Friday, December 7

What a Sissy

Who else could I be referring to other than Sissy Spacek?  This is one of filmdom's most reliable of actresses.  You can count on her to deliver the goods always.  Seeing her in a new movie is like seeing a longtime, dear friend again.  Don't you agree?  With no disrespect intended, she is rather un-movie star-looking.  I speak of male actors who have an everyman look; Sissy Spacek has an everywoman look. 

Her hair is usually gathered in a way that says I'd rather it be easy than complicated.  Her face is soft and caring.  It seems to say I will understand, you can count on me.  I'll bet when she looked over a crib at her young children, they felt safe and happy and loved.  She looks wise.  It looks like she's paid good attention to life.  And who could dismiss that glorious, welcoming smile?  When I heard she lived on a farm in Virginia, I thought of course she does.

She has been around a long time as an actress and she is still working.  In terms of Hollywood longevity, she's in a small group.  She has made a handful of movies that I think are absolutely wonderful.

She was born and raised in Texas and reminds me of the old chestnut you can get the girl out of Texas but you can't get the Texas out of the girl.  She is unquestionably the adult her parents wanted her to grow up to be.  She loved her folks and her two older brothers and has carried with her throughout her life their teachings.  Her memories, as outlined in her recent autobiography, are vivid and strong and part of her.  I have no doubt that she remains as much of a real person as a movie star can possibly manage.

Her idea was not to become an actress but rather a guitar-playing singer.  (It would be ok to start thinking Coal Miner's Daughter right now.)  Having mixed emotions about leaving Texas, she nonetheless journeyed to New York as a youngster and was fortunate enough to move in with a cousin who was in the entertainment business.  His name is Rip Torn.  He was married to the legendary Geraldine Page and together they helped guide their country cousin toward the goals she wanted to achieve.  And while Spacek did have some early opportunities with her singing and guitar-playing, it never provided enough green stuff to allow her to do anything other than pay close attention to the bills.

It wasn't long before she found herself in California where she landed in the Lee Marvin-Gene Hackman films Prime Cut.   The action did not center around her character nor was the film much lauded.  Then she met the man who would change her life forever more... Terence Malick.  He was directing his first film to be called Badlands.  It was based on the real-life exploits of Midwesterners Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.  She accompanied him on a murder spree.  Badlands is a fictionalized version but with dynamic performances by Spacek and Martin Sheen.

The film not only gave her a measure of fame but also a future husband (to this day), Jack Fisk, an art director who also had a knack for production design.  They quickly realized they were virtually the same person, soul mates if you will, and guided one another in work projects, among other things.

Spacek would become especially famous for two film roles and the first of those came up next... Carrie.  I never really much cared for the film (horror films are just generally not my cup of tea) but she and her friend Piper Laurie both did an excellent job. Spacek herself was a bit grossed out over the spilling of blood scene which, in turn, led to her powers for killing the pranksters who rigged it.

Spacek became hot, hot, hot in the early 80s and that began with the film for which she will forever be remembered... Coal Miner's Daughter.  In her book she told of how Loretta Lynn had been going around saying Spacek would play her before the actress had ever been approached.  Spacek at first balked at the role but ultimately took to it like a duck to water.  She would get to play the guitar and do her own singing, both enormous pluses for her. 

She would not only win a best actress Oscar for the role but just about every award that year that she could possibly be given.  It provided her with a nice friendship with costar Tommy Lee Jones and a terrific one with Miss Loretta herself.

Before the 80s were over there would come such roles as the companion to Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in Heart Beat, a young, single mother trying to make ends meet in Raggedy Man, as a farm wife in The River, as the wife of man who is Missing, a lonely woman finding love while visiting her hometown in Violets Are Blue, the hard-to-watch suicide movie, 'night Mother, and my favorite of the bunch, Crimes of the Heart.

Crimes of the Heart is not only my favorite movie of the bunch, it remains my favorite Sissy Spacek film.  Based on Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, three southern sisters are reunited when one of them shoots her husband.  It is a splendid comedy-drama (perhaps a little too far out for some) with Spacek giving an award worthy performance as the sister who did the shooting and Jessica Lange (ah...) and Diane Keaton as the sisters.

In the 90s The Grass Harp reunited Spacek with Piper Laurie (who played her mother in Carrie and her sister here) in a under-appreciated little gem that you should see if you already haven't.  Spacek has an unusual crusty, somewhat unlikeable role which she executes with precision.

In the 1990s and beyond I enjoyed her in JFK, The Straight Story, In the Bedroom, A Home at the End of the World and The Help.  She has lasted in the business for as long as she has, I think, primarily because she has accepted smaller roles and done a lot of television, both with mostly great success.  I don't think she was ever bad in a part although I have not cared for all of her films.

What I did not particularly care for was her recent autobiography... Sissy Spacek: My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, cowritten with Maryanne Vollers, published by Hyperion. Believe me when I say it kills me to have to speak unkindly of it because Spacek is a bit of a treasure to me.  Most bios would be the titles of my postings as I did with Piper Laurie and James Garner.  I elected not to do the same here because of not having much good to say about it.

Spacek dedicates the book to her family and it was a good choice because, for the most part, that's all the book was about.  All that would be fine if it were completely understood from the beginning that that's mostly what it's about.  And why is that not done?  Simple.  Because I would not buy it and those mentioned in the above paragraph know that.  But the upshot is that I always feel a little hoodwinked by such actions or lack thereof.

Most movie fans who read actor bios want to read about the movies the actor made.  It really is as simple as that.  What did you like about the film or not like.  How did you get on with your costars, director, cameraman, etc.  How did you get the role?  Did you like the end result?  You get the idea.  Go Hollywood, Girlfriend.  Sissy went Texas.  Oh she mentions a fair amount on Badlands, Carrie, Coal Miner's Daughter and just a dollop on a few more but there are many that she doesn't mention at all.  When I get that that's the road were going down, I want to throw the book in the trash.  After I finish it, I generally wish I had followed my first impulse.

Truth be told, about the only actor I want to know page after excruciating page of a childhood is Shirley Temple.  Spacek does, in fact, tell some tender and important things about her childhood, but she saunters into minutia.  For most people writing such things, one needs to know it's really only terribly interesting to those in your family.

Phew...!  Oh I feel so much better.  Bad thing for those of you reading this is you'll probably read it again in the future.  Maybe we could all band together and march down the streets of Beverly Hills warning actors to not write books full of childhood remembrances.  Zzzzzzzzz.

Not comfortable ending on that note, again I want to thank Spacek for bringing a down home earnestness to most of her roles.  By and large she was cast for her ability to do just that and she has succeeded most admirably.  Having last seen her in The Help, I can see she hasn't lost a smidgen of her enormous talent.

NEXT POSTING:  Mrs. Hughes

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