In a July, 1977 story for High Times, writer Eric Kibble profiled then-rising star Sissy Spacek for the “Culture Hero” column. In honor of Spacek’s birthday on December 25, we’re republishing it below.
According to a recent film popularity poll, Sissy Spacek is the promising young actress three-out-of-five American male moviegoers would most like to be shipwrecked on a desert island with. Women, too, find her performances haunting, enigmatic, adjective. Like a wildcat oil well, Sissy Spacek has bubbled out of her native Texas soil to become one of the motion picture world’s hottest box office attractions. Of course, she’s a better actress than Shirley Temple and Vanessa Redgrave put together and she seems to be related to half of Hollywood, but that alone cannot account for the viselike grip her wan and delicate personality has taken on America’s imagination. Who is Sissy Spacek, and why does she remind critics of Greta Garbo?
Like a magazine article, Sissy’s life is padded with facts, names and dates that seem to have little relation to the strangely driven, Lolita-like strawberry blonde critter we see on the screen. She was born in Quitman, in the Big Woods of Texas, out near Tyler and Longview, in 1952, the year Hill Gail won the Derby. The population of Quitman was 1,235—with Sissy, 1,237—and some dusty tumbleweeds blowing through the streets. Her mother’s family came over on the Mayflower; her father’s people were Czech-German immigrants who settled down in Central Texas and continued to speak Czech for three generations. “It was real ethnic,” Sissy later told fellow ex-Czech Andy Warhol. “Everyone spoke Czech.” Sissy’s cousin Rip Torn is Czech, though his wife Geraldine Page is not.
A stay with Rip and Geraldine in Hollywood gave Sissy a bite of the acting bug, and soon she was enrolled in Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio and Max’s Kansas City. There she met Holly Woodlawn, the Warhol superstar who helped Sissy get work singing on the soundtrack of Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys and hanging around as an extra in Warhol’s Trash. Unlike many Warhol alumni, Sissy survived the ordeal and received her first role in the Lee Marvin-Gene Hackman shoot-em-up Prime Cut. The critics began to sit and beg for more.
They got it in Badlands (1974), based on the epic tale of Fifties culture hero and mass-murderer Charlie Starkweather (Martin Sheen). As Starkweather’s tag-along girl friend, Sissy began to create a screen personality the world soon realized it had been waiting for—ambiguously innocent, obscurely threatening, and intensely expressive, in a vacant sort of way, of pretty much whatever hopes and fears the movie stirred in its viewers. That is what they call star quality.
Sissy laid back for awhile, learning the craft of set design from her husband Jack Fisk. That led to a chance meeting with director Brian de Palma, and the result was Carrie—that morbidly perfect reconstruction of a Fifties high school horror film, the dark side of American Graffiti, in which the lonely, out-of-it teenager is gifted with violent psychic powers to destroy her tormentors as millions of suffering adolescents have always longed to do. High school genre film buffs noted a spiritual kinship to Lord Love a Duck, where the 98-pound weakling sophomore (Roddy McDowall) learns to fly and dates Tuesday Weld. Sissy was on her way to becoming one of Hollywood’s gilded vessels of mass wish-fulfillment. There was talk of casting her as Wang Lung’s wife in a remake of The Good Earth.
Then came Pinky Rose, the schizophrenically shy and sadistic sex kitten in Three Women, based on a bad dream by Robert Altman. As the autistic amnesiac who cannot express her feelings in a simple sentence to Shelly Duvall’s vacuous soubrette, La Spacek plumbs the depths of catatonic narcissism. Director Robert Altman summed it up when he described her character as a “blank page” where the audience could write its own ticket to fantasy in this dreamlike, hallucinatory film. She seems to combine the two sides of film femininity that Duncan Fallowell discerned in Garbo and Marilyn Monroe when he wrote “In essence they were both vehicles for exactly the same force. Its effect was perfect presence, what occultists call ‘an unfractured aura.’ …. They both arrived complete from outer space with supremely effortless powers in the art of screen alchemy, complete naturals in an unnatural world. There is Garbo and there is Monroe. At this level there are no others.”
There is another one now, Sissy Spacek, a mutant with perfect presence. She can act but acting has nothing to do with it. Spacek is a spaced-out superstar from outer space, whose spaciness is a perfect mirror for minds bred on TV and dope. She is the dream we are all dreaming now, a ghost of meaning we can’t get our hands on. I wonder what she’d look like in a bathing suit.