In the daily Oscar Horrors series we're looking at those rare Oscar nominations for horror movies. Happy Halloween from Team Film Experience.
Here lies… Sissy Spacek’s Oscar for Best Actress in Carrie (1976). Carrie White may burn in hell (along with her ill-fated off-Broadway musical), but Sissy Spacek’s nomination remains a shining beacon of hope that genre fare from little-known actors don’t have to be relegated to, ahem, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Awards.
Can you conceive of it today? A 26-year-old actress, in one of her first major roles, portraying an introverted teenage high schooler with supernatural powers who kills the students at her senior prom. Sounds like fairly standard genre stuff, especially when coming from the minds of an up-and-coming writer (Stephen King was paid $2,500 for the book rights) and director (Brian De Palma). Yet somehow, it became one of the few horror titles to earn prestigious acting nominations at the Academy Awards. Can you picture this happening today?
Didn’t think so.
Spacek’s performance as the titular Carrie White was only her fourth major film role after Prime Cut (1972), Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), and Ginger in the Morning (1974). Spacek would go on to win the statue just four years later for a musical biopic about Loretta “the Coal Miner’s Daughter” Lynn, which makes this breakthrough Oscar nomination all the crazier. Did the Academy see something in her that broke through the conventions of the genre, or was this merely one of those rare moments when they were able to look past all the barriers and recognise the defining, film-changing performance within? Her only other nomination and win of that awards season came from the National Society of Film Critics. High praise, sure, but tell that to Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Yolande Moreau, Sally Hawkins, Naomi Watts, Reese Witherspoon, Ally Sheedy… well, the list goes on (presumably...the strike rate was so high going back just 10 years that I figure there must be plenty more without spending the time to research.)
Somewhere behind the smooth as honey tracking shots, blood-splattered prom dresses and John Travolta (“in his first motion picture role!”) smashing a pig on the head with a mallet (I couldn’t quite stomach Carrie as a younger man due to this very scene), Spacek emerged. It probably helped that the young actress had the gloriously villainous Piper Laurie in her back pocket to help shine a light on her. Laurie, a previous nominee in 1962 for The Hustler, received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for being a mother that would make even Mary Jones shake in her boots. As mother/daughter combos go, the Whites are a doozy of a pair.
A quick look at the original trailer and you’d be hard-pressed to believe this was the sort of thing that would be to the Academy’s taste and yet Spacek’s repertoire of jutting sideward glances, shy upwards looks from behind flattened hair and high-pitched whelps of demonic terror makes for one of the greatest horror movie performances of all time. At a glance Carrie looks like little more a schlocky teen horror title; would Academy members even watch a film like that today? That Spacek lost the Oscar to Faye Dunaway in Network is hard to quibble with, but the miracle of the nomination is enough to keep me happy.