Lost and found

The mir­a­cle of Sissy Spacek

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page -

Trou­bling news just in of a well-known comic in his early 30s, who ap­proached a friend of mine at a party and squinted at his T-shirt. “What does that say?” he asked. “S-I-S-S-Y S-P-A-C-E-K?” (It was one of those Girls on Tops-style af­fairs, with the name of a fe­male ac­tor or film-maker em­bla­zoned in cap­i­tal let­ters.) An ex­pla­na­tion, in­clud­ing the words “Car­rie” and “Bad­lands” and pos­si­bly “act­ing le­gend”, was forth­com­ing, but the baf­fled celebrity was none the wiser. Could it be that the mir­a­cle of Sissy Spacek has eluded an en­tire gen­er­a­tion?

Spacek’s pace has ad­mit­tedly slowed down in the past decade. Her last Os­car nom­i­na­tion was 16 years ago, for her per­for­mance as a griev­ing mother in the re­venge drama In the Bed­room. She was a reg­u­lar a few years back on Blood­line, a Net­flix smash full of noirish fore­bod­ing and corkscrew twists, in which she played Mum to bad boy Ben Men­del­sohn. And now she is in The Old Man & the Gun, AKA the Robert Red­ford Re­tire­ment Movie, where she shows off her flirt­ing abil­i­ties, her translu­cent and in­fin­itely freck­led skin, and even one of her own off-screen catch­phrases, “Keep on keepin’ on,” all the while seem­ing vaguely un­der­used.

Spacek’s char­ac­ter­is­tic pen­sive­ness is also on dis­play in the new film. She can be vividly in the mo­ment – think of her as the woman fight­ing to find her hus­band in Miss­ing, set dur­ing the 1973 Chilean coup d’état – but her de­fault set­ting is con­tem­pla­tion. Few ac­tors can look so fas­ci­nat­ing star­ing into space. As the coun­try and western singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daugh­ter, the film that won her the best ac­tress Os­car, she has plenty of rea­son to gaze into the mid­dle dis­tance, imag­in­ing a life that would lift her out of hard­ship. The Bri­tish di­rec­tor Michael Apted, who knew the value of pa­tience from his work on the sem­i­nal Up doc­u­men­tary se­ries, kept com­ing back to that face. You would of­fer more than a penny for her thoughts.

That was 1980. But she had been bril­liant right off the bat seven years ear­lier in Ter­rence Mal­ick’s de­but Bad­lands, an in­tox­i­cat­ingly lyri­cal real-life crime drama about a dopey killer, Kit (Mar­tin Sheen), and his teenage girl­friend, Holly, played by Spacek at her dreami­est and most dis­tracted. Char­ac­ter and ac­tor, both Texan, be­came fused at a molec­u­lar level. “Peo­ple who’ve worked with Terry ei­ther love him or hate him,” Spacek re­called. “I love him. We’d spend hours talk­ing about things, and then the next day I’d look at the rewrites, and there’d be all the things I told him.” She said she could twirl ba­tons and, sure enough, there it was in black and white the next day: “Holly twirls a ba­ton.”

Bad­lands was an in­ter­minable shoot, with the whim­si­cal Mal­ick prone to aban­don the day’s sched­ule when­ever he be­came dis­tracted by this sun­set or that river, tak­ing off to film over there in­stead. Crew mem­bers quit. (The movie has three cred­ited cin­e­matog­ra­phers.) But Spacek and the pro­duc­tion de­signer Jack Fisk stuck it out.

“I had a vested in­ter­est,” said Fisk. “I’d fallen in love with Sissy, so that also kept me go­ing.” (The cou­ple are still mar­ried.) Al­though her act­ing ca­reer was fully un­der­way, she could be found help­ing out on Fisk’s jobs: she held the clap­per­board on David Lynch’s Eraser­head and dec­o­rated sets on Brian De Palma’s gaudy hor­ror-com­edy Phan­tom of the Par­adise.

De Palma used her on Car­rie for more than just her knack with an un­der­coat. For her lu­mi­nous per­for­mance as the pale, ter­ri­fied school­girl wak­ing up to her ter­ri­fy­ing pow­ers, Spacek got the first of her six best ac­tress Os­car nom­i­na­tions. The con­torted poses she strikes dur­ing her tele­ki­netic episodes – like a mix of kabuki and vogu­ing – came from study­ing the dra­matic bib­li­cal draw­ings that formed part of her hus­band’s re­search for his pro­duc­tion de­sign on the film.

Her de­fault set­ting is con­tem­pla­tion. Few ac­tors can look so fas­ci­nat­ing star­ing into space

Car­rie marked the start of her celebrity but also an end of sorts. She could pass for a teenager un­til she was al­most 30 – she was 27 when she played Car­rie – but dur­ing the 1980s she grad­u­ated to adult roles, in­clud­ing a run of ru­ral dra­mas such as The River, Places in the Heart and the un­set­tling Raggedy Man. Even her small­est parts are com­prised of fine, ten­der brush­strokes: one of her best is as the shy, stam­mer­ing Rose in David Lynch’s The Straight Story. She doesn’t have more than 10 min­utes of screen­time, but her com­pas­sion and chim­ing sad­ness res­onate through­out the pic­ture.

Spacek can also be bliss­fully dotty. She pro­vides the voice of Anne Uumellma­haye, the brain with which Steve Mar­tin be­comes smit­ten in The Man With Two Brains (he takes her out on a row­boat and slaps a pair of wax lips on her jar). And she matches Christo­pher Walken quirk­for-quirk in Blast from the Past, where they play a cou­ple who have been holed up in a fall­out shel­ter for 35 years.

As ex­tra­or­di­nary as Bad­lands, Car­rie and Coal Miner’s Daugh­ter re­main, I would point the obliv­i­ous and the un­be­liev­ing in the di­rec­tion of the most spaced-out Spacek movie: Robert Alt­man’s eerie 3 Women. The film’s first half, with Spacek as the timid, im­pres­sion­able Pinky be­ing bossed around and jol­lied along by her gar­ru­lous room­mate (Shel­ley Du­vall), is the clos­est thing US cinema has pro­duced to a Mike Leigh-style com­edy of so­cial awk­ward­ness. In the sec­ond half, iden­ti­ties be­come blurred and ex­changed, and those of us pre­vi­ously re­as­sured by Spacek’s sweet­ness start to lose our bear­ings as the char­ac­ters lose their mar­bles. For all the havoc Car­rie wreaks, she is al­ways sym­pa­thetic; she only kills when cor­nered. But 3 Women, re­leased only a year later in 1977, hinted at parts of Spacek that might be un­know­able, even du­plic­i­tous. That face could never again seem purely placid.

With Kevin Cost­ner in JFK Car­rie With Mar­tin Sheen in Bad­lands Coal Miner’s Daugh­ter With Robert Red­ford in The Old Man & the Gun The Old Man & the Gun is on gen­eral re­lease

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