The 1990s and Beyond: The Essential Late-Period Ellen Burstyn

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.

‘The Fountain’ through ‘Lovely, Still’

The Fountain
(Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

One of Burstyn’s most high-profile roles came from reuniting with her Requiem for a Dream director Aronofsky for his misunderstood sci-fi epic The Fountain, playing the smallish supporting role of Dr. Lillian Guzetti. Though her character is there mainly to support the leading players, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, Burstyn gets some nice moments, particularly in a too-short eulogy scene where she explains the grace of a central character, and how one can choose to find this brand of grace even on their deathbed. Still, I would imagine that the allure of taking even a tiny part in Aronofsky’s ambitious vision is reason enough to come to game and play ball in the big leagues.

 

The Stone Angel
(Kari Scogland, 2007)

Playing the elderly Hagar, the story’s narrator, Burstyn gets a rare opportunity to tackle an interesting leading part in a small-scale indie, and the results are glorious. Looking at the complicated issue of elder care — particularly when the elder in question is not interested in assisted living and is feisty, independent — Burstyn gives a quick-witted performance as the spry Hagar, playing the character at two ages, guiding the viewer through her life in rural Manitoba through picturesque flashbacks. Familiar Burstynian themes of memory, loss, and isolation crop up in this deceptively sweet-and-sour adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s novel, and the end result feels almost like an anomaly in the actresses’ filmography, with a truly maverick indie spirit that gives the proceedings a bit of tooth — this isn’t a fuzzy, warm story about a wise old granny going to the retirement home to make everything easier on her family. Hagar is a complex study of an aging woman, and Burstyn gives the character dignity and poise, refusing to play her as a symbol. Her work is intimate, and director Scogland wisely lets the camera record Burstyn’s wheels turning, illuminating the character’s interior.

 

Big Love
(Mark Knoller, Michael Lehman, Jim McKay, David Petrarca, 2007 – 2009)

Playing Nancy, the estranged, devout Mormon mother of Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) on HBO’s drama series about a polygamous marriage, Burstyn was nominated for the 2008 Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her work on the show. Though she only appeared on four episodes, Big Love most notably offered the actress an opportunity to again explore conflicting spirituality and family, issues that had become significant in both her public and private lives. In her last performance on the show, Burstyn lends a beautiful authenticity to a storyline that revolves around Barb’s struggle with her spiritual life. She seeks her disapproving, yet sympathetic mother’s assistance to undo some of the damage done by her controversial union. Barb is desperate to save her soul, to save face with her maker before she is excommunicated and it’s too late. The episode daringly offers the audience a peek into the hidden, private rituals of the Mormon church, but also works beautifully as a moving story of a mother and daughter’s reconciliation and one woman’s quest for spiritual truth that threatens to forever separate her from her traditional family in the here and now and in the afterlife. Burstyn provides hearty support during Tripplehorn’s crisis of faith.

Big Love ‘Barb’ Trailer for Season 3:

 

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
(David Platt, 2008)

As Bernie, the long-lost, bipolar mother of SVU’s leading man Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), Burstyn won her first Emmy, for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. A show that provides an extensive range of acting opportunities for actresses of all generations, Burstyn’s performance here truly benefits from a strong, detailed script from the show’s consistent, solid team of writers. Bernie is a tricky role, with manic depressive highs and moody lows that often occur within the same speech; yet ultimately, Burstyn renders her character as not a one-dimensional crazy old lady, but a very sick woman with a complicated past. The writers assist Burstyn by making Bernie essential to the plotline as a heroine, rather than a villain who just pops up to explain another character’s back-story. In an effort to help her jailed granddaughter understand the gravity of her choice to live unmedicated with mental illness, Bernie must confront her own problems with clarity for perhaps the first time. In a stunning monologue about her erratic parenting of Elliot, Bernie explains in one fell swoop why she did what was best for her, and why the same choices won’t work for her granddaughter. By the end of the tearful, wrenching tale, Bernie has saved a life, but in a bittersweet denouement, she bids a permanent farewell to her put-upon son who can’t bring himself to forgive her or even to understand her condition.

 

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond
(Jodie Markell, 2008)

Originating a Tennessee Williams character is something actors used to dream about, so it makes perfect sense that once this unproduced script became available that director Markell was able to enlist the very a-list help of seasoned performers like Ann-Margret and Burstyn to tackle key supporting roles in this beautifully-shot adaptation. Though some critics might argue that The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is minor Willams, I would argue that even minor Williams is better than most of the crap that makes it to the multiplexes. As Addie opposite Bryce Dallas Howard’s sharp Fisher Willow, Burstyn grasps onto the outrageous Williams melodrama with gusto, a natural in the Southern-fried milieu. Addie is another strong-willed woman to add to Burstyn’s long-list of this particular character type, but the performer adds an aching layer of vulnerability to her role as multiple-stoke victim who is on the hunt for someone strong-willed enough to help her end it all. She hopes that Fisher, who reminds her of herself as a feisty young woman, will be the one to stomach the task. The role picks up on the familiar themes that link the actresses’ work together: loss, memory, the fragile human body, and the process of death and dying. There is a mysterious symmetry to the way she works. Burstyn, with her performances, de-mystifies and deconstructs these universal topics with precision, bringing a life’s worth of experience to her extended scene here as Addie, as well as across her entire body of work.

 

W.
(Oliver Stone, 2008)

This underrated ensemble captures and lampoons, with precision, the cast of characters surrounding one of the most controversial United States Presidents of all time: George W. Bush. While a bit conventional at times for a Stone film, the director nonetheless sharply etches a complex, full portrait of a deeply flawed, powerful character, and there is probably no more perfect fit of director and material out there. The supporting players rally around Josh Brolin’s W with cuckoo aplomb, and Burstyn, in just a couple of key scenes, pays tribute to Bush’s mother, former First Lady Barbara. While Burstyn doesn’t go for the heavy imitation of co-stars Thandie Newton (as Condoleezza Rice) or Richard Dreyfuss (as Dick Cheney), she does capture the essence of a strong-willed, tough Texan woman who is still quite misunderstood and mysterious despite her celebrity. Though no one actor, other than Brolin as the title character, gets much of a chance to establish their identity, Burstyn does work that goes beyond imitation, borrowing from Barbara’s espirit de corps that was stockpiled from many highly-visible years in the public eye as a patriot, and member of a famed political dynasty. Rather than opt for a broad caricature as Newton does, Burstyn quite interestingly melds her own onscreen persona with the character, creating a believable synergy that makes her Barbara Bush feel more real, and more alive, than the rest of the cartoonish cast.

 

Lovely, Still
(Nicholas Fackler, 2010)

When was the last time you saw a magical, fairy-tale romance featuring two performers over the age of 70 as the leads? That list could likely be counted on one hand. This sensitive, holiday-themed love story that centers on lonely, elderly grocery store bagger Robert (Landau) who inexplicably finds love for the (ostensibly) very first time in his life, with his new neighbor Mary (Burstyn). Here we have actual mature adults, over 70, taking control of the dramatic action, proving that love is not just for the young. It is definitely a refreshing change of pace to be reminded that fairytale cinematic romances are not just for Miley Cyrus or teenage vampires. Sometimes people fall in love late in life, despite the odds, but very few films actually get made about them. With a strong visual composition featuring a pop-lit Holiday motif, Fackler’s story is surprising and interesting, giving both performers a chance to essay the kind of warmth that love and closeness can bring for senior citizens during the bleak midwinter of their lives. Both trained by Lee Strasberg at the famed Actors Studio in New York City (respect!), Burstyn and Landau’s relationship never hits a false note.

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
PopMatters