My Extraordinary Ordinary Life (2012)

My Extraordinary Ordinary Life

2012, Hyperion.  271 pages.  $26.99

Sissy Spacek, with Maryanne Vollers.


As the studio system crumbled in the 1960s movies became more democratic, telling a wider variety of stories and featuring actors who probably wouldn’t have become stars in the previous decades.  People like Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Woody Allen, Sally Field and Sissy Spacek proved that movie stars didn’t have to be tall, dark and handsome, or blonde and willowy.

Sissy Spacek’s career in the 1970s is the epitome of this trend.  In 1970 she was cut out of her first film, Trash.  Two years later she made her debut in Prime Cut, an intriguing mess of a movie recut by the studio.  She paid her dues in that movie, appearing naked and abused as a girl being offered for sale.  The next year she made Terrence Malick’s Badlands, an independent film that made her a star.  She followed that up by working for Robert Altman, twice, and Brian De Palma, in a horror film that nabbed her an Oscar nomination, Carrie.  By 1980 she was starring as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, a hit movie that would win her the Oscar and make her one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood.  In the beginning, Spacek was struggling to work (she was originally a singer) and studio executives either didn’t want her or didn’t know what to do with her.  But smart directors saw her potential, gave her the roles and Spacek grew into a fine, talented, popular actress.  Between her plain, freckle-faced looks and the myopic vision of the studios, such success probably would not have occurred under the old, traditional system.

Sissy Spacek tells this history, with the help of Maryanne Vollers, in her memorable autobiography, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life.  Unlike a lot of movie stars with huge egos, Spacek kept herself very grounded by never running away from her past, which took place in the small town of Quitman, Texas.  Hollywood was never comfortable for the country girl, who later settled in Virginia with husband Jack Fisk, an industry art director / production designer whom she met on the set of Badlands and worked with on the De Palma film Phantom of the Paradise.

Spacek goes into welcome detail about these early films, answering all the questions I had about Prime Cut and Coal Miner’s Daughter, as well as a few of her later films like Raggedy Man, Missing and The Straight Story.  I learned about her surprising friendship with David Lynch and how she approached the roles most important to her. I wish that she had gone into the same detail about Crimes of the Heart, Affliction, The River, Violets are Blue, Hard Promises, JFK, In the Bedroom and Get Low, but the fact is she barely mentions these movies.  As much as I enjoyed reading about her “greatest hits,” I would have liked to read about her later work as well.  It is my presumption that her co-writer pushed her away from this task, choosing instead to write about her life as a wife, mother, dog owner and activist.  That’s fine, but I believe there is, or should have been, plenty of room for both.

I do like that Spacek takes the high road in the book, preferring to write about her own journey, mistakes and all, rather than dish gossip about her costars and the misanthropic milieu that she clearly tried to avoid in Hollywood.  Spacek writes clearly and compassionately about her childhood and rural roots, documenting why she prefers a real life with real friends to an artificial, phony Hollywood lifestyle. Spacek has enjoyed a fine life and relates it in interesting, often humorous, terms, with wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of experience.  My rating:  Good.  7 July 2014.

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