Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976) - Supporting Actress Sunday

I think I'm correct in saying that, of all the nominees for Best Supporting Actress, only two happen to appear in films that have maintained their place among my short list of favorite films in the quarter century I've been thinking about such things. The first we hit in my first year of doing Supporting Actress Sundays. And the second? Well, lovely reader, it has, this Halloween, come time to attend the tale of...

...Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976)
approximately 19 minutes and 7 seconds
10 scenes
roughly 19% of film's total running time
Piper Laurie plays Margaret White, a pathologically religious woman whose daughter Carrie (Sissy Spacek, in what is likely my favorite screen performance of all time) has just "become a woman" in an unforgettable way (basically, the onset of menses has also opened the gates to Carrie's formidable psychic/telekinetic powers).
Laurie's first scene is a curious non-sequitur of a sequence that appears to be there solely for the purpose of adding dimension to the collision of normalcy and freakery that frames the central narrative. Laurie's Margaret knocks on the door of Mrs. Snell (Priscilla Pointer in a weird little performance that I just adore), who welcomes the black-cloaked Margaret into her well-appointed home. Pointer's Mrs. Snell feebly endeavors some small talk (wherein we confirm that these wildly different women are the mothers of the school's most popular girl and the school freak, respectively) and Laurie's Margaret and proceeds to peddle an evangelical pamphlet about teens and sin. When Pointer's Mrs. Snell rebuffs the pamphlet with a cash donation, Laurie lets Margaret's beatific smile fall, revealing a cold mask of judgment. In this quick, chattery sequence, Laurie establishes not only that Margaret White is a passionate evangelical (what we in the 1970s sometimes called "Jesus Freaks") but also that the woman is an utter loon. The film then follows Margaret, as she stalks home where Carrie is already home, still traumatized from what happened during her "first period/gym class." (It's worth disclosing, I suppose, that when I was a child in the 70s, there was a woman who wore rough cotton robes and stalked the rural roadsides near where I lived, shouting about Jesus and judgment and damnation. So, I s'pose I'm an easy mark for Laurie's performance in this role. You may see cliche but I see another version of my friendly neighborhood Jesus freak.)
Once home, Laurie's Margaret learns that her daughter Carrie has experienced her first menstruation and she prays feverishly over her child, slapping the young woman in the face with her prayer book as she beseeches her savior to remove the blood of sin that has passed through her daughter's flesh. Laurie uses the turgid religiosity of the dialog in profoundly unsettling way in this sequence, hollering and wailing like a 3rd-rate preacher as she rebukes her daughter's protestations as those of a demon.
Then, when Margaret grabs Spacek's Carrie by the hair and drags her kicking and screaming through the house to stuff her into her holy closet (the queer metaphors larding this story just thrill me), Laurie's expression remains remarkably unchanged. Laurie's Margaret is utterly convinced of her righteousness and absolutely willing to do anything in service of that religious certainty.
In this quick, intense sequence of scenes, as Laurie moves from friendly neighborhood proselytizer to crazed child abuser, the actress does so with untroubled alacrity. She may be screaming and huffing and hollering but Laurie invests a steadiness, a confidence, and a clarity to Margaret's irrationality in these early scenes.
Such a foundation proves absolutely essential to all that subsequently befalls the character. For later that evening, when Margaret begins to see and experience the force of Carrie's own rebellious spiritual power, Laurie begins to chart Margaret's devastating descent into doubt. Indeed, the onset of Carrie's telekinetic powers occasions a radical crisis of faith for Margaret.
As befits her religious certitude, Margaret sees Carrie's telekinetic powers as the force of the devil working through her own daughter and, with Carrie's every act of adolescent assertiveness, Margaret becomes more desperately anxious about the eternal fate of her daughter's soul as well as the human limits of her own religious will. Until the fateful night of the prom, when Carrie's decision to attend the dance instigates a final clarity in Margaret's understanding of what she must do.
I won't go into the prom sequence -- see it for yourself here -- but, suffice it to say, that the prom proves to be a fairly rough night for little Carrie. She arrives home, a little grubbed out, and her mother's waiting for her. Silently. Behind the door. Her eyes illuminated by a mysterious light. Not a good sign for Margaret's hold on sanity.
Anyway, Carrie wipes the blood away - AGAIN - and falls into the anticipated comfort of her mother's arms, professing her renewed confidence that everything her mother had warned her was true.
Alas, Laurie's Margaret is untouched my Carrie's redemptive discoveries. Instead, Laurie's Margaret lapses into an ebullient reverie through which it becomes clear that Margaret no longer sees Carrie as her own daughter but as the monstrous embodiment of her own original sin -- a sin Margaret's ready to cut away with a giant butcher's knife.
Of course, being super-psychic and all, being stabbed in the back by her own mother isn't quite enough to take Carrie out, so Laurie's Margaret -- fully subsumed in religious ecstasy -- stalks Carrie for a little more murder. This proves to be not a very good idea.
Drawing upon the instincts of self-protection that have guided her throughout the night, Spaceks Carrie deploys her own telekinetic powers to hurl kitchen utensils at her mother (my favorite is always the potato peeler), crucifying Laurie's Margaret in her own kitchen. (A whole bunch of other stuff happens right after this hauntingly gentle moment. Daughter and dead mother reconcile sorta. They both return to the crazed Jesus closet. Then whole house gets sucked into the earth, or is it hell... Anyway.)
Piper Laurie's performance as Margaret White is indelibly intense, a bizarre but plausible portrait of the devastating cruelties of religious certitude. With Margaret White, Laurie crafts a haunting portrayal of an utterly human monster, mixing malevolence and vulnerability, and creating an enduring vision of a heartbreaking, human horror. (Besides, she gives us some brilliantly enduring line-readings: "Dirty pillows" and "I liked it" and "They're all gonna laugh at you"...) It's polarizing work, as comments on the recent Smackdown indicate, but, to my simple mind, Piper Laurie's performance in Carrie is simply marvelous.



and the raven's name was sin!! say it!! the raven's name was sin!!! and the first sin was intercourse!! he took me!! and i liked it!!! i liked it!!! i liked the smell of cheap roadhouse liquor on his breath!!!

Stacia said...

I'm glad you mentioned your experience with the crazy lady in the '70s. I think a lot of people feel Laurie's character is impossibly over the top because they've never encountered a person insane with their own religious fervor. The difficult part of portraying someone who is clearly deranged but is using religion as an outlet for their psychosis is that the person, ultimately, is not actually religious at all. Religion becomes a metaphor and an outlet but nothing more. Their motivation is always the psychosis, not the religion itself. That's why I felt the St Sebastian metaphor was so apt: it was ostensibly a religious metaphor, but one that on closer examination really didn't fit.

Criticlasm said...

I thought it was interesting on the "making of" piece that DePalma wanted to cut the whole last exposition piece explaining Margaret's relationship with Carrie's Father, thinking it slowed down the film. He let Laurie do it once, and the rest is history--it's riveting to watch, and for me focusses the movie in that one instant, only increasing the horror. I loved the two of them together in this film, and their energy together is amazing.

Pax Romano said...

Excellent piece. Piper Laurie was magnificent in that role {an odd mix of Evangelical crazy with a dash of Opus Dei nutso thrown in).

I watched the film with a very Catholic friend who pointed out that the figure in the prayer closet was not Jesus, but Saint Sebastian, so that when Mrs. White is crucified, she resembles the martyred saint.

StinkyLulu said...

Indeed, I've long puzzled over what I see to be the doubling of Jesus/St.Sebastian IN THE CLOSET of all places... Just one of the many ways this movie fascinates me endlessly...

Prospero said...

At the very impressionable age of 16, Ms Laurie's performance made me practically wet my pants with joy when I saw this film in it's original release. I never tire of it and Margaret White is one of cinema's truly iconic characters. I even referenced it to an actress while recently dirceting a play. It's amazing how well the movie holds up, despite the dated fashions and occasional moments of sillines.