I was out of town for the weekend. In point of fact, I stopped for an hour or two in the town of North Bend, Washington. Current population 7461. It’s not hard to believe that, thirty-odd years ago, it would’ve had a population of 5120. (According to the Access Guide to a certain town, the one at the end is a decimal error and the town’s population is not 51, 201. Meaning there’s one-tenth of a person there somewhere?) I stood at the scenic overlook of Snoqualmie Falls and teared up a little for being there and had dinner in a diner with a memorable sign. And, yes, I thought of Piper Laurie.
I had seen Piper Laurie in something—in the theatre, even—before she was Catherine Martell, of course. She was Aunt Em in Return to Oz. I probably saw her on Murder, She Wrote. I don’t think I’d seen Carrie—it seems unlikely—and I don’t know if I saw any of her old stuff from the ‘50s. But it doesn’t matter, because once she was Catherine, she was Catherine for good and always. I’m honestly not sure she’d mind, because Catherine Martell was a spectacular character.
In real life, Piper Laurie suffered from the same problem as any number of starlets. She was known for being young and pretty, and if she could act, nobody cared. She herself lamented it, and she said that, had she stayed in Hollywood in those years, she would’ve killed herself or someone would have done it for her. She did a lot of stage acting, and she was damn good at it. Apparently she played Lady Macbeth, and that’s not at all difficult to picture. No, it wasn’t difficult to imagine her as someone who had been as beautiful as all the other women of the town of Twin Peaks in her youth, but what really struck you about her was her outsized personality.
For many people, it was her comeback in Carrie that did it. She actually seems to have believed the role was intended to be comedic because it was so overblown; that’s one of my problems with the movie, as it happens. Laurie did her best as that particular brand of religious lunatic, and you could definitely believe that living with her would warp a girl, but she was doing her best with a script that seemed determined to make her laughable. It was just hard to laugh at her.
Hollywood is hard on a young woman. Her first movie was 1950’s Louisa. She played the title character’s granddaughter. Her father was played by Ronald Reagan, then 39. Laurie was eighteen. According to her autobiography, she lost her virginity to him. Clearly, even before Twin Peaks and Carrie, she knew a thing or two about exploited young women.