The amazing performance that Piper Laurie gives as Margaret White in Brian DePalma’s film Carrie is no doubt my favorite of all time. Even nominated for an Academy Award for the role, Laurie gave the horror genre a different kind of villain to fear – one just as menacing and terrifying as the slashers and serial killers to follow. Though Carrie’s story has been told in several different adaptations over the years, no actress has ever been able to match Laurie’s stellar portrayal.
Margaret White first appears in the film in the scene where she arrives at the Snell house to sell religious literature. This puts the audience in a false sense of security about the character, because while she is obviously a religious nut who is not very popular with the neighbors – Mrs. Snell can’t seem to get rid of her fast enough – she seems more pathetic than dangerous. It is not until her next scene, where she attacks her daughter after finding out that she has gotten her period, does Margaret reveal who she truly is. More than a simple nut, Margaret rules over Carrie with the strong arm of the Bible, believing that almost every thought and action is a sin. No amount of reasoning or pleading from her daughter can change her intense beliefs.
In literature, a “grotesque” character is one that is exaggerated, almost to the point of not being real, and one that often comes off as being funny. Margaret White is a grotesque character. Indeed, Laurie thought that Carrie was going to be a black comedy of sorts because of how over-the-top Margaret was. Laurie more than excels at this exaggerated acting style, which inadvertently brings about the comedy. Perhaps my favorite example of this is the way she throws up her arm and yells at Mrs. Snell, “I pray you find Jesus!” The delivery makes you laugh at her, but also gives you that first uneasy look into just how deep this fervent religiosity goes.
DePalma and crew seem to have done their best to make sure that Laurie stood out from the other characters. Her costuming is wonderful, with the sexless, matronly, billowing cloak that she wears for most of the film. Laurie is also front and center for probably the best moment of the movie: at the dinner table, Carrie tells her mother that she has been invited to the prom, and lightning flashes on Laurie’s face at just the right second as she says, “The prom?” – obviously a creepy foreshadowing of what is going to happen at that prom. In both the “Sins of Women” scene and the dinner table scene, DePalma uses a low angle on Laurie to make her look more powerful, although he almost didn’t even need to.
Laurie herself contributed greatly to the development of her role. The costumers were originally going to make Carrie’s prom dress red, as it is in the book, but felt that Sissy Spacek looked better in the pink dress that is in the film. However, Laurie insisted that Margaret’s line, “Red. I might have known it would be red” be kept in the film because she felt that, in the character’s twisted mind, that the dress was red, a sinful color. It’s a small, maybe insignificant, moment, but one that does a lot to further define her character.
What ultimately makes Laurie’s performance so memorable is simply her uniqueness as an actress. Specifically, it is her strange but mesmerizing voice – one unlike any other that I’ve heard. It has an accent that is difficult to place, giving her a very mysterious quality, and also has an odd tone and pitch which are almost manly. In the scene where Margaret tells Carrie about her conception, it is her eyes that enthrall and entrance the audience. Wide- and wild-eyed, she barely blinks throughout the scene, even though she is crying.
Her physicality is also a great asset to defining the character as the plot slowly reaches its climax. As Carrie is making her prom dress, Margaret creepily sways and prays in the foreground. While she waits for Carrie to return from the prom, Margaret is perhaps practicing for what is to come as she forcefully cuts a carrot with a large butcher knife. When Carrie is finally able to hold her mother for comfort, Margaret strokes her daughter’s hair with both hands all the way down her back – where she will soon stab her. And who could forget the look on Margaret’s face as she stalks her daughter through the house full of burning candles, knife raised over her head, with a smile of pure insanity on her face.
Laurie then gets to have perhaps one of the oddest deaths ever put on film. As Carrie telekinetically impales her mother with various kitchen implements (recreating the Saint Sebastian statue in her prayer closet), Laurie’s reaction is one not of pain, but of ecstasy, as she smiles and moans seemingly with pleasure. With brilliant choices like this throughout the film, Laurie created something that was truly memorable. Margaret White may not be as violent or murderous as other horror villains, but she has definitely earned her place amongst them as one of the most noteworthy.