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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Sissy Spacek


“I’m drawn to ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, which is a big part of the human condition.” – Sissy Spacek

Known as one of the most influential Hollywood actors during the late 20th-century, Sissy Spacek catapulted to success following her starring role alongside Martin Sheen in Badlands from Terrence Malick. Since that moment in 1973, Spacek found herself among the Hollywood elite, quickly attracting the attention of directors such as Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Michael Apted and David Lynch.

Experiencing the tragic death of her 18-year-old brother in 1967, Spacek has since said that this event had a defining impact on the rest of her life, reporting to The Guardian that the moment made her fearless. Speaking to the British newspaper, Spacek stated: “I think it made me brave. Once you experience something like that, you’ve experienced the ultimate tragedy. And if you can continue, nothing else frightens you. That’s what I meant about it being rocket fuel—I was fearless in a way”. 

The Texas-born actor was born with the name Mary Elizabeth Spacek though adopted the name Sissy in reference to her childhood nickname, sparking her flourishing career into the 20th century. Spanning almost half a century, the career of Sissy Spacek is impressive and extensive, appearing in everything from big-budget, high concept films to smaller independent pictures; let’s take a look into the six most definitive films of her impressive career. 

Sissy Spacek’s six definitive films:

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

Deciding upon being a singer before she took up acting, Spacek released the single ‘John You Went Too Far This Time’ in 1968, four years before she would appear in her very first film, Prime Cut in 1972.

Such opened the door for Spacek to burst through into the industry, first taking to television before she received international plaudits for her role in Terrence Malick’s directorial debut, Badlands. Describing the role as the “most incredible” experience of her career in an interview with the BBC, Spacek took a starring role in the film as the naive young girl Holly, working alongside her hunk boyfriend, played by Martin Sheen to go on a crime spree across America. 

Malick’s Badlands would kick off a glittering decade of success for the young actor. 

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

Flirting with television after the success of Badlands, Spacek appeared in The Rookies and The Migrants as well as in the 1974 film Ginger in the Morning before her career-defining role in Brian De Palma’s Carrie.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Stephen King, Carrie saw Spacek play the titular role as a shy teenage girl who unleashes a fantastical evil when she is double-crossed by her adversaries. As fate would have it, Sissy was named homecoming queen at her senior prom at Quitman High School, giving reason to why her performance in the iconic film is quite so great. The image of Spacek’s character covered in blood has become an emblematic image of ‘70s horror. 

3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)

As one of the leading actors in the late 1970s, Spacek was sought after by some of the industry’s most prolific directors, none more so than Robert Altman who enlisted her help for 3 Women in 1977. 

Cast alongside the cultural icon Shelley Duvall as well as Janice Rule, Spacek was given a leading role as Pinky Rose, a shy teenager, similar to her role in Malick’s Badlands, who shares a strange relationship with her roommate, Mille (Duvall). Adding an unsettling sense of eeriness to the film, Spacek’s performance stood out in Altman’s iconic film, with the director adding, “She’s remarkable, one of the top actresses I’ve ever worked with” in conversation with Time magazine.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted, 1980)

Taking somewhat of a short hiatus from acting, Sissy appeared in Coal Miner’s Daughter three years after her work with Robert Altman, a film for which she would win a much-deserved Academy Award.

Having been nominated for the Leading Actress prize once before for Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Spacek rightfully took home the Oscar statuette in 1981 for her depiction of the fictional life of real-life singer Loretta Lynn, a girl who became a country music star in the 1960s and ‘70s. Widely praised for her performance, Spacek helped to bring the film to life and elevate Michael Apted’s project well beyond its rightful status. 

In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001)

Sissy Spacek’s career blossomed from the 1970s – 1980s though she continued to impress long after this period, starring in a wide number of eclectic roles including in The River and Crimes of the Heart through to the end of the 20th century. 

Though she may have passed her career limelight, the actor continued to work at the top of the industry, with the 2001 film In the Bedroom by Todd Field being her final Oscar-nominated performance to date. Featuring Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei and Karen Allen, Spacek stars as the mother of a teenager who finds himself in difficulty after engaging in a relationship with an older woman. Demonstrating Spacek’s ongoing dedication to deeply emotional dramatic roles, In the Bedroom would be her first major success of the new century.

The Old Man & The Gun (David Lowery, 2018)

Without the weight of performance from her previous career, Spacek’s career slowed down in the new millennium, featuring in sporadic TV and film roles as well as notable performances in Four Christmases The Help and The Old Man & The Gun from David Lowery

Starring with fellow cinematic icon Robert Redford, Spacek helped The Old Man & The Gun to receive widespread critical acclaim upon its release, marking the penultimate film of Redford who retired in 2019. Also featuring Tom Waits, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover and John David Washington, the story follows the real-life circumstances of Forrest Tucker, a man who escaped San Quentin prison and embarked on a series of heists that surprised the authorities and press. 

Whilst this is, in many ways, Redford’s last rodeo, Spacek also shows audiences why she remains so revered as an icon of Hollywood.