“I don’t even know who said it first, but the progression goes like this: At first the studio head says, ‘Get me Sissy Spacek!’ Then it becomes, ‘Get me a young Sissy Spacek!’ Then it’s ‘Sissy who?’ ”
News broke in March that Chloe Moretz (“Kick-Ass,” “Hugo”) will play the lead in a remake of “Carrie,” the 1976 shocker that made Spacek forever synonymous with prom queens drenched in pig’s blood. And a few weeks ago, Zooey Deschanel, eyelash-batting star of Fox’s “New Girl,” was tapped to portray Loretta Lynn in a Broadway musical production of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” based on the 1980 biopic that transformed Spacek into the country legend and won her an Academy Award for best actress.
This interest in revisiting roles once defined by Spacek confirms at least one thing: Clearly, we still haven’t reached the “Sissy who?” phase. And as “My Extraordinary Ordinary Life” demonstrates, we probably never will. In this refreshingly down-to-earth and often beautifully written book, Spacek, at 62, reminds us why she’s been a cinematic fixture for nearly four decades. She remains a disciplined actress with an unwavering passion for the artistic process.
Spacek spends more than a quarter of her book revisiting memories of her idyllic childhood in Quitman, Tex., a time of running barefoot on dusty trails, fishing with her brothers and spending 15 cents to see a matinee at the picture show. The descriptions of that period are so evocative that one can almost taste the sour stalks of goatweed she chewed on steamy summer afternoons. Sadly, the happy promise of those days dimmed when her older brother Robbie got leukemia and died at the age of 18, leaving a void that defined the choices the then-high-schooler made from that point forward. “For me,” she writes, “the grief was almost like rocket fuel. It made me fearless.”
That fearlessness translated into a decision to drop out of college, pursue a music career and eventually — with support from cousin Rip Torn and his then-wife, legendary thespian Geraldine Page — shift toward movie acting.
The projects that matter personally to Spacek are the ones she covers most extensively in these chapters. She spends much time on “Badlands,” the 1973 breakthrough film that paired her with Martin Sheen and director Terrence Malick, and introduced her to set designer Jack Fisk, now her husband of almost 40 years. And, of course, there is “Carrie,” an experience sometimes best described using icky adjectives. “At first the ‘blood’ felt like a warm blanket,” she writes of the movie’s famous prom scene, “but it quickly got sticky and disgusting. . . . When they lit the fires behind me to burn down the gym, I started to feel like a candy apple.”
Spacek has surely witnessed arrogant attitudes and diva behavior over her many years on movie sets, but you won’t hear about that here. The closest she gets to dishing dirt is a funny anecdote about how friend Bill Paxton inadvertently caused the demise of her beloved bird Twerp during a pet-sitting episode gone awry.
What ultimately emerges from all these remembrances — shaped with assistance from writer Maryanne Vollers — is a portrait of an earthy, no-nonsense woman who prefers black suits and reasonable heels; values her family above all else (she and Fisk have two grown daughters, Schuyler and Madison, in addition to an armada of pets); and cherishes the sublime normality of life on the farm just outside Charlottesville, Va., where her family set up home base in the early 1980s.
“I got the best compliment of my life from a carpenter and builder who was a mainstay of the community,” she says of one of her Blue Ridge Mountain neighbors. “ ‘Sissy Spacek?’ he told our friend Barclay. ‘Why she’s just as ordinary as an old bar of homemade soap.’ ”
A Hollywood star who takes pride in being compared to old soap? That truly is extraordinary.
Chaney writes about celebrities and pop culture for The Washington Post. Her blog can be found at washingtonpost.com/celebritology.