1980s: Snow-Capped Artistic Peaks and Scorching Death Valleys

”What is important to me is not the truth outside myself, but the truth within myself.” Konstantin Stanislavsky

Ellen Burstyn’s unprecedented successes in the 1970s, becoming a full-fledged movie star and sought-after leading lady in her 40s, winning accolades and awards, and making both money and art during a creatively-fertile period, consolidated her power to get films made. Developing her own material by the later part of the decade, following critical and financial triumphs on the stage and on screen, Burstyn was in the coveted catbird seat where she had choices. Artistic autonomy. When you are a box office draw, a recent Oscar- and Tony- winner, and arguably one of the most celebrated actresses of your generation, what is your next logical move? By today’s standards, you hop into a huge, marketable franchise, or maybe you get the chance to work in a big-budget prestige project, but you definitely get out there and make some money and work. This is an actorly tradition. You never know when that gravy train’s going end. If you are Burstyn, at the height of your powers, you make an intimate heartland epic about a woman who can heal sickness with her hands called Resurrection, a film which, despite having a challenging central role for any actress to play, is the antithesis of every approved maneuver in the official post-Best Actress playbook.

The film was a passion project for the deeply spiritual actress, and had a long, hard road to production, as well as a mixed critical and audience response. Resurrection, thirty years ago when it was released, was mislabeled, mishandled, and misunderstood. In retrospect, the film stands up as one of the most complex, satisfying films and performances in Burstyn’s filmography. While nestled somewhere between other films about dubious, or alternative spirituality like Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960) or The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), and films that explore the push and pull between religion, modern knowledge, and the hereafter in the great Scandinavian tradition of Ingmar Bergman (Winter Light, 1962) or Carl Theodor Dreyer (Ordet, 1955), Resurrection is an American anomaly: a fiction film specifically about a woman’s spiritual awakening and her ensuing yet inexplicable powers to heal the sick. A film about the afterlife runs the risk of being criticized as much as celebrated, as the subject matter is so deeply private and passionate. When the film features a powerful, complex female protagonist, it provokes confusion and often times anger.

One of the elements that makes Resurrection so interesting is the film’s utter refusal to be classified as a “religious” film, offering a strong, secular message of hope, love, and inclusion. The film’s homespun simplicity should not be mistaken for a lack of substance. Resurrection requires its audience to participate, and to read between the lines, to give and receive personal information about death, a topic no one can really claim to be an expert on. With the material already tough enough as it is, it is easy to imagine why the film is so misunderstood, erroneously branded a niche film, horror, a woman’s picture, a New Age-y anti-religion diatribe, and most perplexingly a work of science fiction. What the film actually is, despite the desire to pigeonhole it, remains mysterious, elusive, and has only recently been put out on DVD by the Universal Vault Series.

Playing Edna, Burstyn took on the biggest physical acting feat of her career up to this point, inhabiting the space of a woman who faces many debilitating physical challenges over the course of the film’s events, but one who also must navigate a demanding, emotional, and dramatic character arc. Battered in a fatal car crash that claims the life of her beloved husband (in a harrowing, nicely-shot opening sequence), Burstyn’s Edna spends the first portion of the film emerging from a coma, after dying for several minutes and miraculously coming back to life. The doctors have little hope she will ever walk again because of her extensive injuries. Her body (seemingly) limp and useless, the distraught Edna is ferried away to her rural home by her distant father John (Roberts Blossom), where she will be properly looked after, and surrounded by family. Along the way, Edna and John meet a lonely, slightly mysterious old gas station owner, Esco (a brilliant Richard Farnsworth), who immediately connects with Edna’s pain in an unexplainably profound way, showing her a deep kindness, an unconditional love even (the chemistry between Burstyn and Farnsworth in this scene is layered and moving). Esco inexplicably shows Edna a captive, two headed snake, a freak of nature, another anomaly. The old man speaks in near-Heavenly codes to tell Edna that she too is a freak, possessed of a new power that will eventually heal her own fractured body.

Speaking of the physical, Burstyn, if you look closely at the women she plays, always adds a layer of sensuality to the characters. She gives them an erotic life, even if it is simply demonstrated in a glance or a gesture. When she touches leading man Kris Kristofferson’s beard in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore(Martin Scorsese, 1974), and watches him repair the fence, sparks fly. Her Lois in The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) is a sexual live wire. Same Time Next Year (Robert Mulligan, 1978) revolves around a couple meeting once every year for a hot, extramarital tryst. Though it might seem that sexuality would be out of place in a film about deep spirituality, death, and the great beyond, Burstyn has talked about how it was of the utmost importance that both the spiritual side and the sexual side of her character be showcased, she wanted those facets of the character to be intertwined. She purposely chose young playwright Sam Shepard to play Cal, for many reasons women get cast in the traditional “wife” or “girlfriend” roles – for their good looks – though Shepard’s character is far more nuanced and interesting than just a mere supporting love interest, as he will be a key part of Edna’s undoing. Though she gives her body to Cal, and he zealously takes it, Edna can’t manage to convince him that she is not evil, and that the healing that most folks gratefully accept as a gift is not, in fact, a dark or devilish talent, but rather a force born directly of pure love.

Notable for a stellar cast of supporting actors, among them Shepard, Farnsworth, Blossom, and Lois Smith, the member of the troupe who most personifies this concept of “pure love” is the legendary stage actress, playwright, director, and novelist Eva La Galienne as “Grandma Pearl,” a salt of the earth type of woman who is sturdy, big-hearted, and simple but wise. As her name might signify, she is famous for doling out sensible words of advice to her treasured family. Edna has always been her favorite, they have a bond that transcends this life, that goes back centuries, and that will endure forever after they leave this earth. It is Grandma Pearl that puts Edna at ease, gives her a shelter, a calm, following the devastating storm of her losses, after which she was returned to a place full of painful memories. A devout, plain-spoken, good Christian woman, it is fitting that it is Grandma Pearl who not only first recognizes Edna’s gifts, but also instructs her that they are simultaneously a great responsibility and a gift from God himself.

La Galienne, or “LeG” for to those who knew her, was celebrated as being the Grand Dame of Broadway, playing high profiles roles in Alice in Wonderland (which she tackled at two different stages in her long career — once as a young woman and once as a senior citizen, in the later production she directed herself in the part), and “Madame Ranyevskaya” in The Cherry Orchard. and the title role of “Elizabeth I”, in a dual production of Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth the Queen and Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart and in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (she once said she would “rather play Ibsen than eat”). Renowned Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg, who was Burstyn’s acting teacher, proclaimed that the only place to learn acting in the 1920s was “at the feet of Eva La Gallienne.” By the time she made Resurrection, she was a two-time Emmy winner (for a 1960s television special and 1978’s The Royal Family), a Pulitzer Prize-Winner (for staging Allison’s House, a play about Emily Dickinson’s lesbianism), a Tony for Chekov’s The Seagull, the Norwegian Grand Cross for her furthering the presentation of Ibsen’s plays, and the National Medal of Arts, one of the highest honors for her field. Resurrection is her only film appearance and for her poignant, perfect work, LeG was nominated for Best Supporting Actress(she lost to critical darling Mary Steenburgen in Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard). Burstyn also appeared on the nominees list herself for Best Actress, despite the film’s lack of presence at the box office and despite its promotional campaign being dashed in favor of the shared studio financially supporting a more financially successful film, Coal Miner’s Daughter, a film that would eventually see Sissy Spacek best Burstyn to earn her first Oscar, playing country singer Loretta Lynn.

Interestingly, following her critical success with Resurrection, Burstyn became a pioneer of sorts, appearing in the television film The People vs. Jean Harris for which she was nominated for the Emmy in a time where there was a lingering stigma that television acting was “lesser” acting (though she has also proclaimed it to not be her “best work”). She also tried her hand at a situation comedy series — The Ellen Burstyn Show — that didn’t really click. For a celebrated film actress, whose likely peers include such icons of American cinema as Jane Fonda, and Faye Dunaway, Burstyn, as many actresses of this generation were in the mid- to late- eighties, was essentially banished from interesting, quality film work for the better part of the decade. Fonda, Dunaway, and Burstyn all seemed to have had very low key finishes to the decade, while only a scant few years prior, their participation could practically guarantee a green light for a project.

Where other performers might have gotten discouraged by a lack of screen work or the bizarre fickleness of Hollywood towards its leading ladies as they age, Burstyn instead saw an opportunity to affect a change behind the scenes, becoming the first woman president of Actor’s Equity, the actors’ union, from 1982 to 1985, where she advocated passionately for actors, despite being curiously not able to find work as an actor. In order for actors to work in the first place, they need strong allies in the administrative side to fight for them, and this means, as Burstyn points out in her book Lessons in Becoming Myself, a meaningful, full-time commitment if done properly. The actress gamely described this period of her life as busy, despite a lack of screen acting work.

Burstyn, while in this capacity as liaison between actors and their union, and following the flop of another passion project (Silence of the North), gave an important quote to The Hollywood Reporter, saying “Hollywood has had all of my heart I’m going to give it. I’m just going to concentrate on my job at the union and work on Broadway.” Burstyn contends that the quote was widely misinterpreted as an outright snub to the powers-that-be, that she would have gladly taken good parts had she been offered, but this was not the reality. People took that quote to mean, according to the actress, that she did not want to work in films anymore, and that by speaking her mind, she had effectively “put herself out of the film business.” The ability to so clearly see one’s professional strengths and weaknesses demonstrates a true lack of artistic vanity, and a powerful commitment to learning every aspect of one’s of one’s craft. For Burstyn, working for the union was yet another way to explore a character, her own character. This tenacity serves to further highlight Burstyn’s versatility as a performer, but she also points out that this nine to five gig was not exactly breaking the bank, in fact, it barely was paying the bills. By the mid-’80s, the actress was, in her own words, “out of money”. This led to a new career of key supporting roles in both Hollywood and independent film in the coming decades, some played out of necessity, others out of love; but each role, no matter the size or the impact to the story, was meticulously constructed.