The second person I wrote about for this column was Olivia de Havilland. One of the things that’s always irritated me about her career was how often she was the “plain” one. She wasn’t conventionally beautiful, I suppose, but she had a loveliness that was beyond that. The same is true of Sissy Spacek; arguably her most iconic role is as the mousy Carrie White. And my goodness but Spacek did a marvelous job at it, I’ll freely admit. But it did put her firmly in the “Hollywood plain” category, I think, and that’s a hard category to break out of.
We will start with Carrie, I think, because while I have problems with that movie, the casting of Spacek assuredly isn’t one of them. She is a perfect Carrie White in a lot of ways. (The fact that Spacek herself had been voted Homecoming Queen in her own senior year in high school is interesting but shows in fact a prominent difference between the two.) Spacek is so pale as to hardly be there, and Spacek plays the role turned inward as if afraid to be there, no matter where “there” is. In On Writing, Stephen King talked about the two girls from his high school who became Carrie White through the alchemy of writing, and I think they would know Spacek’s portrayal as their sister.
Even now, it’s not hard to see a little Carrie White when you look at Spacek, and the movie’s as old as I am. Similarly, I can look at her and see in her Holly of Badlands—the only Malick movie I really like, and in no small part because of her performance. She has Carrie’s waifishness, of course, because any number of directors have used that aspect of Spacek. But I think Malick used a bit of Spacek’s own Texas childhood in it. As did David Lynch, I think, many years later in The Straight Story.
She’s definitely one of those actresses who’s been in films I didn’t like and was not herself bad in them. I suspect her role in The Help was one of those that might’ve gone to Shirley MacLaine if it had been made earlier, and either one would’ve been fine, I guess, in a movie I really cannot stand. JFK is a movie I can’t stand that didn’t give her much to do, and she was fine, I guess, as yet another Hollywood Supportive Wife Type. As in, you can’t really say much about her performance because the movie doesn’t really give her enough for there to be one.
The fact is, though, she’s an extremely talented actress who doesn’t come up enough in discussions of extremely talented actresses. She’s been in a Best Picture nominee at least once a decade for almost her entire career. She herself won an Oscar for Best Actress for The Coal Miner’s Daughter, one of those biopics that really does cover decades of someone’s life—starting as a teenager—and not only does Spacek handle the entire age range without ever seeming completely ludicrous, but she sang her own songs. It’s probably one of the best performances in the history of the genre.