My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1982: Sissy Spacek in "Missing"

Two years after her Oscar success with her starring role in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sissy Spacek continued to impress the Academy with her role in the controversial 1982 movie Missing – the story about a woman and her father-in-law who look for her disappeared husband during times of uproar in an unnamed South American country during the 1970s. It’s a very intense, thrilling and provoking motion picture which reflects on political events but also uses its two protagonists to portray different believes and opinions about the world we live in and the necessity to join forces for a greater good.

In a role that could have been the stereotypical suffering and hysterical wife, both the script and Sissy Spacek took a welcoming choice by turning Beth Horman into a woman who is very competent in her own way, who knows how to handle different situations and circumstances but doesn’t deny her fear – for herself and, of course, her husband Charlie. Sissy Spacek, who is like a chameleon when it comes to slipping into her characters, crafts Beth as a very ordinary, average woman who believes in her own ideals even though it is never fully clear how strong these ideals really are and if they are the results of her own thinking and development or rather a shallow part of her own way of life. When Beth’s husband suddenly disappears and she has to face a bodiless machinery of bureaucracy, state terror and murder, she begins to understand that she can’t face the situation alone and needs the help of her father-in-law – a man who seems to symbolize everything that Beth dislikes about her old life in America.

The unlikely pairing of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek is the biggest success in Missing – but for Sissy Spacek herself it also becomes her biggest challenge as Jack Lemmon provides an excellent and moving portrayal of a father desperate to find his son while seeing his own believes slowly destroyed. Sissy Spacek’s Beth is in a similar, yet very different situation. Her opinions about the higher levels of politics have always been negative and seem to be verified now, but at the same time it’s visible that there is also a loss of hope inside her character – up until now, everything seemed to have been a game for her, even though a dangerous one. When she walks through the city at night in the beginning, violating the curfew, witnessing acts of terror, she seems hardly scared at all. Sissy Spacek chose a very interesting approach by not using these scenes to show a wide display of fear and shock but rather laid the foundation for a very calm and practical character who can face actual problems very easy but who always looses all her strengths and abilities whenever she faces the rejection and cover-up of state ministries and bureaucrats. The word that could be best used to describe Beth is inconvenient. But this is not because she wants to be this way, rather she seems unable to control herself whenever she gets upset or angry – she very often talks too much, too loud and too inappropriately. There is a certain rudeness in her, coming from the fact that she openly rejects any kind of authority. But her inability to avoid the authorities, to push them aside in her search also sets a trap for her own character – she is unwilling to work with the people whom she blames for the disappearance of her husband but at the same time she can’t find him without their cooperation. Sissy Spacek shows with small gestures and moments how Beth is constantly fighting against her own character during the various talks with high officials – how she is holding on to her temper only to snap at some point. Beth is clearly a smart woman but very often her personality prevents her from achieving the results she would like – but also because she refuses to bend this personality and her own believes for any reason.

It’s confusing that despite her large presence in Missing and the importance of her character, Sissy Spacek remains a rather invisible performer. She certainly possesses the necessary screen presence to hold up to Jack Lemmon but it seems that very often her character is never seen as her own person but instead is mostly used to describe the character of Charlie and the events that lead up to his disappearance. Sissy Spacek’s Beth seems like a Greek chorus who constantly describes what has happened, what is happening and what might happen but rarely does she ever truly become an active part in the proceedings. She becomes the connection between her father-in-law Ed and this unknown country and she also starts as the connection between the viewer and the events but very soon Jack Lemmon takes over this role and Sissy Spacek becomes a follower who should be the leader and very often feels secondary in the proceedings. The most admirable aspect of Sissy Spacek’s work is the fact that she took a stock character, namely the suffering wife, and gave it her own unique interpretation but the script only allows her to go so far before she is pulled back by the structure of the story and overshadowed by Jack Lemmon’s overwhelming dominance.

Right from the beginning, Missing shows that it doesn’t only tell the story of an historical event but it also wants to show the clash of two believes – Beth who symbolizes a more open yet also insecure character and Ed who stands for more conventional values and self-assurance. And it’s this clash which becomes the motor of the story and provides the movie’s most interesting moments. It’s clear that Ed doesn’t approve Beth’s anti-establishment opinions – and he also doesn’t approve Beth herself. Both Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek show a team merged together by circumstances instead of free choice. While Jack Lemmon is given the movie’s most compelling and captivating character arc, Sissy Spacek finds her own way to add more layers to Beth than the screenplay suggests. She slowly shows how Beth gets used to this man who, even though he doesn’t agree with her views or her opinions, is still the only man she can trust and is on her side. Beth doesn’t try to change Ed or convince him of her own views – the situation is too serious for this kind of plot, but she influences him without even knowing that she does it. At the same time, Sissy Spacek demonstrates how Ed influences Beth by widening her interpretation of various moments that always seem to repeat themselves – frustration and anger, hope and fear. Over time, Ed and Beth behave more civil with each other, develop a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. They seems always bond together by circumstances – first by necessity, then by tragedy. It’s a subtle and realistic performance of a character that benefits a great deal from Sissy Spacek’s earthy and honest presence. She is an actress who can always fill her characters with an inner fire and inner strength, even when they appear rather calm and quiet on the outside. There is some unexpected quality in her characterization and if the script had given her more opportunities, than Beth might easily have become a very memorable character but it’s obvious that the movie makers saw the development of Ed Holman as the most important plot line.

Just like in Coal Miner’s Daughter two years earlier, Sissy Spacek again found a very simple way to create a complex woman. She not only has a very average quality in her looks, but also in the straight forwardness and directness of her acting. When Beth swears angrily or reacts in a combination of anger and spite, Sissy Spacek avoids every degradation of this woman – Beth may sometimes seem helpless, sometimes naïve, sometimes too out-of-place but never stupid or dishonest. It’s very easy to understand her frustration when her father-in-law rejects any kind of help she could offer – she feels that she knows this country and the people, that she understands and has insight while her father-in-law sees the world in a rather simple way that never interferes with his personal beliefs. When Jack Lemmon’s Ed slowly begins to learn about the realities in this country, Sissy Spacek doesn’t show any traces or arrogance or superiority in Beth for having always known what Ed is now beginning to see but she remains a supportive and understanding woman.

Sissy Spacek’s performance is one of the rare cases when the female lead doesn’t function as the emotional foundation of the story – Jack Lemmon’s worrying father is constantly overshadowing her worrying wife but the reason isn’t the quality of the performances but the structure of the story. Since Beth is more familiar with the realities of life right from the beginning, she doesn’t find herself in any too emotional situations but takes a rather accepting attitude even when she is still hoping. Because of the inner strength in Beth, Sissy Spacek’s performance works in great harmony with the increasing tension of the story – when she begins to show more signs of weakness, the seriousness of the situations begin to become more tangible than ever before. Her quiet and fearful plead in the big stadium, the hope that her husband might be among the people is a strong scene (even though moments later again overshadowed by Jack Lemmon’s performance). The most unforgettable moment in her performance comes when she sees the body of a close friend and slowly sinks to her knees, hopeless, helpless, unable to keep standing. It’s not a difficult or impressive moment since it’s a simple body movement but up to that scene Sissy Spacek has created Beth as a constant fighter and so this act of almost capitulation before the terror comes as a moment of shock and sadness for the viewer and probably Beth herself, too.

Sissy Spacek does a lot with a character that could have been very little but at the same time she is not able to overcome its limitations. She takes the part of the guide through the story with an admirable combination of strength and weakness and her chemistry with Jack Lemmon is very captivating but she very often feels trapped in the role of Beth and her own interpretation which both don’t allow her to fully explore her own acting talents. In the end, she gets


Louis Morgan said...

I thought she was good even though I did not really care for the film.

Sage Slowdive said...

Loved her, but I understand where you're coming from.

Fritz said...

@Louis: Mmh, I don't know, movies like those somehow always affect me

@Sage: I know you loved her, I was actually a bit surprised. But I can also understand where you're coming from :-)

Sage Slowdive said...

Don't worry, I didn't mean that in a total Ellen Burstyn/Talia Shire way ;)

Fritz said...


dinasztie said...

I agree. I remember that Jack Lemmon was heartbreaking. I did not really care about Spacek that much, though. Would you have given Lemmon an Oscar?

Fritz said...

Mmh, I don't think so...Kingsley and Hoffman were both outstanding. I would need to re-watch them all.

bluemoon02 said...

I would have given Hoffman the Oscar. Btw, why did u award Sissy
Spacek 3.5 whereas u gave Julie Andrews 4?

Fritz said...

Because I thought Julie was better. :-)