The surest bet in this year's Oscar race also is its biggest surprise. And that itself is something of a surprise. Sissy Spacek, after all, is a five-time Academy Award nominee and even has won the statuette before, for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter.
That was more than 20 years ago. In the decades since, Spacek has been ... well, she has been working, but not in stuff that's made much of a splash. Films like In the Bedroom, a textbook example of a modest, character-based production which, to everyone's astonishment, has captured the imaginations of discerning filmgoers.
It's Spacek's performance that is attracting most of the movie's awards-season accolades. She has dominated the lead actress field so far, winning top honors from the Los Angeles and New York film critics groups, the American Film Institute and the Golden Globe. Her name will surely be on the Oscar nominee list (as it is on the Screen Actors Guild's, see Page 3E) when it's revealed on Feb. 12.
"I'm thrilled to death, couldn't be happier," the petite, red-haired Spacek says in her signature Texas drawl. "Never, ever expected it. It never crossed my mind that something like this could happen for our little film."
In Spacek's case, it could hardly be more deserved, says her Bedroom co-star, actor Tom Wilkinson.
"She is a wonderfully well-respected actress," notes Wilkinson (The Full Monty; Shakespeare in Love). "She's a warm person, mature in the sense that she's a proper woman (and I've worked with people who are getting on, but they're still children), and she's wonderfully professional. She knows what she's doing; she knows what she wants; and she has very good instincts."
This is evident in every precise expression Spacek brings to her role. It can be argued that this is the most nuanced, carefully calibrated work she's done in a career ranging from the teen icons of Badlands (1973) and Carrie (1976) to the determined activists of Missing (1982) and The Long Walk Home (1990) and the unstable personalities in Night, Mother (1986) and The Straight Story (1999).
In the film, which is based on a short story by the late Andre Dubus, Spacek plays Ruth Fowler, a happily married suburban mother whose only worry is her only son's romance with an older, working-class divorcee. When Ruth's worst fears come to pass, the film becomes a tale of recrimination, vengeance and, most palpably, overwhelming grief.
"Grief is a very strange emotion," Spacek says. "Everybody grieves differently. Ruth's grief is so big that it's almost like it doesn't exist - 'Oh, I'm doing fine, everything's fine' - but she builds a wall around herself. Her grief is so raw, and she's afraid if she does open up to anyone, this tidal wave of emotion will just drown her and whoever's nearby. And that, in fact, is what happens."
As for the thoroughly convincing, old-marrieds aspect of the job, Spacek certainly had experience to draw on. She's been with her director/production designer husband, Jack Fisk, since 1974. The Fisks moved to a Virginia horse ranch in 1978, partially to get back to roots - Spacek grew up in tiny Quitman, Texas - and partly for
the sake of their daughters, Schuyler and Madison.
"My husband and I both started our careers early," she says. "We had all through our 20s and into our 30s to focus everything on our work. Then we had children, and we were in a position to really focus on our family and keep our careers going at the same time. "
Of course, kids being kids, the oldest girl has been itching to get out of Cowtown since she was knee-high. "She started at about 5," Spacek says, chuckling about Schuyler, currently the co-star of the teen comedy Orange County.
Will history repeat itself with younger Madison? "She is actually in a school play right now, The Music Man, " Spacek says. "She's most interested in her horses at this point, though."
While the awards of the last couple of months makes it a moot question, it's tempting to wonder if Spacek's career would have had a higher profile had she stayed in L.A. Uncharacteristically, she dismisses the thought outright.
"Every film that you make can't be a big hoo-hah," she says. "I don't do films because I think they're going to be a hit, I do a film if it's something I'm interested in. Being a star is nothing that I've ever really been after; what I've always wanted to be is a working actor."