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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ellen Burstyn—Up from the Depths

by Dan Callahan

Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Courtesy Photofest.

When she attended her first acting class with Lee Strasberg in 1964, Ellen Burstyn was 32 years old and was working on television under the name Ellen McRae. She was born Edna Rae Gillooly in Detroit, and it had taken her a lot of time and trouble to pull herself out of her hardscrabble milieu to become Ellen McRae, a pretty actress and model who smiled a lot. She was being limited by the girlish roles she was given on TV, and she sensed that instinctively, but it was only when Strasberg told her in his class that it was alright to make a mistake that her people-pleasing ingénue mask cracked and fell away. What was underneath that mask would take time and patience to excavate.

There are not many actors, let alone actresses, who fully come into their own at the age of 40, but that’s what happened for this singular and path-finding actress, who took the name Ellen Burstyn in 1970. Only years of study with the most demanding acting teacher can possibly account for the performance that first made her name: Lois Farrow in The Last Picture Show (1971). Lois is worldly, kind, bored, smart, limited, hopeful, funny, free, boxed-in. In every moment of her work in The Last Picture Show, Burstyn presents one facet of Lois and then its opposite.

This virtuoso performance heralded the arrival of a major talent, and it was topped the following year by her work as Sally in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). In that still-underrated movie, Burstyn dove into the deepest end of the behavioral pool and came up with an unnervingly raw portrait of a woman whose physical appearance means everything to her. When Sally chops off her own hair and burns her cosmetics on a beach, it’s like watching someone commit suicide right in front of you. From Strasberg, Burstyn had learned all about how to be private in public, how to unearth all the demons that live in our psyches. Some noted Strasberg students were never able to fully control their effects, so that their personal demons blurred their performances. The miracle of Burstyn’s work—and the reason she played a huge part in changing the whole face of an art form—is that she mastered the technique of shaping the most seemingly uncontrollable emotions.

Ellen Burstyn and Jared Leto in Requiem for a Dream. Photo: Photofest
After the enormous success of The Exorcist (1973), which Burstyn holds together with the intensity of her belief in the material, she had a brief period where she could write her own ticket. She used this opportunity to make two personal films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), for which she won an Oscar for best actress, and Resurrection (1980). In both of those Burstyn movies, she loses her husband in the first reel and must learn to stand on her own. In both of them, Burstyn makes sure to include all kinds of realistic notes of impatience, frustration, anger, fear, and doubt, things that Ellen McRae was supposed to smile her way out of.

After working mainly on television again in the 1980s and ’90s, Burstyn re-emerged front and center as Sara Goldfarb in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), where she exposed the annihilating loneliness of so many women who lived for their families and felt that they had no one to live for once that duty was done. I was studying acting when Requiem came out, and Burstyn’s performance made the deepest impression on all of us in class. We all knew that Burstyn had again raised the stakes for what was possible in acting, and she achieved that by going down to the basement of her being and dredging up everything we’ve seen, observed, or feared in human nature. By daring to experience the worst, she had worked a purifying catharsis for us.

Experiencing the best of Ellen Burstyn’s work is always a matter of surprise, wonder, and gratitude for her example, her hard-won warmth, her boldness, and her abiding patience in choosing to live the life of a creative person who is more invested in the process of art than in any outcomes or rewards it may bring.

BAMcinématek’s series on Ellen Burstyn runs from Apr 30 to May 6.

Dan Callahan has written about film for Sight and Sound, Time Out New York, The L Magazine, and other publications. His new book Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave will be published May 15 by Pegasus Books. 

Reprinted from April 2014 BAMbill.

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