...Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976)
approximately 19 minutes and 7 seconds
roughly 19% of film's total running time
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.