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Tuesday
Oct302012

Oscar Horrors: Margaret White Burns in Hell

Just one more day of Oscar Horrors! On this penultimate day of the series, JA has an incredible take on one of our shared favorites, "Carrie". -Nathaniel

HERE LIES... or rather, HERE BURNS IN HELL... Margaret White, Piper Laurie's Supporting Actress nominated performance in Brian DePalma's 1976 film Carrie.

JA from MNPP here - the only thing more shocking to me than the fact that Piper lost the Oscar for Margaret White is the fact that nobody's covered this performance for this here Oscar Horrors series yet. You could just sit back and quote her lines and be done with it - "I can see you dirty pillows." "Pimples are the Lord's way of chastising you." "I liked it. I liked it!" What a grand time it'd be! It would be like any given evening in my house, really. But give me an excuse to watch Carrie for the 50th time, and I will bite.

Piper lost the Oscar to Beatrice Straight's very brief role in Network; I won't diss Straight because I like her and I like that performance (and I like her a few years later in Poltergiest even more)... but come on. 

Rewatching the film today I was reminded what a note-perfect line Laurie walks. Dances, really. In sensible witch shoes. Her Margaret White should be what you see when you look up "Jesus Freak" in the dictionary.

But while she's often criticized for being over the top (and it's not as if director Brian DePalma backs off that angle -- when Carrie tells her mother she's going to the prom, Piper repeats the word aghast - "Prom?" - which DePalma then gooses with some ever-so-subtle lightning and thunder) what I noticed today is it's Margaret's smallness and fear that reveals themselves between the hysterics, and become disturbingly palpable. She is in a battle with herself, the beleaguered Christian, trying to be all the God Warrior she can be, but her beaten-down daughter, meekness personified (Sissy Spacek giving one of the finest performances ever put on screen, if you ask me), begins to beat her back at every turn and she's entirely befuddled by it. You can sense she's felt this before - when her husband, the one with the stinking roadhouse whiskey on his breath, also driven nuts by her zealousness, up and took off. It must be the Devil! You can see the parts clicking into place in Laurie's performance as her confusion turns into its own sense - this is what she is here for. Calmness washes over her; she has found her life's meaning. And it's a serenity that's terrifying.

And that's the thing with this performance and why it continually rings true to me - in the twenty minutes or so of screen-time that Laurie has, she simultaneously charts not just a broad portrait of religious fervor driven way off the deep end, but the pinpoint center wherein stands a very small very frightened woman, deranged by her own terror of abandonment. Once was enough, twice is too many, and she will drag her daughter straight to Hell before she ever lets go.

 

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Reader Comments (7)

I heard Barbara Hershey based her Black Swan character partially on this!

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandy (not the hurricane)

wow, that was a very compelling article. i've never wanted to rewatch Carrie so much!

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrichard

Good luck to Great Julianne, who is going to reprise this role in CARRIE remake

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

Sometimes ott is ok if it is still based in reality and serves the character,there's masses of back story with margaret white,kim pierce should have made her story instead of a remake now that i'd pay to see and yes the dialogue is so quotable my fave is "I pray you find Jesus"

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermark

JA -- beautifully written! The thing is this performance is so compelling on its surface that it's easy to actually miss the currents below that.

October 31, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

JA, great write-up. Horror movies rarely garner Academy noms, so Piper's work in this is a testament to her terrific resourcefulness at digging down deep into this character's psyche. However, I must step in and defend her rival's Oscar win. Beatrice Straight's victory was most deserved. Hers is one of the greatest performances ever by a supporting actress. Controversial for its brevity, iMs. Straight's achingly truthful performance nevertheless reverberates throughout movie history.

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Great write-up! Carrie isn't quite as good as its reputation suggests, but Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie are actually much better than their reputations suggest!

Gotta agree with Oscar here - despite Piper Laurie's unbelievable, unforgettable work in Carrie, Beatrice Straight is able to just about match it IN ONLY FIVE MINUTES.

November 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny
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