Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Amy Irving: The Most Honorable Horror Heroine of the '70s

Some actors you have an unreasoning love for, and you can usually trace that love back to a handful of great characters they played. In the case of Amy Irving, it comes down to two for me: Sue Snell in Carrie (1976) and Gillian Bellaver in The Fury (1978). Both are Brian DePalma films, and both her characters are wholesome but troubled teens trying to do the right thing--failing miserably in most cases, but trying valiantly nonetheless. Oh, and both feature at their core innocent teens struggling with sinister telekinetic powers.

(I also love Amy Irving's voice work here and as Miss Kitty in Fievel Goes West. Lord, she's fabulous.)

Sue Snell is a great character. Saying she's Carrie's moral compass is too trite and broad, when instead she stands for anyone with a conscience seeing her greatest nightmare of guilt come true: the girl she hurt in the beginning destroys everyone but her, Sue. Therefore, Sue is left with the biggest case of undeserved survivor's guilt in history.

It troubled me at first when I'd read online all the discussion theorizing that Sue was actually out to get Carrie throughout the movie, and was in on popular bitch-troll Kris's plan to pour pig's blood all over the hapless Carrie from the beginning. Some believe DePalma left Sue's motives deliberately ambiguous. 

Well, no, he didn't. The truth is Sue's a good girl at her core who did a bad thing at the beginning and is trying to make up for it. Thus she makes the Cinderella plans for Carrie, that despite all her efforts go awry in the worst way.

Like I said, I couldn't at first understand peoples' unwillingness to accept this, as if DePalma must have meant something more, when really, nothing to me could have been clearer that Sue's desire to atone. But having thought about Sue awhile, I think I understand the audience's problem with her. What the girls do to Carrie in the beginning is so monstrous--they display that total lack of human compassion most commonly found in swarms of teenage girls, a pack mentality of exposing and taunting a girl during her first period, naked in the shower, in circumstances where a human being couldn't be more vulnerable--that maybe audiences didn't want to accept Sue could be better than that deep down.

Because if so, then that means other people who view themselves better than that behavior could slip into that pack mentality as well, and that's an ugly truth to face.

That's why I love Sue Snell so much, along with Amy Irving's performance. Irving makes Sue so fresh and real and likable that we feel her guilt right to the bone. We aren't let off the hook. She refuses to disappear into bland nonchalance like the other girls, or externalize some animalistic hatred into even more traumatizing action, like Kris. Real rounded characters are such a rarity in the horror genre--and I'm sure many would say in most DePalma films--that Irving's Sue is almost devastating. That last scene in particular had me gulping in horror not only because of one of the most shocking "AAAUGH!" moments in movies, but because I was afraid what this moment meant for Sue--I really, really cared about her. Not just in that primal way we always fear for the human figure in peril during horror films, but because Sue was a real person to me. A real person I liked.

The Fury has more of the standard action thriller trappings than the teen-wonderland-nightmare zone that was Carrie, so once again we rely on Irving's presence to remind us of the human center in this tale. Less well-known than Carrie, The Fury nonetheless has the same theme of the trapped teenagers with super brain powers. The movie follows two interconnected stories: Kirk Douglas, straight out of the American Handbook for the Capable Action Hero, plays Peter Sandza, a retired agent out to rescue his telekinetic teenage son Robin from a corrupt agency run by John Cassavetes out to exploit Robin's powers. Meanwhile, teenager Gillian Bellaver struggles to come to grips with her own powers similar to Robin's--only to find herself caught between Peter's honorable efforts to use Gillian's psychic connection with Robin to find him and Cassavetes's scheming designs to replace the increasingly unstable Robin with her.

For my money, Irving's Gillian is more relatable than Carrie. This is no black mark against Carrie, or Sissy Spacek's superlative portrayal. But Carrie is such an ethereally pathetic and withdrawn creature, so washed out yet mystical as to seem wraith-like, that the horror we experience on her behalf is the horror we reserve for the Lillian Gishes of the world: creatures whose delicacy and fragility are what make us protective, not because we're necessarily like them. 

Gillian is probably a lot prettier and more charming than us, but in a grounded way that like Sue still makes us feel like we know her and like her--like we could be her, if we were only so lucky to be that pretty and likable. Lots of "likes" there, but what are you gonna do? Here's another one: like Carrie, Gillian has problems connecting with her schoolmates and communicating with her mother, but she's not a social pariah and she handles herself well--plus, her mother's an uptight businesswoman who does love her despite her brittleness, unlike the outlandish nutjob Carrie's mother is. So when this movie's bitch-troll Cheryl mocks Gillian's power, Gillian's slowly slipping mask of social friendliness into miserable humiliation is all the more uncomfortable. Irving is absolutely excellent in this scene. She acts like a normal girl her age would act, crumbling away from the situation: "hey, c'mon, the joke's not funny anymore. I mean, I don't even know what I'm thinking most of the time, ha ha. No, please, lay off." She's so realistically vulnerable it hurts.

And we're not quite granted that evil but nonetheless satisfying sensation of retribution and release that comes in Carrie's prom scene of destruction. We almost do: a sneaky look of brutal triumph crosses Gillian's face when she says Cheryl's only so cruel because she's knocked up. But Gillian doesn't maintain Carrie's stoic violent streak for long: she's immediately contrite, and when Cheryl grabs her wrist demanding Gillian explain herself, Gillian pleads in wide-eyed quiet terror for Cheryl to release her because she knows, she senses what happens next --Cheryl's nose pours out blood like a geyser from touching the psychically volatile Gillian.

We almost feel great about this, except for that Gillian most certainly does not. She hates hurting people. That's what drives her, and that's her character's tragedy.

Again, it's easy for a character to repeatedly say and demonstrate they don't want to hurt others, but it's another thing entirely for a character to really make us see and feel that. Gillian does, Irving does. She's a very beautiful girl, and her wide, striking blue-gray eyes reveal a harrowed soul who wants what normal teenagers want, but more than that wants to keep the people around her safe. Her grounded acting and attitude puts us in her shoes, but her beauty--almost like a fairytale princess variation on the girl next door--and an indefinable charming air elevate her to the status of the angelic heroine worth fighting for and worth rooting for--again, not so much as to make us barf or detach from the story, thanks to the realism Irving brings to Gillian.

However, also like Sue, Irving's Gillian is not perfect. But unfortunately unlike Carrie, the viewer gets the impression anything imperfect about Gillian is not purposeful. She is made at times too hysterical, too "oh my god, oh my god," and although it's certainly not her fault that Robin's final attack tortures her psyche, her screaming from behind the hedge does bust her and Peter's cover. That makes us cringe somewhat--we'd like her to be a little bit stronger. After all, the fact she's a pawn, a prize to be won by both Cassavetes and Douglas, does make her a rather passive figure throughout a good chunk of the movie.

This, along with the film's erratic tone (jumping from action thriller to suspenseful fantasy horror moment to moment), keeps The Fury from being the classic Carrie was. Still, there are other great performances that make the movie a lot of twisted fun: Carrie Snodgress as the likably kooky nurse who hooks up with Peter and helps him free Gillian has a wonderfully spacey and bright quality, and Cassavetes turns the smarm all the way up to 11. And Douglas does a hell of a job, though again, he's such the untouchably skilled action hero and American tough guy that while we admire and root for him, he doesn't tear us apart like Irving does.

Amy Irving is sort of the '70s equivalent of Frances Dee to me: talented, beautiful, and sympathetic, but somehow--either in spite of or because of her understated qualities--she's never been a household name. Her apparently messy divorce with Stephen Spielberg probably didn't help, either. However, she's a steady worker, and has always been more devoted to the stage, anyways. She's unique because even though most stage actors transitioning to the screen usually take a few pictures before they establish a suitably less hammy rhythm when compared to what they were used to expressing onstage, Irving inhabits the underplayed, unflappably humane heroine expertly in her early roles.

Despite what I said above about The Fury's flaws, anything passive about Gillian disappears at the end. During the ridiculously campy yet delicious finale, where Gillian uses what I assume are the combined powers of Robin's unleashed fury and her own, I felt another kind of tingling horror altogether: oh, god, does this mean Gillian's been corrupted and driven mad like Robin? She triumphs, but at what cost? Again, thanks to Irving, we're not given the easy out of pondering this without any emotional involvement. Just as we feared for Sue's physical safety at the end of Carrie, we're more concerned about Gillian's soul at the end of The Fury. 

That takes a good heroine and a good actress. Especially in a horror film, where character usually takes a backseat to gore and suspense.


  1. I loved The Fury as a teen myself.
    While I think the fury is a lesser movie to Carrie, Amy Irving's acting is much better.

  2. Tim, even though both movies have the same wonderfully intense and surreal style, I'd also give the nod to Carrie as the better movie. It's more focused and even than The Fury. In fact, if it weren't for Irving, the movie would probably be more forgettable than it is.

  3. I've always thought that Irving deserved an Oscar nomination for carrie over Piper. I think Piper was good, but Irving really came across as a guilt ridden girl trying to desperately make things right, Sue Snell could have been completely lost had another actress played her, but Irving was able to uplift the character to a whole other level.

    1. Exactly. She was a refreshing shot of realism in an otherwise almost operatic arena of camp. Both elements go surprisingly well together.

  4. amy irving and john cassavetes make the fury for me. they enrich the film in very different ways. irving provides an incredible emotional core and gives her best performance.


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