Performer Spotlight: Ellen Burstyn

Why does actor Ellen Burstyn make the perfect subject for the Performer Spotlight series? Because few actors, male or female, have achieved such success and career longevity. And because, at least in my estimation, hers is a powerful caché of performances which too-often flies under the radar of contemporary cinema-goers. It is high time for a reappraisal of her influential body of work. You might think you know the actress, but I guarantee you that no matter what you think you know, the surface has only been scratched. That’s where we come in, to help fill in some blanks.

Whereas with the first PopMatters Performer Spotlight on Sissy Spacek I felt as though I was revisiting an old friend’s filmography, nearly the complete opposite was true in my exploration of the career of Ellen Burstyn. As I researched Burstyn’s career, beginning with her most recent turn in Nicholas Fackler’s Lovely, Still, I felt as though I was discovering a new person. What I thought I knew about her life was, in fact, embarrassingly incorrect.

Burstyn is a respected, revered woman of substance, and there are many essential details about her life that are often overlooked: her place at the forefront of women’s liberation in Hollywood, her deeply spiritual side, her committed work in films that are frequently below the threshold of public awareness, and her scholarly mastering of her craft. Without Burstyn’s pioneering work, it is hard to imagine the playing field for the generation that came immediately after her, including Spacek, Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, and Meryl Streep; each of whom seems a direct descendant of one aspect of Burstyn’s star persona or another. “I will love, honor and adore her always,” said her The Exorcist co-star Linda Blair, via email. “Every actress and actor should study her unique quality and determination to find the true characters for film, TV, and stage. It will help them find the truth in the great gift actors are given to help make an audience feel something, in the world of entertainment. It is a privilege given to a select few, to entertain audiences.”

Actors of Burstyn’s level of training are the true master teachers of the acting form, having learned their trade from such teachers as Lee Strasberg, having studied alongside peers like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and having given back in the classroom as teachers or as artistic directors and administrators. Strasberg said that “an actors’ tribute to me is in his work,” in which case Burstyn has provided her instructor with one of the most significant “tributes” by a female actor, with a career that spans seven decades, six career Oscar nominations, and one win, for Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) [Burstyn’s other nominations are: The Last Picture Show (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Same Time, Next Year (1978), Resurrection (1980), and Requiem for a Dream (2000)]. While De Niro, Pacino, Robert Duvall and a host of other male actors of this generation are still sought-after for high-profile leading roles, finding quality work is legendarily not an easy task for their equally-qualified female peers. Even in the face of adversity, Burstyn still seems to never stop working, possessed of an iron-clad work ethic and level of dedication that few present day actors could boast.

Born in Detroit in 1932, Burstyn’s life as a performer began when she left her home town as a teenager for Texas, where she struggled to find an outlet for artistic expression. Somehow, against the odds, she made it all the way to the chorus line of the Jackie Gleason show in New York City, which would be her springboard to an eventual Broadway debut in the play Fair Game (1957). Ten successful years on the stage and on television later, Burstyn would go on to work at the famed Actors Studio with one of the most legendary acting coaches of all time, Strasberg (himself an Oscar-nominated actor for The Godfather II). Under this influential man’s tutelage, Burstyn’s natural talents were fortified by being grounded in rigorous, academic Method acting. The challenges of this course of study more than agreed with the determined, yet vulnerable Burstyn, the kind of performer who gives herself over entirely to the character, becoming them. After many years of television roles, when hurricane Burstyn came whistling into the early 1970s film scene, her sheer force was unavoidable. Burstyn became a star overnight, despite—or on account of—nearly 20 years of experience under her belt.

A friend said to me as I was in the research phase that “[Ellen] gets more beautiful with age”, and this is something that I too think is true, a statement that is really nice to hear when you’re often writing about an industry that equates youth with beauty, and age and experience with death. That Burstyn’s meteoric rise to fame in the 1970s happened while she was in her forties is delicious, and also a testament to her talent for challenging popular preconceptions of women through playing some of the most intriguing, full women of that decade. At the height of the Women’s movement, Burstyn proved that Hollywood stars could be fabulous, mature, seasoned, and beautiful, naturally; even while the population-at-large still mostly recoiled in horror at the idea a woman could be unmarried and happy. Burstyn gave her characters a (sometimes-unwritten) sexual liberation, even if this came from just a look or the way she walked, in a time when it was dangerous for women to be sexy, or to be in charge of their own sexual destinies. “Ellen Burstyn is by far one of the greatest, kindest and extraordinary actresses that has ever graced our screen!” enthused Blair. “Her hard-working devotion to her characters, and to the actors she works with, is from the heart, honest, and should be applauded ten fold! There isn’t anything she will not try, within reason, to help deliver the right performances for the benefit of the film, the actors, and the story. Her humanitarian efforts and kindness should be rewarded along with the creative genius that comes from within her very soul and heart.”

When you view Burstyn’s films in close proximity, these subtle themes of human kindness can be teased out, her attention to the character’s inner life, their spiritual life, and their erotic life can be easily spotted; while memory, loss, independence, death and dying, and faith all share a significant space across her cannon. There are, in fact, many lessons to be learned from Burstyn’s strong acting performances, with which she gamely educates the spectator on the topics at hand, while simultaneously learning about new sides of her own personality. It is amazing to watch as she lets the facets of a screen character meld into her own unique experiences, or to see a performer truly understand and become the character in the painstaking way she does which nowadays is almost rare. In the end, we all come away smarter, enriched by having just participated, even inadvertently, in a master class on life, taught by Ellen Burstyn, refracted through the rainbow-lit prism of a remarkable lifetime full of experience and wisdom.

Today we will look at Burstyn’s work during the 1970s. Wednesday will be a look back at Resurrection and the challenges Burstyn faced and overcame in the 1980s. On Thursday we will revisit, in the PopMatters Essential Performances style, the actresses’ work in the ’90s and Beyond, while the Thursday piece will look exclusively at her transformation into Sara Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream. Finally, on Friday, we will be joined by Ms. Burstyn, in an exclusive, informative interview that you do not want to miss!

— Matt Mazur