How Loretta Lynn's defining hit 'Coal Miner's Daughter' became a classic movie biopic

Jim Myers
Special to The (Nashville) Tennessean

When Robert Altman’s film "Nashville" was released in 1975, it left a bad taste in the mouths of many people in the town it hoped to portray. The film culminates with the assassination of its brightest star, a character modeled loosely on the rising career of Loretta Lynn, who died Tuesday at age 90. Before the film opened, Lynn had heard enough to keep her away. “I’d rather see 'Bambi,' " she snapped to a New York Times reporter.

A few months later, a little softer and with her sense of self-deprecating humor intact, Lynn was quoted in Family Weekly saying, “I don’t care if they have me kind of crazy, because I am. I don’t care if they have me goin’ in and out of hospitals, because I do. But when I hear they’re cartin’ my dead body off and havin’ an unknown take my place – that I don’t like!”

A year later, Lynn’s autobiography "Coal Miner's Daughter" was on shelves. It picked up where her 1970 chart-topping song of the same name left off, offering an unflinching look at her life. Four years later, it became a hit movie.

It resonated with viewers and gained support well beyond its core audience of Grand Ole Opry watchers and Lynn fans. Above all, it was palate cleanser after the offending hyperbole of Altman’s parable.

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Loretta Lynn and Sissy Spacek backstage at the Grand Ole Opry on Jan. 27, 1979.

The success of "Coal Miner's Daughter" was deeply layered. It came from an intelligent script that wove together the best visual elements of Lynn’s book. Brilliant casting brought to life very real characters, most of whom were still alive, in a way Hollywood had seldom done.

Levon Helm, gaunt-faced drummer and singer of The Band, and Phyllis Boyens portrayed Lynn’s parents, Ted and Clara Webb, with mountain stoicism and reticent wisdom.

But it was the lead roles of Loretta and her husband, Oliver “Mooney” Lynn, that showed inspiration. While it was director Michael Apted who saw the ability of young Tommy Lee Jones, it was Loretta who picked out freckle-faced actress Sissy Spacek from a pile of photos.

Spacek’s performance leapt off the screen. The diminutive actress became Loretta Webb, losing weight to better resemble the teenage girl who would fall in love with the handsome, fast-talking man fresh from the Korean War.

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Loretta Lynn, center, arrives at Belle Meade Theater in the drizzling rain for the premiere of "Coal Miner's Daughter" with her mother, Clara Butcher, left, and her husband, Mooney Lynn, on March 4, 1980.

In an interview with Apted taped for the 25th anniversary edition of the film released in 2005, Lynn reflected on time she spent with Spacek before shooting began.

“She was with me on and off for a year, and it like to kill me, because I was doing two shows a night at that time. I took her on the Opry, I think it was three times, and the Opry members could not tell when I would quit a verse and she would take on a verse. Now that’s how close we were.”

To prepare, Spacek practiced with Lynn and went into a studio with producer Owen Bradley. But it was Spacek’s work on camera that was remarkable, singing everything live during filming.

“She done it so well, when Patsy and Peggy (Lynn’s twin daughters) were about 9 years old, and I walked in the house, they said, ‘Mommy, I want you to quit talkin’ like Sissy Spacek,’ ” Lynn remembered with a laugh.

In 1980, the movie opened in New York to strong reviews, and a few weeks later it made its debut in Nashville.

Mooney and Loretta Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek) are two poor people from Appalachia who makes it right to the top in 1980's "Coal Miner's Daughter."

“I think it’s a real good movie," Lynn said. "It’s kind of like what apple pie is to America, if that’s not saying too much.”

Even Spacek knew it was special. “I’m gushy about it. This has been extra-special for me because of Loretta, because of the relationship that grew out of it. I’m usually hip and cool, but I just can’t be that way about 'Coal Miner's Daughter,' " Spacek said after the film's New York premiere.

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were impressed, nominating the film for seven Oscars, and Spacek went on to win best actress.

In Lynn’s interview with Apted for the 25th anniversary edition, he asked her whether, after all those years, it was weird to see a close-up of her life story on the screen. She replied quickly, “Yes. That’s why I can’t watch it. I just can’t watch it. It’s too real.”