The 1990s and Beyond

The Essential Late-Period Ellen Burstyn

by Matt Mazur

30 November 2010

We take a look at the actresses' major works of this later period of her life, in patented PopMatters Essential Performances style. Burstyn during this period schools everyone in the art of taking risks with memorable supporting character parts in eclectic ensembles.

Dying Young
(Joel Schumaker, 1991)

Capitalizing on the mercurial rise to fame of a very young Julia Roberts, this is a mainly flat film that feels rushed in every sense. Though she (shamefully) only appears in two nearly throwaway scenes as Roberts’ colorful mother, and is given next to nothing to work with, Burstyn manages to turn what feels like a wasted cameo into a character acting experiment. Her lack of presence throughout the film is not the performer’s fault, and it is a shock to see such a celebrated actress relegated to a tiny, almost garish supporting part. Yet there is an enthusiasm and energy that Burstyn brings to her scenes, which is missing from the film other than when fellow veteran Colleen Dewhurst appears. Dying Young is given a breath of life from these two women, whose combined experience and skill makes up for the fact that everyone else is an amateur, which is unfortunately reflected in the quality of the film, and also in the shrill character that Burstyn gives interest and shadings to. In just two scenes, Burstyn miraculously discovers something totally unique about this ancillary character, making her performance the most captivating in the entire film.


How to Make an American Quilt
(Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1995)

One needs only to glance at the cast of this prestige adaptation of Whitney Otto’s best-selling book to get a sense of why Burstyn wanted to play the role of Hy Dodd. Featuring Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Kate Nelligan, Winona Ryder, Jean Simmons, Lois Smith, and Alfre Woodard, there is no denying the sheer power of such a strong, woman-dominated cast. While Burstyn gives her typically sound, spirited supporting actress performance—playing the character in two segments as a middle-aged woman and as a senior—the film is surprisingly ineffectual in conveying each woman’s individuality. They almost get lost in the crowd, which is no fault of the more than capable actors. Though stunningly photographed by Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminiski (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), How to Make an American Quilt‘s big screen failure overshadowed its phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime ensemble, and highlighted that in 1995, young audiences were not as interested in seeing mainly-female, mainly older casts onscreen as they were in reading about them in novels.


The Spitfire Grill
(Lee David Zlotoff, 1996)

This spirited, feminist-minded indie features a strong, break-out leading performance by Alison Elliot as Percy, an ex-con looking for a fresh start in a new town. Serving up second chances is a Burstyn specialty when you gaze across her catalog and this metaphor works especially well here, where the actress plays Hannah Ferguson, a tough, working-class restaurateur who needs help as much as Percy does. Burstyn shines in one of her most substantial, successful forays into the world of supporting character acting (complete with a regional Northeastern accent, a wig, and a cane). The Spitfire Grill is a peculiar little movie that features sensational character work from not only Burstyn and Elliot, but also Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), who would go on to form a close friendship with Burstyn in real life. Acerbic, moving, and unique, this is perhaps the most underrated film performance in Burstyn’s entire oeuvre and her performance in it is aggressive, assertive, and full. Hannah might have become a caricatured construction in the hands of a performer who was nothing less than the architect that Burstyn is. She finds the inner life of a brusque, hard woman and melts us by the end with her sincerity.


Playing by Heart
(Willard Carroll, 1998)

A hybrid of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and the Brit dramadey smash Love, Actually, Carroll’s all-over-the-place Playing by Heart doesn’t always find the right groove to unite the themes of its disparate storylines. The major coup of the piece is in assembling a unique cast of superstar actors on the same screen: Gillian Anderson, Patricia Clarkson, Sean Connery, Angelina Jolie, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Quaid, Gena Rowlands, Jon Stewart, and Madeleine Stowe. Burstyn’s arc as Mildred, the mother of Mark (Jay Mohr), a gay man dying of AIDS, feels like the story that is most separate from the others, which is perhaps a good thing. Bringing a profound gravitas to an under-written character, likely born of her real-life experiences of watching close friends succumb to the disease, a buttoned-up Burstyn grounds the erratic film with a tangible motherly pathos as a woman who lived in absolute denial about her son for years, who is desperate to change, to be open, before it’s too late.



The Yards
(James Gray, 2000)

The Yards is a damn fine little movie, engrossing, entertaining, well-made, and gritty; all signatures of director Gray (Two Lovers, 2009). Though the story focuses on two male leads, played by Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, it is the colorful supporting cast of female actors including Faye Dunaway, Charlize Theron, and Burstyn, that quietly steal away with the picture at the most unexpected moments. Burstyn lends a woeful authenticity to the part of Val, the blue-collar, sickly mom of Wahlberg’s ex-con character Leo, and she blends seamlessly into the tough, working-class Queens universe where family loyalty is paramount, and her saintly blend of motherly is at the center. She also provides the film’s moral center as the only person in the film who isn’t at least partly corrupt. 



The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
(Callie Khouri, 2002)

Again finding herself in another company of strong, female actors, Burstyn’s post-Requiem for a Dream job looked like heaven on paper: Thelma and Louise‘s Oscar-winning scripter Callie Khouri directing, Sandra Bullock, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight, Cherry Jones, Ashley Judd, and Maggie Smith co-starring. And while the film was a box-office success thanks to the presence of such charismatic actors, the directorial tone often feels confused or lagging where it could have been infused with more personality. This doesn’t stop Burstyn and company from igniting some highly-charged emotional fires with the sparks from the unusual chemistry all around; from the inspired pairing of Burstyn and Smith as life-long friends (fabulous), to a charismatic Ashley Judd as a young Burstyn (which couldn’t be any more perfect casting), to Bullock and Burstyn as a warring mother and daughter (believable). Though individually the parts work, they never add up to a proper whole despite everyone’s best efforts. Occasionally too-broad, then too-melodramatic, the most divine thing about this sisterhood is its game cast. 


Mrs. Harris
(Phyllis Nagy, 2005)

Receiving an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for precisely 14 seconds of screen time as “Ex-lover #3” in HBO’s Mrs. Harris, the good-humored Burstyn said in an Associated Press interview that she “thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and, ultimately, I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don’t even appear.” There was an interesting debate over the actresses’ being nominated for essentially a cameo, with some outraged members of the press even suggesting the actress decline her nomination. While the actress did not withdraw her name from the competition—which included The Last Picture Show and Mrs. Harris co-star and fellow Oscar winner Cloris Leachman—“BurstynGate”, as it would come to be known in prognosticator’s circles, did not result in an Emmy win for the celebrated actress, who was nominated for the lead actress Emmy for playing the starring role Jean Harris in 1981. 


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