We consider the style and ideology of the award-winning actress who defies Hollywood stereotypes, and proves that looks can be deceiving
For forty years, Sissy Spacek has been breaking the mould. Through a career that took her from smalltown Texas to Warhol’s New York and 1970s Hollywood, her unflinching dedication to her craft has established her as a trailblazer in her field. At a time when actresses were often valued more for their sex appeal and glamour than their aptitude, Spacek used her talent and unique, corn-fed appearance to her artistic advantage. 20th century American cinema would look very different without her, and here we look at how her talent intersected with her iconic appearance.
From her breakthrough role in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, aged 24, Spacek’s looks became a twofold asset. While her peaches-and-cream complexion and strawlike long hair ensured she could play teenagers well into her 20s, her age and experience lent her a knowing innocence and deceptive naiveté. The jarring result of this? The frightening juxtaposition that came in the role of Carrie, the telekinetic high-school outcast, blood-soaked at the prom. While on the surface Spacek was a sweet, small-town Texas girl, on screen she could become something much deeper and more subversive.
Badlands was the first of three films Spacek made with top directors of the 1970s, including Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Robert Altman’s 3 Women. For Carrie, Spacek took the role to heart, letting her appearance go in order to tap into her character’s lack of self-esteem. “There's nothing like not washing your teeth or washing your face or brushing your teeth in the morning,” she said, showing her devotion. “I put Vaseline in my hair... That made me feel really bad about myself.” It was a little unexpected when she decided to take a break from acting at the end of that decade, moving to Topanga Canyon to pursue what she called “the art life.” Today she is settled with her family on a farm in rural Virginia, and there has long been a sense that Spacek represents something not readily acknowledged in American high art, the vast expanse of life that lies between the east and west coasts.
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Spacek’s early image, twirling a baton in denim shorts in Badlands, is still a source of inspiration for fashion designers channelling a certain kind of capricious purity, an all-American girlishness that disguises something more unsettling. Now with recent roles on TV shows like Bloodline and Big Love, it’s clear that Spacek has never bowed to the pressures of what an actress of 65 should or shouldn’t be. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine that someone so synonymous with girlhood in cinema could be so adept at playing grown women in later life. But maybe Spacek’s biggest talent lies in showing that genuine character, that thing we hope is deep down inside us all, knows no bounds.