An Unforgettable Performer: Piper Laurie (1932-2023) | Tributes

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“The Hustler” remorselessly charts the hopes that begin to grow in Sarah that she might actually deign to accept the love of another human being and then their final destruction when she enters the orbit of Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), a man who wants to exploit Eddie’s talent for pool playing and sees Sarah as an encumbrance. Bert says things meant to wound Sarah, and she begins to crumble away. There comes a point when Bert whispers something in Sarah’s ear, and we never find out what it was, but it is so bad that she is finished by it; she cannot go on any further.

Laurie’s Sarah Packard is a woman who once had many possibilities, and she still has them almost up to the end; all it takes is one more bit of deliberate cruelty to destroy her, and Scott’s Bert Gordon tips that scale for her. This is tragic, because Sarah Packard isn’t the sort of person who is a hopeless case, but she is too sensitive and she is also perverse, and that is a deadly combination.

Laurie did not capitalize on her success in “The Hustler.” Instead, she married the film critic Joe Morgenstern and didn’t make any more movies until she was offered the role of the religious fanatic mother Margaret White in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976), in which she gives one of the campiest performances of all time even though Laurie plays it all with such a straight face. It was that poker face of hers that let Laurie get away with anything in this movie and somehow still seem serious and seriously scary, even when Margaret speaks of the “dirty pillows” of her daughter Carrie (Sissy Spacek) and runs around smiling with a large knife, her long, curly hair flowing behind her.

“Carrie” brought Laurie another Oscar nomination, this time for best supporting actress, and Laurie obtained far more work now after this second comeback. She headlined a horror vehicle for director Curtis Harrington called “Ruby” (1977), played Judy Garland’s fearsome stage mother on television in 1978, and was flat-out terrifying as Magda Goebbels in “The Bunker” (1981), especially in the scene where she poisons her own children.

But Laurie gave maybe her most perverse performance of all as a well-to-do woman who develops a yen for a mentally handicapped young hunk (Mel Gibson) in “Tim” (1979), which is meant to be a sentimental love story but is steered directly into the most disturbing possible direction by Laurie from the moment her character first sets eyes on her young prey in his tight shorts (in her memoir, Laurie wrote that she slept with Gibson shortly after the shooting wrapped, for she wasn’t shy about detailing such perks of her profession).


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