BEST ACTRESS 1986: SISSY SPACEK IN "CRIMES OF THE HEART"
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
In “Badlands”, Sissy Spacek played a sort of voluntary social misfit, a fulfillment of the ‘lost girl’ persona, and, here, she’s essentially playing the same kind of archetype – she’s Babe, the youngest Magrath sister, a character who’s just as socially deviant as Spacek’s Holly Sargis. Beresford's filming of "Crimes of the Heart" happens to be incredibly divisive, but I fall on the side of those who really love it – there’s something musical about the way these three actresses interact. They’ve managed to completely disappear into the script’s fabric, something that’s so difficult to do considering their star personalities, and, though they don’t look like sisters, they're still able to create a legitimate sense of commune. There’s a gossipy sense of familial structure that bubbles when they're communicating, and none of these actresses tries to upstage the other; they modulate and balance each other out, creating a sort of rhythm through their girlish, run-of-the-mill candor. The three sisters are a collection of problems, each representing a different side of Southern female wiles – and, here, Spacek might just have the flashiest storyline of them all. We first meet her when she’s being released from jail; later, we learn that she’s just shot her abusive politico husband, who discovered she’d been having an affair with an underage African-American boy. But you couldn’t tell that she’s got any trouble at all by the way she click-clacks her bubble gum as she exits her jail cell, complete with carefree, aloof noncomformity, as if she’s too deluded to see anything wrong in what she’s done.
Indeed, that’s essentially the kind of woman Babe is – Emanuel Levy has likened Sissy’s Babe to Carroll Baker’s child-bride in “Baby Doll”, and that comparison couldn’t be more fitting; they’re both twisted Southern Belles who are precociously carnal, with a sort of cloying naïveté about them that’s numbed by this hypersexual, Lolitaesque charm. Spacek’s attacked this role with such offbeat, free-form moxie that her spirit alone becomes enough to draw us to Babe’s story. That bedraggled, unruly hair she had in “Missing” has become free-falling and loose, a helmet of golden-brown hair that's always dangling in front of her left eye; there’s an intensely fluid, easy beauty about her that Spacek's seldom had in other films. She’s playing the kind of unruly girl who does wrong but doesn’t really see the harm in it, the one who’s never really been able to let go of that childhood fantasy of becoming ‘known’, and Spacek’s light is so radiant that we can feel how much others, like Keaton’s Lenny, feel sort of perturbed by Babe’s almost instinctive tendency to hog the spotlight. Spacek’s really got a sort of citric luminosity about her here that works wonders – her usual girlish radiance, a quality she had in full tow as Loretta Lynn, has now been infused with a devilish, ripe appetite for sex that makes her a sort of zesty child-woman, stuck in this middle ground between adolescent mores and adult desires.
And I think that’s what really works about Spacek here – she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Henley’s material is paper-thin, but Spacek’s so screwballishly offbeat that she makes us think Flannery O’Connor could’ve written this; she’s never so earnest that her performance becomes miscalculated. She treats this like a real black comedy, attacking each one of her scenes with her impish half-smile that masks a deeper, more complex inability to make sense of something she hasn’t ever been able to understand. Indeed, what Spacek does best is convey that Beth’s whole lifestyle has revolved around her inability to cope with her mother’s suicide, something that happened so early on in her life that she still can’t really come to terms with it. She’s stuck in a time warp of teenage sensibilities, and her coping mechanism is this flirtatious, coquettish lifestyle she’s taken on; she feels trapped.
Still, for all the dizzying freeness Spacek’s able to convey with one roll of her eyes, it’s difficult to really speak at length about her work here when there’s another performance that’s got so much emotional immediacy and tragedy right in front of our eyes. Spacek’s intensely comical, yes – I can't forget that image of her suicidally thrashing about the house with lamps dangling from her neck – but she isn’t the bundle of warped, tangling neuroses Keaton’s Lenny is. Pauline Kael was right to single out Keaton’s performance as best in show – people don’t give her enough credit for what she does here. Every single one of her line readings has that magical quality of seeming both earth-shatteringly funny and heartbreakingly tragic. Keaton moved me to my fucking soul – it’s her Lenny who gives this film some sort of deep, emotional vibration. It’s impossible for me not to sympathize with that frump-a-lump, slovenly spinster dressed in her grandmother’s clothes – Keaton’s a twiddling, bumbling fuss of nerves. Next to Keaton, Spacek’s achievement seems light. Some of her readings, too, are a little too ‘set’ for screen acting – this is most evident in her lemonade monologue, where it’s obvious she’s reciting lines from a play; it’s a very ‘actorly’ performance. But no matter – this woman’s supposed to be larger than life, anyway, always intent on giving a performance of her own. Spacek maneuvers the machinations of this plot with an almost surprising ease; who knew she had this kind of comic talent? She’s got so much electricity here as Babe that her nasal drips and lippish pouts lift this film to a place higher than it should be – she’s having fun with this material, and we have fun, too.