front of her and then burns the house down. The fire sequence is a masterpiece of filmmaking, and it is evident that the house is not the only thing being destroyed. Then the pair is off on a spree of senseless killings. Kit is the triggerman, but Holly's guilt in the crimes is not only by association, it is also by omission -- it's what she does not do that makes the crimes so horrific. The cinematography (by Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, and Brian Probyn) is breathtaking. As lusciously beautiful as Malick's The Thin Red Line but without the pretense, Badlands awes us with visions of purple mountains' majesty and closeups so tight you can almost see the leaves changing color. The forest that shelters Kit and Holly's primitive hideaway comes alive when they are invaded, seeming to whisper its urgent warnings. Winning many European awards, including the British Academy Award for Best Newcomer for Sissy, Badlands continues to cast a strong spell.


D: Brian De Palma (1976); with Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, John Travolta, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen.

Here's Sissy pole-vaulting into immortality by playing the avenging angel of oppressed and abused teenagers everywhere. After being referenced and spoofed in dozens of other films, Carrie holds up as a camp classic 25 years later. It is a spectacular production that radically upped the ante for future teen-scream horror fests. As the socially awkward -- but secretly powerful! -- Carrie White, Spacek plays her character with a sincerity that is heartbreaking. When, as part of a vengeful joke, she is elected Prom Queen and doused with a bucket of pig's blood, her telekinetic powers go wild. And everybody pays. De Palma takes us on a wild visual ride, with spectacular cinematography courtesy of Mario Tosi. The opening sequence in the girls' locker room is as dreamy and erotic as an odalisque painting by Ingres, but it quickly devolves to one of the most distressingly graphic in all filmdom -- that of the menstruating Carrie on the floor of the shower being pelted with Kotexes while her classmates scream, "Plug it up! Plug it up!" The scene is only the first of many ugly surprises the film has up its sleeve. It is Sissy's stock-in-trade to play a character who has deep respect for, yet rebels against, her family -- often ignorant (but never stupid) white trash from a bad gene pool. In most films, Sissy ultimately rises above her upbringing and proves that a good heart will conquer all. Carrie is no exception, even though Sissy's character does not survive this one. It is the physical change from the impossibly freckled, nerd-waif into the vision of Seventies loveliness that enters into many of Sissy's portrayals, and Sissy expresses these changes in such a way that I find myself looking forward to them. She does not disappoint. Many scenes from Carrie have entered into the lexicon of film -- the famous bucket of blood falling in slow motion sets off the ugly chain of events ending in mayhem that has seldom been portrayed more shatteringly than the conflagration at the prom. The split-screen recording of the bloodbath at the end, cutting away all sound except for the dripping of blood, is magnificent. As quotable as Valley of the Dolls and All About Eve ("I should have killed myself after the first time he put it in me." "They're all gonna laugh at you!" "I can see your dirty pillows." "Take off the dress, we'll burn it together and pray for forgiveness."), Carrie will live -- and die -- forever.


D: Michael Apted (1980); with Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D'Angelo, Levon Helm.

Coal Miner's Daughter is one of the best screen bios ever, based on the book of the same name by Loretta Lynn. Sissy knocks 'em dead and received a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of the country bumpkin turned country music star. Director Apted's clear vision of the story magnifies his ability to show a more primitive life (see also Gorillas in the Mist and Nell), and Ralf D. Bode's moody cinematography perfectly captures Loretta's Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, upbringing, a place where 13 is not too young to get married and the coal dust and poverty-stricken conditions guarantee that life will be short. Along comes the brash and determined Doolittle "Mooney" Lynn (Jones), confounding the parents and sweeping Loretta off her feet. Jones plays the character as a hot-headed and directionless young man who comes to believe that his wife may be a talented singer. His life's purpose becomes clear, and he makes Loretta his career. It is impossible to cover Lynn's entire life and career in two hours, and important details are sometimes necessarily dispensed with. But, again, we get to watch Sissy reinvent herself before our very eyes. She takes Loretta from being the ill-nourished daughter of a coal miner to being the glorious "First Lady of Country Music." D'Angelo is the seminal Patsy Cline -- brassy and tender, and her brief turn in this film is everything that Sweet Dreams with Jessica Lange should have been but wasn't. The soundtrack was a smash hit, and Spacek and D'Angelo are remarkable for doing their own singing, which helps in securing the film's place as a top tribute. Of the bio genre, there are few that compare to this film. Lady Sings the Blues, Your Cheatin' Heart, and La Bamba are nice tries, but only The Buddy Holly Story comes as close to capturing the true essence of the subject. In the Country Queen realm, television's Stand by Your Man [1981], the story of Tammy Wynette, starring Annette O'Toole, did a stand-up job of telling Wynette's story, but O'Toole's fine performance aside, the production values simply don't hold a candle to Coal Miner's Daughter.


D: Jack Fisk (1976); with Sissy Spacek, Eric Roberts, Sam Shepard, William Sanderson.

This is one of Sissy's finest -- yet most underrated -- performances, directed by her husband Jack Fisk in a gripping and suspenseful film written by Bill Wittliff (The Perfect Storm, Lonesome Dove). This is Fisk's debut as director, but as a former art director, he creates beauty with his attention to detail and as Spacek's husband, he takes the kind of care that only a director in love with his leading lady can. Sissy plays a telephone operator in a small Texas town during World War II, raising her two boys and keeping to herself. While fending off the frightening attentions of a couple of the local yokels, she causes a great deal of consternation by taking up with a sailor (Roberts) passing through. He is handsome and loving and bonds with her children, but the story takes many turns before its shattering conclusion. A terrific but neglected movie, it is a magnificent showcase for Sissy's talent.


D: Roger Donaldson (1985); with Sissy Spacek, Jeff Daniels, Morgan Freeman, Keith Szarabajka.

Long before Erin Brockovich tried on her first WonderBra, we had Marie Ragghianti -- a true-life character, the kind Sissy was born to play. The odds are against Marie, who escapes from her violent husband and betters herself, but she has no choice but to survive. Through dint of hard work and perseverance (while returning to school, she is also single-handedly raising her children, one of whom is chronically ill), she climbs the political ladder in Tennessee. Eventually she winds up as director of parole. But two stories are being told about the same person -- one, of a woman searching for a cure for her little boy's mysterious illness, and the other, of a woman who discovers graft and corruption within the Parole Board. They are very different stories, and possibly should have been two separate movies -- but Sissy, as usual, revels in the multiple afflictions cast upon her character and is triumphant. "I promise you, this is not the worst thing I've ever lived through," Marie tells the investigators who are determined to destroy her credibility, and Sissy is one of the few actresses alive who can utter a line like that and make you believe it.


D: Richard Pearce (1990); with Sissy Spacek, Whoopi Goldberg, Dwight Schultz, Ving Rhames, with narration by Mary Steenburgen.

Sissy plays a sophisticated, mature woman in this tender and touching film, written by John Cork, that revolves around the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. As Miriam Thompson, Sissy is the well-to-do wife of a city official whose busy life ("I'll be at the beauty parlor this morning, then there's a club luncheon, then I have this Junior League thing this afternoon") is inconveniently affected when her maid Odessa (Goldberg) supports the boycott and occasionally shows up late for work. Goldberg, a talented actress who plays herself a little too often to be taken seriously, is superb in a role that has very few lines. She lets her expressions (or lack thereof) do the work for her, and she is wholly believable as the maid who takes care of Miriam's family and then must make the long walk home to take care of her own. The character studies of Miriam and Odessa are overlooked gems in both actresses' careers, and it becomes apparent that the struggle is not just against racism, but also for feminism. We are treated to a classic performance by Sissy. The art direction by Margery Z. Gabrielson is also one of the stars of this film, with amazing attention to period details. Supporting roles are extremely well cast. Sissy's daughter Schuyler, who is already a veteran actress at 18, can be briefly glimpsed in her first film appearance as the daughter's friend in the park scene. The Long Walk Home is always elegant but not always pretty, and it commands the viewer's attention -- like a picture postcard from another era arriving decades too late.


D: David Lynch (1999); with Sissy Spacek, Richard Farnsworth, Everett McGill, Harry Dean Stanton.

The box from the video store read, "Also recommended: Spitfire Grill, Fried Green Tomatoes, and On Golden Pond." But if you've seen those, you've seen this. And if you like those (and I do), you'll like this. This is not really Sissy's story, though -- it belongs to Richard Farnsworth, who died last fall. The Straight Story is an unexpected turn by director Lynch (Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart), lacking any of the irony and surrealism he usually thrives on. A gorgeous score emphasizes the endless sweeping shots of America the Beautiful, with the attendant spacious skies and amber waves of grain. This is the backdrop for the story of Alvin Straight (Farnsworth), who, for a variety of reasons, decides to drive his lawnmower more than 300 miles to see his brother. It is a true story, and you know right off the bat that this is going to be a tearjerker -- Alvin is increasingly infirm at 73 and learns that his estranged brother has had a stroke. He lives with his daughter Rose (Spacek), who is "slow." At this point in her career, Sissy could simply rest on her laurels and still be hailed as a major actress entering her fourth decade of moviemaking. But in The Straight Story, she is more mature than ever, playing a minor, but unforgettable, character. The reunion between the elderly brothers looms large throughout the last half. As snapshot-like vignettes spin by, we are propelled toward the inevitable meeting, which promises to be a gusher -- but isn't. Though it ends rather abruptly when Alvin shows up at his brother's place six weeks later, the story has been told, gloriously. end story

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