Ellen Burstyn and more...
Come Back Little Sheba
(Daniel Mann, 1952)
Shirley Booth won an Oscar for her portrayal of sweet, yet slovenly housewife Lola Delaney (as well as a Tony for her stage interpretation of the role). While Lola may be the haggard, middle-aged haus frau modern audiences are accustomed to seeing, her character was a silver screen anomaly in the ‘50s. Her life has been a string of disappointments. Not only did her pooch (the titular Sheba who never materializes) run away, but Lola’s marriage to chiropractor “Doc” Delaney (Burt Lancaster), a recovering alcoholic, is as loveless as it gets.
When the Delaneys board a pretty, young co-ed, Doc develops a crush on her—reminded of a time when Lola was young and beautiful. Lola, on the other hand, views their new tenant as the daughter she never had. The film eventually divulges the Delaneys’ secret at the root of their marital disharmony: Doc resents marrying Lola because she was pregnant and lost the baby, rendering her sterile. Despite his flaws and the fact he largely ignores her, Lola remains proud of her husband, even affectionately (and ironically) calling him “Daddy”.
Come Back Little Sheba
Lola could have devolved into caricature with her squeaky, nasal voice, shambling about her house and scratching herself in a slip and bathrobe. Yet, Booth delivers a sensitive, nuanced portrayal, seamlessly transitioning between adoration, fear, and joy. Lola’s quirks are natural, not exaggerated. She’s lazy and when she wipes her mouth with her sleeve or eats crumbs off the table, these small actions aren’t played for comedy. Rather, Lola is a woman who sees little reason to be the civilized beauty she once was. She’s desperate for company and excitement, prone to (intentionally comedic) flights of fancy like grooving to bongo music on the radio; so lost in reverie she’s oblivious that she’s being watched.
“Oblivious” seems an adequate descriptor for Lola, but thanks to the subtleties of Booth’s performance, the viewer soon realizes that Lola is well-aware of what is going on around her. She just tries to content herself with the little she has in order to cope with tragedy. When Doc states that their lost dog should have never grown old, Lola clearly understands this comment is directed at her. This understanding is further demonstrated with a mixture of sweetness and sentimentality when she tells him, “You didn’t know I was gonna get old and fat and sloppy… I didn’t know that, either, Doc.” Her voice bears no indignation. Just a hint of hope. Lana Cooper
Requiem for a Dream
(Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Requiem for a Dream
Burstyn’s Requiem for a Dream transformation is a cinematic cousine to the great character work of Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff, or perhaps even Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, which makes Sara Goldfarb a classically-defined monster in many ways. In Monster Culture (Seven Theses), writer Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “everyone is a monster on Halloween night”, but what connects everyday “monster” Sara to the traditional creature narrative discussed by Cohen is how Burstyn’s body “literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy”. By going so far into the physical (and mental) dimensions of the character, Burstyn holds up a dark mirror to the character’s soul, showcasing a woman who is pathetic, who makes mistakes, who is doing the best she knows how, and who, in the end, provides a revealing, strangely relatable catharsis for viewers.
After all, the essential function of any true “monster” is not to scare, but to educate, to warn humans of their own dangerous bodies. Sara’s body, and the body of “the monster”, according to Cohen, is “incoherent, [and] resists any systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous [...] demanding a radical rethinking of boundary and normality.” And so is the task of playing of playing Sara Goldfarb, a character we are simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by, just as we are by monsters; both “call horrid attention to the border that cannot—must not—be crossed,” according to Cohen.
Utilizing the gestural, the corporeal, the facial, and the vocal as building blocks for conveying the mood of Requiem for a Dream‘s hardscrabble milieu, Burstyn, by playing Sara, not only proved to the world that actors of her familiarity and caliber do possess the ability to become completely different people, but that female performers of her generation (she was 66 at the time of filming), should never be discounted because of their age. The star seemingly suppressed herself to occupy a character that would be the biggest challenge of her career, and took her biggest risk, which resulted in perhaps her most successful, adventurous acting performance to date. An acting performance that redefined her yet again.
Speaking directly to the drug culture-savvy Generations X and Y, Aronofsky, acting as an ambassador for the new guard, introduced Burstyn’s old guard school of Actors Studio discipline to many film-goers who likely hadn’t even been born during the height of the actresses’ popularity in the 1970s. All you need to do is watch Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974) and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) in a double bill, and you will see with your own eyes that Burstyn is never the same woman onscreen. She constantly transforms. Matt Mazur
(John Berry, 1974)
From the moment she steps onto the scene in Claudine, Diahann Carroll commands your attention. You see, she’s not your stereotypical down-on-her-luck black woman from the projects waving her finger in your face and speaking at ridiculously high volumes.
Rather, our heroine is just coming home from a long day’s work, eight-plus hours of cleaning after folks and cooking warm meals for them. As a single mother of six, you’d think she’d be going home to the same tasks. But instead, she walks through the front door interrupting the natural chaos of her apartment—son blasting music, daughter hogging the bathroom, etc. But with just one look at her face, the whole apartment quiets down.
It’s that respect that Carroll’s title character demands from not only her children, but from the audience, whose preconceived notions about her are quickly evaporated once she introduces herself to us. She’s tough but not abrasive, aware but not haughty. In essence, she represents many single women—of any color—today. While Claudine isn’t a weak character, she’s certainly not a perfect one. She’s not neat. And she doesn’t claim to always have the answers, like she just leapt out of an after school special. She goes through many of the same issues women face today—trying to provide for her kids, being a good mother, a good person, dating as a single parent, etc.
That said, viewers empathize with her, while not having to sympathize or pity a downtrodden character. In other words, we march with her instead of looking down at her. As respected as she comes across onscreen, those who know her best—her kids—still run to her side when her heart gets broken after a romantic disappointment, which speaks to Carroll’s ability to humanize a character whose sensitivity isn’t first evident. Carroll creates a character that goes far outside the tight constraints of many of today’s leading female characters of color. She shows us a whole character, not one whose fractured story orbits around others. We get to see her fail, and we see her succeed. She’s juggling a lot and understandably feels the urge to wring a few necks, but we always get her, we get why. She’s just one of the gals, relatable, real. Candice Frederick