Depending on who you ask, Sid and Nancy either accurately depicts Nancy Spungen with all her desperate, raspy whining, or it’s a harsher, uglier caricature of a softer, misunderstood girl. Alex Cox’s grimy, punk rock Romeo and Juliet take on the true story of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and rebel girl Nancy Spungen does little to clarify the people behind the personas or what really happened the night Nancy took a knife to the abdomen and bled out under a bathroom sink. The 1986 film tells their story – or what little there is to tell – in a series of abbreviated scenes, disjointed and surreal like a succession of waking nightmares, each moment hopelessly scratching at the grungy surface of something that it can never fully reach.
We have this collective need to try and understand the deaths of those famed souls whom we idolize, picking apart their words and lyrics and public interactions to make sense of an untimely demise. Our relationship with artists is narcissistic and selfish – we lay claim to their works believing they were created just for us, that they speak to us directly when they shriek into the microphone and that we relate to them individually like no one else possibly can; we falsely believe that we know them, not just through their art but through the persona they presented to the world; we believe that because they chose to share some part – any part – of themselves publicly that they now belong to us.
It’s that misguided sense of ownership that elicited so much hate for Nancy Spungen, the rebellious, troubled girl who moved to New York to dive into the heart of the punk scene. She defied the typical groupie lifestyle and its false posturing by openly working as a prostitute and a stripper. There was nothing vague or fake about who she was or what she did; while groupies operated under a pretense of dignity sloppily disguising their need for validation, Nancy laid it all out on the table. What you see is what you get.
Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious is a performance of a performance, a Russian nesting doll with infinite shells holding some impossibly elusive truth in the middle. Although many believe that he gave the best performance of his career in Sid and Nancy, Oldman has openly rejected the notion, telling Playboy in 2014 that he didn’t like himself in the movie: “I don’t think I played Sid Vicious very well.” The truth is that Oldman almost didn’t take the part; he hated the script, but the money was good and his agent urged him to accept the role.
And while much has been made of Oldman’s performance in Sid and Nancy, little attention has been given to Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen. Her remarkable portrayal is all fire and filth and fury with an undercurrent of something vaguely soft in the middle of all those edges; a little girl made up entirely of wants and needs, driven by irrational desire and hopelessly – willfully, even – addicted to what she knows is bad for her. You could call the story of Nancy Spungen – diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 11 – Id and Nancy, perhaps.
The reason why most people focus on Oldman instead of Webb is the same reason why most people focus on Sid and not Nancy. Behind her back, Nancy’s peers called her Nauseating Nancy and sneered at her appearance, her obnoxious attitude, and the way she followed band members around like a desperate little puppy dog. But Nancy was smarter than she seemed: by her own mother’s account, she graduated high school early and went to college in Colorado, where she was expelled for buying pot and possession of stolen property and was ultimately banned from returning to the state. But once she took up with Sid in London, Nancy’s identity was reduced to that of an annoying, needy girlfriend. She became some obnoxious, non-removable accessory that came attached to Sid. If you wanted Sid, you had to accept Nancy, too. That was the deal.
Though Sid and Nancy is somewhat flawed and its accuracy often contested, Cox’s film gets at least one thing right: Sid loved Nancy, and Nancy loved Sid – in whatever dirty, confused, and hopelessly codependent way they understood love, anyway. But to his friends and fans, Nancy was a punk rock Yoko Ono, and many blamed – and continue to blame – her for the dissolution of the shortly-lived Sex Pistols, despite the fact that their incredibly brief tenure and similarly abrupt implosion was appropriately punk. If they want to give Nancy so much credit, perhaps they should be thanking her for keeping the legacy of the Pistols intact. Depending on who you ask, they were already sellouts anyway.
Nancy isn’t to blame for the choices others made or the way they behaved, but she’s easy to blame like Yoko was easy to blame. Both women were unfairly perceived as interloping Jezebels who latched onto superior men and seduced them into idiocy with some nebulously-defined feminine mystique. They had entered a world where they did not belong, stepping out of proverbial kitchens with the silly illusion that they could have opinions and speak as loudly as their male peers, that they could be whole, equal humans. But the respective scenes inhabited by Sid Vicious and John Lennon were built on welcoming outsiders, weirdos, rejects, and other-thans. They were built to house the emotionally orphaned. Unless, of course, you were a woman with the poor fortune of attracting an architect.
At least Yoko lived. Nancy never had the chance to disentangle herself from Sid’s identity, though proving herself to anyone wasn’t her style; she would have found it too boring. And yet, she relished her place by Sid’s side because she had proved something to those who called her Nauseating Nancy. She had set her sights on the prize eyed by so many preening groupies and had emerged victorious.
That victory was short-lived, of course, and what happened in the Chelsea Hotel on the early morning of October 12, 1978 remains debated among friends and fans. In Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox presents a version of events that roll a few theories into one haunting package: following a failed attempt at a solo career and a lengthy heroin binge, Sid declares his intention to return to London and reunite with his band, sending the co-dependent Nancy into a desperate suicidal fit. She begs Sid to kill her using the knife she bought for him, and their argument escalates until Nancy is stabbed in the abdomen – though whether or not it was intentional depends on your interpretation. Nancy slowly bleeds out over the next several hours before Sid calls for help and confesses to the police. There are various versions of this story: that Sid killed her accidentally or in a fit of drug-induced rage; that Nancy was killed during a robbery or a drug deal gone wrong, and Sid was too high to notice that she needed help; and most troubling, that Nancy wanted to die, and Sid stabbed her only because he loved her so much and did anything she asked.
Several of these scenarios put the blame on Nancy either directly or indirectly, with the last theory supporting the narrative that Nancy was responsible for Sid’s poor choices, and by extension, responsible for the end of the Sex Pistols. It justifies the belief that Nancy is to blame for Sid’s drug addiction and ultimately for his death, and it allows people to ignore their toxic mutual attachment, painting Nancy as the Madonna/Whore of dependency.
In the ’90s we watched as Sid and Nancy’s tragic narrative was retold a little differently, on a similar stage with new players and a new sound. As grunge succeeded punk and replaced cynical hate with morose navel-gazing, Kurt Cobain was burdened with the designation of poster boy for a generation. Courtney Love auditioned for the lead role in Sid and Nancy, and her early preoccupation with and emulation of the late Nancy Spungen has done little to quiet those who blame Courtney for Kurt’s own downward spiral and demise.
And so it went full circle, as it always does. When Kurt Cobain was found dead of an apparent suicide, fans mourned someone they only knew in slivers and fragments and distorted mirrors of truth. There’s much to be said on the topic of fame and gross fan entitlement and the relationship between the musician and the listener, and where the desperate loneliness of the two overlap and breed a codependency of their own. But if Nancy was the punk Yoko Ono, then Courtney was the grunge Nancy.
Although she had independently established herself as a successful musician before Kurt’s death, her relationship with the former Nirvana frontman had reduced her to an accessory. It was cute that she made her own music and had her own band, but she was an interloper all the same. As with Nancy, people didn’t like that Courtney was vocal about her opinions and often brash, refusing to fit some demure, feminine mold. The same petulance that fans and journalists found endearing in Sid and Kurt was unacceptable when it came from the raspy voices of Nancy and Courtney.
When Kurt died, Courtney’s life became an unintentional monument to the memory of Nancy. That she had auditioned to play Nancy in Cox’s film suddenly felt like a grim prophecy. But she had understood and embraced Nancy where so many others had only identified her as a noisy place to lay blame. Courtney was blamed for Kurt’s struggles with addiction, for any creative decision that elicited the slightest negative reaction, and most of all, for his death. Just as so many people had refused to allow Sid to accept responsibility for Nancy’s death and ultimately for his own, so did Kurt’s fans refuse to accept that he died at his own hand. Conspiracy theories about Courtney’s involvement in Kurt’s death have proven so popular that they’ve resulted in not one, but two ill-conceived documentaries on the subject.
There’s a distinct air of jealousy attached to Nancy and Courtney, to these women who were able to get so close to the elusive men whose songs and personas read like cryptic missives to the isolated masses. These men who were selective about what they shared with their fans but shared their entire selves with these women – and who were these women? What right did they have? They would never “get” Sid and Kurt, not really, not truly. And yet they got them in a way no fan or groupie ever could, with an intimacy that was only ever implied through the interpretation of song. At least Nancy died. Courtney has to live with this burden of displaced grief and blame, while Nancy is only remembered for it.
Nearly 40 years after Nancy’s death it’s amazing how little things have changed. She’s still remembered as the girlfriend who broke up the Sex Pistols and ruined the life of Sid Vicious. She’s a bizarre anecdote, a cautionary tale, an afterthought in the history of punk rock. Sid and Nancy is hardly a fitting eulogy, but it’s the closest thing to a memorial she’s likely to get. Depending on who you ask, she deserves a lot more.