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Sep 09 2019

Horror Actressing: Amy Irving in "Carrie"

byJason Adams

When we talk about Brian De Palma's 1976 horror masterpieceCarriewe talk about Actresses.But we tend to talk about the Big Two -- Sissy Spacek as Carrie White and Piper Laurie as her mamma Margaret,who were both rightfully Oscar-nominated.(They both should have won too,says me!) Then if there's oxygen left in the room after talking those two we'll gravitate towards the showier female roles below the line -- Nancy Allen playing one of cinema's greatest bitches Chris Hargensen,or wondering if Betty Buckley's Miss Collins is,in the grand tradition of P.E.teachers,same-sex-oriented.

What I haven't seen nearly enough love for is Amy Irving,who's celebrating her birthday tomorrow and who gives a truly complicated performance as Sue Snell,the girl whose motivations switch midway through,the one who sees through to the error of her ways but too late,and the one who ends up giving the film's tragedy,Carrie's tragedy,its shape....

Irving is tasked with the Everygirl -- she's not the weirdo with the superpowers (although she'd play that role for BDP two years later with The Fury) and she's not truly one of the Mean Girls;she's stuck somewhere in between.Perhaps that's why I always look past her?

Sue Snell's transformation is a tricky one;it has to be sold in barely there increments.She starts telling lies in order to get the nefarious revenge plot rolling,but slowly she starts to believe her lies...since the lies she's telling are the honest truth.Carrie White deserves to be treated better by everybody,and she deserves to go to the dance,and she deserves to be able to just live like a normal girl.Unfortunately Carrie White is not just a normal girl,and unfortunately Sue's lies have already gotten way,way out of her own control by the time she realizes she needs to be the one stopping that bucket from its fall.

But over the course of the film we watch Irving discover Sue's goodness bubbling up,surprising herself -- you can see Sue start to say things and come down on the end of the sentences like a person who only realized their truth somewhere around the middle.We spend a ton of time with her,yes clicking the plot into place,but also building up the film's infamous ending -- one of the great "watch videos of an audience losing their shit"ones -- to its full peak power.Irving gives us a Sue Snell so freshly decent and right in her own first-floor-level human way,that its shriek of an undoing -- that bloody hand rocketing out of Hell itself -- becomes tenfold aberrant;the Good Girl normative narrative pierced like a knife.

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Reader Comments (17)

She is quite strong as the good girl to Chris's bad girl we believe her turnaround,but I always thought Betty Buckley gave the film other stand out supporting turn and could've joined Laurie in that category she gives us something rooted in reality,she behaves like a teacher would in the 70's and the mirror scene where she covers her lips is a gr8 knowledge of what she really feels,why did Carrie killer i still can't work it out.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Oscar Nominated for Yentl!!

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

Another fine choice,Jason,but I disagree completely that Amy/Sue Snell was at all involved in Chris' plot to get Carrie at the prom.From the get-go Sue was portrayed as trying to make good on being a part of the shitty thing the girls did to Carrie at the beginning of the film (she was wracked with guilt at her behavior).The novel would back me up on this assertion.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Right Rob,she's never in on it.Norma on the other hand.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Yeah,I think that Sue may have been aware of but notin onthe nefarious plot.And Ms.Collins,unfortunately,seems to have been merely collateral damage in Carrie's unleashing.Such fine performances,across the board.

P.S.Lovethe subtle Clueless ref.;-)

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Yeah,I think that Sue may have been aware of but notin onthe nefarious plot.And Ms.Collins,unfortunately,seems to have been merely collateral damage in Carrie's unleashing.Such fine performances,across the board.

P.S.Lovethe subtle Clueless ref.;-)

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Yeah I probably shouldn't have said that Sue did what she did "in order to"get the revenge plot rolling -- I do think the film wants us to question Sue's motives the whole time along though,and that we only realize at the end (too late,always too late) that she's really been trying to atone for what happened at the start.We're supposed to doubt her intentions alongside Carrie.But yes,ultimately,Sue did mean well and didn't want the pig blood thing to happen.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterJason

@Jason I remember Pauline Kael writing in her (very positive) review of the film that Sue's hand in the plot was left ambiguous,so other smart people have interpreted Sue's motives differently than how I have always perceived them.But again,in the novel (and,I posit,in the film) Sue has no idea of the terrible plot that Chris has engineered.She's just trying to do the right thing and tragically it all backfires horribly.I love Irving's performance too - in the scene where Betty Buckley is laying into the girls for their rotten behavior you can just see the misery in Irving's face - she has to come to terms with her ugly actions in the locker room,knowing there's no good explanation for any of them.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Irving's fabulous - but I think the terribly underrated Nancy Allen is even better.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Carrie is like the Gosford Park of Horror for supporting actress possibilities.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I feel a little confuse about this post-series right now.I thought it gonna be about great horror performances and this feels like a mention of a good actress in a horror movie.
Amy Irving does an adecuate performance in the movie but the facial expressions of Sissy Spacek,that's scary.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterCésar Gaytán

César -- well right up front I think you're being a little rough on Irving,I think her work's better than "adequate."But no this series isn't meant to just be a list of the Great Horror Movie Performances.It's more specifically about Great Moments,ones that involve actresses in horror films,which allows me to dig a little deeper and go a little broader and wilder than just reiterating all of the usual suspects.

Sure I could've written about Sissy or Piper...I have a million times.And that's the problem.No Irving doesn't shine as bright as those two but here I wanted to zoom in on the tricky balance that Irving does accomplish in the film.I think it's a fascinating little thread that she winds through Carrie,in the shadow of those legends.

I suppose sometimes I'll have something to say about the great big legendary performances -- I can't imagine I won't want to talk about Mia Farrow or Ruth Gordon in Rosemary's Baby,for instance -- but I think more often I'll want to ramble a bit about the smaller moments,the ones where good actresses manage to turn the material into something it might not have been in somebody else's hands.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterJason

It was an interesting choice,I'd have chosen BB but it's gr8 someone singled out Amy.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I appreciate your response.Maybe my confussion is because i was expecting to read about performances that inspires you something scary (like Angela Bettis in May...or even Fairuza Balk in The Craft) but now i understand that is about key roles in horror movies.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterCésar Gaytán

She is over shadowed by Spacek and Laurie but she is as good as they are in a less showy role

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

This and her performance in Yentl were both cerebral performances.Both characters internalize their thoughts and emotions.The audience can see that something is going on but can't always pinpoint what it is.I think Irving is underrated in general.I wonder if her split with Speilberg had anything to do with that.I know she was almost not invited to the Academy Awards when she was pregnant and not married.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

Jason,thanks for writing about Amy Irving.She was SUCH a special actress in the 70s and 80s,and it was a loss that she disappeared.In addition to Carrie,The Fury,and Yentl,she's marvelous in Crossing Delancey as well.It's a bummer she stopped getting major film work.

September 9,2019 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

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