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Sissy Spacek, teen queen

“Carrie.”United Artists/Photofest
"Badlands." Warner Brothers

What was it about the young Sissy Spacek? What was it about her that kept getting the actress cast as much, much younger characters? It must have been the freckles.

Spacek was born in 1949. Remember that date. In 1973, she played a 15-year-old in Terrence Malick’s debut feature, “Badlands.” Three years later, she played another teen, in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” So Spacek was well into her 20s for both roles. Not that that fazed her. She played both parts persuasively, even memorably. She even earned a best actress Oscar nomination for “Carrie.” It’s hard to imagine either film with another actress as the female lead — Spacek was that good in both.


The Brattle has been screening a digital restoration of “Badlands” in honor of the Malick film’s 40th anniversary. It concludes a three-day run Sunday. As for “Carrie,” Kimberly Peirce’s remake opened earlier this month. Chloë Grace Moretz, an actual teenager, plays the title role.

All hail chronological verisimilitude, but what acting’s about is plausibly pretending to be someone other than your actual self. And Holly, the affectless baton twirler Spacek plays in “Badlands” is worlds away from poor, freaking-out, telekinetic Carrie White (it’s not batons she twirls). Spacek makes us believe in them both — which also makes us believe that she’s in late adolescence. They’re performances that rank with her Loretta Lynn, in “Coal Miner’s Daughter," which won Spacek an Oscar, in 1981. She’s so good in “Badlands,” in fact, that who notices that her costar, Martin Sheen, is playing someone much younger, too. His Kit Carruthers is all of 25. Sheen was 33 at the time. And she’s so good in “Carrie,” who notices that her fellow “teens” (played by Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, and William Katt) are all in their 20s, too. If ever there were two movies that argue against acting your age, they’re “Badlands” and “Carrie.”